Good but Grimm bedtime reading

These Brothers Grimm stories topics are common to mankind’s experience of life: they unite us all. Mary Leland on a new anthology.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The Complete First Edition translated and edited by Jack Zipes

Princeton University Press, £24.95

MANY readers may argue with the poet Schiller’s assertion that ‘Deeper meaning resides in the fair tales told to me in my childhood that in the truth that is taught by life.’ Even so, perhaps those same readers will admit that the belief, quoted in Bruno Bettelheim’s master-work ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ (1976) has some validity.

They will certainly do so if they acknowledge the staying power of the fairytales told or read to them in childhood, and if they remember that strange hinterland in which mystery, search, loss, redemption and triumph still bring some imaginative consolation to the perceived injustices of the very young.

The fact is, as Jack Zipes discusses in his fascinating anthology, fairy tales incorporate the truth that is taught by life.

Bettelheim takes that fact considerably further by exploring the psychoanalytic and psycho-social significance of such stories, wherever they come from and however they arrive. By reminding the child that he or she is not alone, ‘consolation is the greatest service the fairytale can offer...’

That was not at all the idea behind the work of the brothers Grimm, and this new collection of their work in itself is not for children.

It might even be said that many of Grimm’s fairytales are unsuitable for childish ears and hearts; they are not, in fact, even fairytales but, as the translated title indicates, ‘Children’s and Household Tales’.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm themselves wondered, ‘Have children’s tales really been conceived and invented for children? I don’t believe this at all...’ Their disbelieve enlarges the motivation and the impact of this fascinating volume in which Jack Zipes brings together the stories first published in 1812 and 1815.

Clever, if impoverished students, with a family background in the practice of the law the brothers Grimm came to believe that language rather than law was the ultimate bond uniting the German people in a country which at the time was largely undefined.

Committed to work always together as literary historians revealing essential truths of the German cultural heritage they began to examine all they could find of folk songs, proverbs, legends, myths, riddles and anything that remained of the oral transmission of stories.

In his introduction Jack Zipes traces the more prolific or important sources from the aristocracy (informed by nannies, household servants and villagers), to the educated middle classes and on, as if from a fairytale in itself, to such people as the tailor’s wife, a poor mother of six children and seller of vegetables in the her local market and provider of about forty stories.

A retired soldier ‘exchanged seven tales for a pair of leggings.’ There was also widespread and scholarly research among European anthologies, histories, manuscripts and traditions but, as Zipes explains, while many of these tales were already a few hundred years old when they were gathered together, ‘they bear the personal and peculiar marks of the storytellers themselves, who kept them in their memory for a purpose.’

Ancient as they may be, many of the stories we still relish today took as their themes the abiding issues of parent and child disputes, social inequalities, hidden talents, sibling rivalry, the defeat of evil and the reward of virtue, malice and its unmasking, the helplessness of the young — especially young women — the abuse of power and the triumph of kindness.

When such ingredients of mysticism, of animal transformation, of witchcraft, sorcery and miracle and even in some charming cases a strong sense of fun are added to this catalogue of recognisable conflicts. the unifying purpose behind the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm becomes more obvious.

These topics in one way or another are common to mankind’s experience of life: they unite us all. Or they did so once.

Bruno Bettelheim’s study examines fairytales from the child’s perspective in which fantasy is more helpful to understanding than is rational thought. He lodges their significance firmly in the modern consciousness, often in a society in which children no longer grow up within the security of an extended family, or of a well-integrated community.

The efficacy of a story depends on the way in which it is told to the child; there is no need to explain its metaphorical identities for somehow (and Bettelheim is very good on this) children can accept that a frog can turn into a prince if promises are kept and obligations met.

He is also strong on cultural significance, noting the Christian elements in some of the Grimms’ tales, two of which begin at a time ‘when Our Lord still walked about this earth’, or Islamic references in ‘Thousand and One Nights’.

As editor and translator Jack Zipes makes his own purpose clear in his introduction; it is to present the material amassed by the brothers Grimm in its earliest published form, that is in the editions of 1812 and 1815. This is because Jacob and Wilhelm, while happy at first to provide what they saw as an educational primer, couldn’t let well alone afterwards.

They accepted some complaints about the original plots or outcomes, such as Rapunzel’s pregnancy (by the way, who knew that rapunzel was a kind of lettuce?) or the fact that the jealous stepmothers in ‘Snow White’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ were originally the biological mothers.

Wilhelm especially made changes in succeeding editions to accommodate the mores of their times and Zipes includes extensive notes (although no bibliography or general index) to reveal many of these alterations.

Readers will be more familiar with the seventh, standard edition of 1857, but here these 156 original stories have an authentic and even romantic austerity about them, assisted by Zipe’s own obediently flat style but not really enhanced by the cut-paper illustrations by Andrea Dezso.

So be warned: adults who remember their own affection for fairytales will enjoy this book, but its contents are often far from bed-time reading and very far from Disney, Pixar and Ladybird.

Jack Zipes has also written a companion volume, Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales to be published this December.

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