I chose to record this fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers to because it’s one of my all-time favorite stories. I admire its economy, its sense of wonder, and what Italo Calvino would call its “quickness,” or the light-footed forward momentum of the story. But most of all, I love its ending, which seems to me to be both a delightful trick the teller plays on the audience (‘Keep hanging on,’ this story tells the audience. ‘Stay on the edge of your seat.’) and a really lovely statement about the power of storytelling (the story is never truly over, and the possibilities of the imagination are infinite). Folklorists group “The Golden Key” into a category of stories called “unfinished tales“, which all end unresolved in one way or another. In another great example of an unfinished tale, the teller insists they can’t continue until the fictional shepherd in the story has finished herding his flock across a river.
The ending of “The Golden Key” is both frustrating and wonderfully satisfying. It resists our expectations about how stories “are supposed” to end, calling our attention to the act of telling. It’s an assertion of power by the teller, a reminder that the story can stop at any time if they so choose, and yet at the same time it empowers the fictional characters, giving them control over whether the narrative proceeds. For a story that’s not even 200 words long, “The Golden Key” manages to accomplish a lot–and it has fun doing it.