A Starker, Darker Brothers Grimm
November 14, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’m excited to finally have in my possession a copy of Jack Zipes’ The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a new translation of the original 1812 & 1815 Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales (I say finally because my local post office made we wait one extra, excruciating day). You may have seen some buzz around the interwebs about it, praising Zipes for restoring the “darkness and gore” to the tales. While I think that particular line is a little misleading, there’s no doubt that this is an important book, and worth celebrating. And, with its cut-out illustrations by Andrea Dezso and gorgeous book design by Princeton University Press, it’s lovely to boot!
First, some context. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first volumes of collected fairy tales in 1812 did not publish the tales we’re most familiar today, in the form we’ve seen them, until 1857. By that time, they had made many editorial tweaks and changes to the tales, as well as deleted a few more gruesome stories that had appeared in their original two volumes, published in 1812 and 1815. The Grimms not only wanted to preserve German folk tales through print, they also wanted to make them palatable—two goals that, on occasion, might seem to be at odds. For instance, many of the wicked stepmothers in the tales that we know today originally appeared, in 1812 and 1815, as biological mothers, something that the Grimms likely changed to make the stories less harsh for young readers. This new book, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, is the first in which all the stories from the Grimms’ 1812 and 1815 editions are together, translated into American English, and paired with the Grimms’ original prefaces as well, all together in one edition.
Now, here’s where I feel the need to clarify: Zipes’ beautiful new book is important because it’s the first such book of all of these translations together, not to mention the first time that most of these original tales have been translated into English for general readership. It’s not news, however, that the Grimms made such changes as the one I’ve used as an example above. Scholars for many years have parsed these tales, analyzing the changes. This book isn’t necessarily a discovery—but it is a huge achievement. I only feel the need to make that clarification because the articles I’ve seen about this publication, on io9 and the Guardian, have served as a reminder of the nature of general “news” versus academic news. I’m very, very glad that this book is getting attention. I do think, though, that the sensationalizing of “restoring darkness” can distract from the larger context. This is one piece of the Grimms’ legacy—and we shouldn’t allow its existence to paint the Grimms solely as puritanical prudes. When we do that, we risk dismissing the tales that came after the originals as inauthentic, which would be a tragedy. To do so would be to ignore not only what the Grimms attempted to obscure in the tales, but also what they added: the Grimm brothers were writers at heart, and their attempt to “smooth out” the tales and poeticize them shouldn’t be discounted, even if that does seem to fly in the face of their mission to preserve the tales as oral folk artifacts. Some of the most beautiful moments and bits of language in the tales are inventions of the Grimms. They often extended a scene to add detail, or to make sense of a non-logical jump in storytelling, the same way that adapters like Philip Pullman or re-imaginers like Angela Carter have done in the hundreds of years since.
Many of my favorite passages, as a reader, came from the Grimms’ later embellishments. For example, take a look at the original opening for “The Frog King, or Iron Henry,” from 1812:
Once upon a time there was a princess who went out into the forest and sat down at the edge of a cool well.
And the opening from 1857:
In olden times, when wishing still helped, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, who had seen many things, was always filled with amazement each time it cast its rays upon her face.
You may find this a little flowery, sure, but for me, there’s something about that line—“when wishing still helped”—that betrays these brothers as the poets they are. I cheer for this new book, and the chance to see how many of our most familiar fairy tales looked when first written down, pre-embellishment. I’m thrilled to see the bits of gore that were cut out, all gathered together between two lovely covers. I also hope, though, that readers choose to see this book in context, as part of a multi-faceted legacy as well a history of scholarship. This book, the way I see it, is a companion, and not a replacement, for the later Grimms versions that we’re so familiar with. And, I should probably add, it’s probably not the greatest choice to give your 5-year-old relatives this Christmas.
For more context, of an even more academic bent, be sure to check out Zipes’ new book on the Grimms themselves, Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales, due out on November 23rd.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go curl up to “The Devil in the Green Coat.”
The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm as well as the forthcoming Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales are both published by Princeton University Press.