7 April 2015


Jack Zipes. Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms' Folk and Fairy Tales. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Think of the Brothers Grimm and what associations come to mind? Fairy tales, 'Cinderella', 'Snow White' ... Disney? That's it. In this book Jack Zipes, an American scholar and serious academic, explores the legacies of the Brothers Grimm in Europe and North America. Zipes has an axe to grind and particularly takes issue with the infantilisation and 'Disneyfication' of the Grimms' tales in modern culture, despite the fact they did themselves produce many 'small editions' specifically for children.
As a former Professor of German at the University of Minnesota, and accepted as probably the world's greatest authority on the Grimms and fairy tales in general, Zipes is well qualified to redress the common perception of the brothers' published works.

Who were the Grimms? Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) were German academics, cultural researchers and authors who made it their life's mission to collect and publish folklore and folk tales. Their father, a lawyer, died suddenly of pneumonia in 1796, plunging the whole family into poverty and crisis, and causing the brothers grief and tribulation for many years.

Being destitute forced them to rely on each other and excel in their studies, both graduating from the University of Marburg with the best grades in their years. While at University they developed a curiosity about German folklore, which grew into a lifelong dedication to collecting and recording German folk tales from the oral tradition, as handed down from generation to generation and from stortytellers. Their first collection of folk tales, Children's and Household Tales was published in
1812. Having vowed to work with each other for all their lives, for some years they worked as librarians, which did not pay well but allowed plenty of time for research.

Apart from their well-known collections of stories for which they became famous, they also spent a great deal of effort until the end of their lives to produce a definitive German dictionary. The first volume was not produced until 1854, and the whole project never reached completion.

Grimm Brothers Monument at Hanau
Between 1812 and 1857 they revised and re-published their collection of stories many times, increasing the the number of stories from 86 to over 200. At first they recorded these folk tales exactly as spoken in the oral tradition, which they published in 1812 and the second volume in 1815. Jack Zipes has translated these editions into English, in his book The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition, which has received great critical acclaim as it presents the original versions of the stories without any embellishment. That embellishments were continually added to the original stories, particularly by Wilhelm Grimm, is proved by comparing original manuscripts with later work. In some cases the final version of a tale may be twice as long as the original.

One example of modification is seen in the tale 'Rapunzel', where the prince has a sexual motive for visiting the princess in the tower and impregnates her. The princess, being pregnant, asks 'Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming too tight? They don't fit me anymore'. No, this is not a case of obesity but pregnancy, and this element was removed from later versions for reasons of taste. In 'Little Snow White' and 'Hansel and Gretel', mothers were changed into stepmothers, because for the Grimms mothers were sacred.

Here in England, the 1812 edition of Grimms' tales was translated into English by Edgar Taylor, and published as German Popular Stories in 1823, and in 1826 he published his translation of the 1814 second volume. Zipes regards Taylor's translations as separating the fantasy elements of the stories from the cruel or profane elements, with the addition of Christian principles, to widen the popular appeal of the stories. Zipes explains how Taylor directly influenced the Grimms' policy on the format of the stories: "It was only after they received a letter and a copy of German Popular Stories in 1823 from the young Englishman Edgar Taylor that they clearly began to alter the tendency of future editions ... by creating the Small Edition and taking greater pains to address a general bourgeois reading public. In this respect, Taylor's sudden appearance in their lives - his letter and book came out of the blue - represented a momentous occasion that caused the Grimms to rethink their 'marketing strategy' and how they might better guarantee the reception of the tales." (Page 44)

So here we have the vital clue to understand how Grimms' tales were eventually aimed at children!After all, even when somewhat sanitised, some tales such as 'Little Red Riding Hood' or 'Hansel and Gretel' were considered to be 'cautionary tales' for children, serving as warnings about the consequences of disobeying one's parents, or general naughtiness. Others were repositories of cultural history, as well as being for enjoyment and pleasure. There is something of the longing for Utopia or Paradise in fairy tales, which is of course why they can appeal to adults as much as to children.

Even in the 'Disneyfied' versions of the Grimms' tales in America, with which we are so familiar, and which Zipes decries in his erudite scholarly manner, some of the original themes survive sufficiently to fire the imagination. Dumbed-down to appeal to a middle-class consumerist society, still the characters and subject matter contain the threads of magic and witchcraft, violence, danger, and death, and the struggle that is needed for good to triumph over evil. If the Grimms, particularly Wilhelm, continually polished and refined the stories, why should not Disney take it to yet another stage of development? This is how culture develops, but the important thing is to be aware of the authentic roots, as Zipes reminds us.

Finally, how about the Grimms' legacy in Germany itself? In his chapter 'Two Hundred Years after Once Upon a Time: The Legacy of the Brothers Grimm and their Tales in Germany', Zipes tells us that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, German national identity was linked to the Grimms, and the Nazis recommended that a book of the Grimms' tales shoud be in every home. But as in all things German, since 1945 there has been something of an aversion, or, at least, a re-evaluation of anything cultural that was linked to the Nazis, and there has been a tendency 'to turn the tales into kitsch'.

If there's one thing we can be sure of in consideration of the original folk tales that the Brothers Grimm collated: kitsch it ain't! -- Kevin Murphy.

No comments:

Post a Comment