• Vol. 08
  • Chapter 12
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The Golden Key

We first read it in Grimms’: a poor boy finds a golden key in the snow, an iron box in the ground.  At first he can’t find a keyhole, but then he does.  The boy inserts the key, rotates it one full turn, hopes to find precious things inside.  But, we are told, we must wait for him to finish opening the box to discover what it contains.  There the story ends.

I read it to my son when he is three; he is satisfied, wants me to read it again and again.  Together, we imagine all sorts of treasures that might be discovered.  Sometimes, it’s jewels.  Others, it’s cookies.  We rediscover the story when he is five, and when I read it, he frowns.  ‘What’s the point of that?’ he asks.

Grimms’ notes tell of another version of the story.  One in which the boy is not a boy but a chicken.  One in which the key is found in dung, not snow.  One in which the key fits and turns, and the box is opened, contents revealed.  Inside: a short piece of fur made from red silk.  If, we are told, the silk had been longer, the story would have been longer too. There the story ends.

‘Dung is better than snow,’ my son pronounces.  ‘It’s funnier.’  What about the chicken?  ‘Chickens are better than boys.’  Better than you?  ‘Everyone wants to be a chicken.  As long as you’re not the kind that gets eaten.’  Are you glad to know what’s in the box?  ‘What does silk have to do with fur anyway?’   

These stories are categorised as Formula Tales, subcategory Unfinished Tales, subcategory Catch-Tales in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which outlines yet another variation.  This time, a boy finds a key and casket.  Inside is a calf’s tail, and we are told that if the tail had been longer, the tale would have been longer too.  There the story ends.


The Golden Key

My son is seven when I discover this, and laughs when I tell him.  ‘Oh I get it!’ he says. ‘It finally makes sense!’  He tells the story over and over, to his friends, his dad, his grandparents...to anyone who will listen.  He grins each time, as if a mystery of the universe has been solved, as if a great wrong has been righted.

Once upon a time there was a mother.  She was frozen cold and clearing away space to make a fire, or perhaps she was just cleaning up some dung.  She had a chicken or an iron box or a little boy.  One day, she came across what she thought might be a little key, but she couldn’t tell if it was gold or rust.  She gave it to her son in the form of a story, turned the key in the lock, once, twice, thrice.  You will have to wait until she finishes, until the boy grows up, to see how it all turns out.

And there, my story ends.