The achievement of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

It’s been two hundred years since the Grimm brothers published the first edition of their fairy tale collection, and Arts and Letters Daily has linked to a nice essay at Humanities by Jack Zipes on the topic.

Originally, the collection was not intended for children, but was a Herderian effort to capture the voice of the German Volk.

What compelled the Grimms to concentrate on old German epics, tales, and literature was a belief that the most natural and pure forms of culture—those which held the community together—were linguistic and based in history. According to them, modern literature, even though it might be remarkably rich, was artificial and thus could not express the genuine essence of Volk culture that emanated naturally from experience and bound the people together. Therefore, all their efforts went toward uncovering stories from the past.

In their preface, the Grimms explained their interest in the culture of the common people, and their intention in recording their tales: “It was perhaps just the right time to record these tales since those people who should be preserving them are becoming more and more scarce. . . . Wherever the tales still exist, they continue to live in such a way that nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude. People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way. And they take pleasure in them without having any reason. This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous.” In short, the Grimms’ first collection was shaped as an archaeological excavation and as a book for adults and for scholars. Their tales were not to be classified as children’s stories, not even today.

Later, they did realize their potential as childrens’ stories, and younger brother Wilhelm did much work in later editions to make them more appropriate.

In contrast to the final 1857 edition, most of the tales in the first edition are shorter and sparser. They have a rawness that was later to be refined. For example, “Rapunzel” is embellished a great deal in the final edition:

First Edition

Once upon a time there lived a husband and wife who had been wishing for a child for many years, but it had all been in vain. Finally, the woman became pregnant.

Now, in the back of their house the couple had a small window that overlooked a fairy’s garden filled with all kinds of flowers and herbs. But nobody ever dared to enter it.

Seventh Edition

Once upon a time there was a husband and wife who for quite some time had been wishing in vain for a child. Finally, the dear Lord gave the wife a sign of hope that their wish would be fulfilled. Now, in the back of their house the couple had a small window that overlooked a splendid garden filled with the most beautiful flowers and herbs. The garden, however, was surrounded by a high wall, and nobody dared enter it because it belonged to a sorceress, who was very powerful and feared by all.

Aside from adding a Christian motif and substituting a sorceress for a fairy, Wilhelm Grimm also concealed a later scene in the first edition when Rapunzel reveals that she apparently had sex with the prince and was impregnated by him. Other differences in the editions show: In the first, Snow White’s mother, not her stepmother, wants to kill the beautiful girl out of envy.

A first round of Disney-fication, one might call it.  By the way, from Rapunzel:

The prince climbed up, but above, instead of his beloved Rapunzel, he found the sorceress, who peered at him with poisonous and evil looks.

“Aha!” she cried scornfully. “You have come for your Mistress Darling, but that beautiful bird is no longer sitting in her nest, nor is she singing any more. The cat got her, and will scratch your eyes out as well. You have lost Rapunzel. You will never see her again.”

The prince was overcome with grief, and in his despair he threw himself from the tower. He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell poked out his eyes. Blind, he wandered about in the forest, eating nothing but grass and roots, and doing nothing but weeping and wailing over the loss of his beloved wife. Thus he wandered about miserably for some years, finally happening into the wilderness where Rapunzel lived miserably with the twins that she had given birth to.

Given the twins, the implication of sex isn’t less clear than in the first edition to those who know the facts of life.  Referring to Rapunzel as the prince’s “wife” is a more effective bit of moral scrubbing.

The fairy tales the Grimms collected were not medieval children’s tales.  There’s a fun chapter in Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Children on medieval children’s literature, some of which has survived, and in spirit would not be out of place among the books for children written today.  The folk tales, on the other hand, were, as Zipes’ article puts it, “brusque, blunt, absurd, comical, and tragic, and are not, strictly speaking, ‘fairy tales.'”  That they are the work of an anonymous process of verbal transmission in itself doesn’t make them more than the rural equivalent of urban legends.  In fact, I suspect that the process of adjusting adult stories for a young audience has something to do with giving fairy tales their distinct quality.  The sex and cruelty are (mostly) put offstage, but the story still revolves around them, so that the stories seem both serious and ethereal–not of the world of childhood but of the adult world seen through a childlike lens.

4 Responses

  1. I rather doubt that peasants distinguished between stories for children and stories for adults. Nursery rhymes were for the class that had nurseries and nurses. Without that spatial segregation, I don’t see how there could be two sorts of tales. A cottage with one room discouraged stratification of culture by age, just like a house with one radio or television.

    I am struck by the unflinching realism of many of these stories. In the story of Rapunzel, for instance, sexual intercourse between two unchaperoned lovers is taken for granted. This is not to say that it is condoned, for the prince pays most cruelly for his liberties; but there is (in the unbowldlerized versions) no shrinking from the wicked ways of the world.

    There is a certain amount of didacticism in these tales, but in this there is a strong slant towards pessimism. Evil-doers are often punished, but the good are not always rewarded. In the older versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the little girl does everything she is told to do, and her reward is to be eaten (and not afterwards cut from the bowels of the wolf by a quick-witted woodcutter).

    I will admit to being in the Herderian camp here. I can read the folk tales of other peoples with interest, but never with the pangs of nostalgia that I feel when reading the Teutonic folk tales.

  2. I just finished reading little house on the prairie to my daughter. Ma and pa make a point (according to grown Laura’s narration) not to talk of Indian atrocities in front of the children.

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