Grimm Brothers, very grim tales

October 12, 2012

Once upon a time, fairy tales were not as nice as they are now.

Mother and Daddy dear — not an evil stepmom — take Hansel and Gretel out in the woods and leave them to starve. Little Red Riding Hood does a striptease for the Big Bad Wolf. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to force the mangled stumps into the glass slipper.

Ah, childhood. Ah, the Brothers Grimm.

It has been 200 years since the German siblings and folklorists published their landmark first volume of “Children’s Stories and Household Tales,” and it becomes clear in scholar Maria Tatar’s “The Annotated Brothers Grimm,” published this week for the bicentennial, that the modern tellings of fairy tales have gone soft.

Tatar, a veteran editor of fairy tale collections and John L. Loeb Professor of Folklore and Mythology and Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard, has chosen 52 of the 210 stories included in 1857’s seventh and final edition of the “Tales” for this beautifully illustrated edition. In it, she relates that (a) there aren’t many fairies in fairy tales, (b) the once-upon-a-time genre is as old as “humans forming sentences” and (c) these were not originally understood to be stories for the tykes at tuck-in time.


’The Annotated Brothers Grimm (The Bicentennial Edition)’ by Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, Maria Tatar (W.W. Norton). (W.W. Norton)

“These were stories told around the fireside among adults and multi-generational audiences, or to the rhythms of spinning, weaving or repairing tools,” Tatar says. In an essay in the book, she adds that the plots are “fraught with merciless aggression, vicious brutality, and deadly hostility.”

Also, sex. When Rapunzel first let her hair down for the prince, let’s just say the girl really let her hair down.

There is no definitive version of any of these stories, as they stem from oral traditions the world over, and the characters are more archetypes than individuals.

Consider Cinderella, the virtuous housemaid who cleans up well. She is the “quintessential innocent, persecuted heroine who goes from rags and a state of squalor to riches,” Tatar notes, and “has been reinvented by nearly every known culture.”

She’s also at least 1,200 years old.

She is known as Yeh-hsien in her first known appearance, a Chinese tale dating to about A.D. 850. (Instead of a handsome prince, her savior is a 10-foot-long fish. Freud would have loved this.)

More than a century before the Grimm brothers’ stories, France’s Charles Perrault included her in his hugely popular “Tales of Mother Goose,” calling her Cendrillon. The Grimms named her “Aschenputtel,” as she had to sleep in the ashes of the hearth. By 1893, a collection of known Cinderella tales found 345 versions.


Maria Tatar. (Courtesy Sanford Kreisberg)

Today, there is no counting.

There is the Walt Disney iconic version, the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, the remakes and the sequels. There is “Cinderella” the Korean horror flick; “Cinderella 2000,” a sexploitation flick from the late 1970s; and “CinderElmo,” the Sesame Street take. Then there are modern retellings, changing the name but not the story line: “Working Girl,” “Pretty Woman,” “Ever After,” “Maid in Manhattan.”

This proliferation of the tale is in no small part due to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Academics from a learned background, they set out to collect oral tales from unlettered peasants. It was to be a scholarly endeavor, designed to preserve what they said were inherently German tales from encroaching industrialization. Although the pair often credited the stories to unlettered villagers, it later emerged that many of their sources were actually their friends and peers, not a village house frau gassing about “Snow White” while slopping the hogs.

The brothers, born a year apart, were extremely close. They worked at desks facing one another and lived in the same house for most of their lives. Only Wilhelm married. They were devoted to collecting and publishing folklore, songs, ballads and language studies.

They were still in their late 20s when they published the first volume of “Tales,” in 1812, the first of a two-volume collection of 156 stories. To the brothers, these were “last echoes of ancient myths,” derived from pagan days. They called them “marchen,” or fairy tales, and they could be brutal.

When Aschenputtel finally marries her prince, the doves on her shoulders peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. The tales of the era could be bawdy (like the French version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where she goes all pole dancer) or horrifying, like “How Children Played Played Butcher With Each Other.”

This one-pager, included only in the Grimm brothers’ first edition and in this bicentennial edition, tells how one sibling cuts his brother’s throat with a knife as if he were a pig at the butcher shop. Their enraged mother takes the knife out of his brother’s neck and plunges it into his heart.

The tales also could be blatantly anti-Semitic, like “The Jew in the Brambles,” included here in a section titled “Tales for Adults.”

Once published, the stories began to have a slow but steady rise in popularity, with an English translation in 1823. The brothers had anticipated an audience of fellow scholars. They were alarmed when they learned that parents were reading them to children — Rapunzel gets preggers up there in the tower! — and they put out an abridged edition, just for children, of 50 stories.

And over the course of six more editions and 40 years, they further rewrote the sex out of the stories, polished the prose, and made the once-oral tales into increasingly longer, literary flourishes of ad­ven­ture, magic, cruelty and heroism. Stepmothers were inserted as the frequent villain (getting moms off the hook), nobody has sex (at least in the story) and the little “Butcher” story — well, that one was dropped entirely.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the stories were hugely popular. It set into play a new canon of literature — stories for children that featured all the terrors of childhood, set into short, sharp tales that are filled with poison apples, magic spells, talking wolves and cannibals lurking in the shadows.

“It’s really the beginning of children’s imaginative literature,” Tatar says. The kind of book you might find in the Hogwarts library.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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