Dark forests, wicked stepmothers, enchanted princes, imps who spin straw into gold. So many of our expectations and preconceptions about the fairy tale have been shaped by the work of two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who in 1806 began the task of recording and publishing Germany’s stock of folktales. The central importance of the Grimms to our understanding of the fairy tale is re-emphasised in Maria Tatar’s vigorous new translation and selection, The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Neil Philip explains.
Besides the Children’s and Household Tales published in seven editions between 1812 and 1857, the Grimms also published a massive collection of German legends (translated by Donald Ward as The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm, 1981), as well as many scholarly works, including the first volumes of the German equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.
When they began collecting folktales, the idea of folklore as an academic discipline did not exist. It was, essentially, invented by the Grimms as they went along. Luckily for us, the first great modern collection of fairy tales was made by men with the habits and ideals of scholarship. So while it is easy now to criticize their methods – rewriting the tales they collected, fusing different versions, censoring the material, destroying their notes and manuscripts – the Grimms’ collection remains the bedrock of modern folktale studies. Even the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system, in which the world’s folktales are categorized by plot elements, has its roots in Grimm.
The Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system
The point of this classification system (which is now easy for anyone to get to grips with on D L Ashliman’s brilliant Folktexts website at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html) is that it shows how intricately interlinked the world’s fairy tale heritage is. Practically every tale in Grimm can be echoed many times over from other sources across Europe, Asia, and the New World. The Grimms themselves understood that the stories they were collecting were spun from a worldwide web, though their mission to harvest and record German culture led them to overemphasise the specifically German nature of their tales. What their collection shows is that these tales were present in German folk culture, not that they originated there. The classical scholar Graham Anderson’s study Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000) located ancient models for Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood, The Three Wishes, Rumpelstiltskin, The Singing Bone, and others. These stories have been the common currency of many cultures for thousands of years, slipping from teller to teller and from place to place over the millennia.
A vigorous new translation
The central importance of the Grimms to our understanding of the fairy tale is re-emphasised in Maria Tatar’s vigorous new translation and selection, The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. This is essentially the text of her Annotated Brothers Grimm (2004) shorn of the individual notes to each story, and without the lavish illustrations. The more modest format (which retains the excellent introductory essays by Maria Tatar and A S Byatt) throws us back on the stories themselves – stories that, in Tatar’s words, ‘hiss and crackle with narrative energy’. The Frog King; Rapunzel; Hansel and Gretel; The Brave Little Tailor; Snow White; The Golden Bird; The Worn-out Dancing Shoes. These are stories that illuminate the imagination. And along with them come those that haunt the mind with their ‘unsparing savagery’, including that grimmest of all Grimm tales, The Juniper Tree, in which a stepmother murders her stepson and serves him up in a stew. Her cruelty is revealed by a beautiful bird that flies up from the juniper tree under which the boy’s mother was buried, chanting:
My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!
The Grimm Reader is crammed full of great stories, vividly told. They are tales from oral tradition, but the sense of orality is a fake construct of Wilhelm Grimm’s literary sensibility. Jacob Grimm’s original plan had been to collect the stories in the field and publish them word-for-word, mistakes, confusions, slang, dialect and all. But that is not what happened.
In his search for a way to voice and shape traditional oral tales on the printed page, Wilhelm did stay true to the directness and immediacy of the spoken story, but there is no denying that his fingerprints are all over the Grimms’ fairy tales. To take The Frog King, the first story in The Grimm Reader as an example, we can trace a long process in which Wilhelm gussies up the tale with progressive ‘improvements’. Unusually, a pre-publication manuscript survives. In this, the first sentence reads simply:
The youngest daughter of the king went out into the forest and sat down at a cool well. Then she took a golden ball and was playing with it…
The first edition of 1812 is similar, but tidied up:
There was once a king’s daughter, who went out into the forest and sat down at a cool well. She had a golden ball, which was her favourite toy, she threw it up in the air and caught it again in the air and it was her delight.
By the second edition of 1815, this has been expanded to:
There was once a king’s daughter who was so bored that she did not know what to do. Then she took a golden ball with which she had often played and went out into the forest. In the middle of the forest was a pure cool well…
By the time the text was finalized, the terse original has been extended into an idealized perfection, which adds poetic images and literary adornments that were clearly never present in the original narration. Tatar’s translation reads:
Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lived a king who had beautiful daughters. The youngest was so lovely that even the sun, which had seen so many things, was filled with wonder when it shone upon her face.
There was a deep, dark forest near the king’s castle, and in that forest, beneath an old linden tree, was a spring. Whenever the weather turned really hot, the king’s daughter would go out into the woods and sit down at the edge of the cool spring. And if she was bored, she would take out her golden ball, throw it up in the air, and catch it. That was her favourite plaything.
Though they glossed over the fact that many of their informants were educated and middle class, the Grimms did value the narrators from whom they collected their stories. But because of the literary mediation to which the tales were subjected, those narrators are not given ownership of the tales, and their individual voices are hushed. Dortchen Wild (whom Wilhelm was later to marry) was 16 years old when the Grimms first recorded her stories, such as Rumpelstiltskin, Furrypelts, and Mother Holle, and her narrative style was probably rather more breathless and enthusiastic than the Grimms’ measured texts allow.
It is this suppression of the living voice of the storyteller that is the most serious of the charges laid against the Grimms by revisionist folklorists in books such as John M Ellis’s One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (1983) and Jack Zipes’ The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (1988). But without the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, it is unlikely that we would now possess our treasure-trove of authentic folktale texts recorded by the scholars inspired by the Grimms’ example.
The redemptive power of fairy tales
One of the greatest of these folktale collectors was the Dane, Evald Tang Kristensen, whose vast archive provided the raw material for the best recent book on the wonder tale, Interpretation of Fairy Tales by the late Bengt Holbek (1987). In this thorough survey and re-evaluation of the nature and meaning of the fairy tale, Holbek includes a very interesting quote from the nineteenth-century folklorist Moses Gaster. It concerns the supernatural and magical elements that mark the fairy tale out as a special form of literature. Gaster writes that one bond united the narrator and his audience: ‘the belief in the reality of the tale’. This is, I think, an insight of great importance, and it probably explains why fairy tales are now regarded as suitable for children, who are able to suspend their disbelief while listening to the tale, and not for their original audience of adults.
The imagination of a great narrator of fairy tales is suffused with this sense of magic, which becomes a prism through which the everyday world is viewed. In her essay ‘The World of European Märchen-Tellers’ (1995), Linda Dégh describes what happened when the Hungarian storyteller Zsuzsanna Palkó was summoned at the age of 74 from her remote peasant community to Budapest, to be awarded the title Master of Folk Arts:
Throughout her stay in the city, she identified her tale concepts in real life, matching reality against the background of a deeper, subjective truth. ‘This is where Little I Don’t Know could have lived,’ she whispered. ‘His palace is just like the one in which King Lajos was reared… and, oh yes, there is the telephone, like the one the palace guard had at the gate when he reported to the king that a guest was arriving, but he didn’t know if it was an emperor or a king…’
Already by the time the Grimms started collecting, the notion that the transforming magic of the fairy tale was a way of interpreting adult concerns for an adult audience was not regarded as tenable, which explains both why the Grimms called their collection Children’s and Household Tales, and why they altered and adjusted their material to suit a young audience. In The Frog King, for instance, they toned down the eroticism, and introduced moralistic elements, such as the king’s priggish observation that, ‘Once you make a promise to someone, you have to keep it.’
It is interesting that a group of starkly violent and often morally repellent fables at the end of The Grimm Reader, which were genuinely intended for children, are separated off by Tatar as Tales for Adults. So times change. These stories – which include the anti-semitic ‘Jew in the Brambles’ and various ‘frighteners’ such as ‘How Children Played Butcher with Each Other’ and the grisly story of ‘The Stubborn Child’ who even after death keeps sticking his arm out of the grave, until his mother strikes it with a switch – are fascinating, but sit rather uncomfortably with the fairy tales that make up the rest of the book.
Those fairy tales, with their redemptive power to transport us into an enchanted world, have had a profound impact on our culture. They take us deep into a world in which wishes come true, and the humble and the generous triumph over the mean and the proud. In her Introduction to The Grimm Reader, A S Byatt makes strong claims for the primacy of stories and storytelling. ‘Stories,’ she writes, ‘are a pervasive and perpetual human characteristic, like language, like play.’ And in the words of Walter Benjamin, ‘The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales.’
Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist.
The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar, W W Norton, 2010, 978 0 393 33856 0, £12.99 pbk