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.
“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.
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.”