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The Grimm Reader


Dark forests, wicked stepmothers, enchanted princes, imps who spin straw into gold. So many of our expectations and preconceptions about the fairy tale have been shaped by the work of two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who in 1806 began the task of recording and publishing Germany’s stock of folktales. The central importance of the Grimms to our understanding of the fairy tale is re- emphasised in Maria Tatar’s vigorous new translation and selection, The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Neil Philip explains.


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esides the Children’s and Household Tales published in seven editions between 1812 and 1857, the Grimms also published a massive collection of German legends (translated by Donald Ward as The


German Legends of the Brothers Grimm, 1981), as well as many scholarly works, including the first volumes of the German equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.


When they began collecting folktales, the idea of folklore as an academic discipline did not exist. It was, essentially, invented by the Grimms as they went along. Luckily for us, the first great modern collection of fairy tales was made by men with the habits and ideals of scholarship. So while it is easy now to criticize their methods – rewriting the tales they collected, fusing different versions, censoring the material, destroying their notes and manuscripts – the Grimms’ collection remains the bedrock of modern folktale studies. Even the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system, in which the world’s folktales are categorized by plot elements, has its roots in Grimm.


The Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system


The point of this classification system (which is now easy for anyone to get to grips with on D L Ashliman’s brilliant Folktexts website at www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html) is that it shows how intricately interlinked the world’s fairy tale heritage is. Practically every tale in Grimm can be echoed many times over from other sources across Europe, Asia, and the New World. The Grimms themselves understood that the stories they were collecting were spun from a worldwide web, though their mission to harvest and record German culture led them to overemphasise the specifically German nature of their tales. What their collection shows is that these tales were present in German folk culture, not that they originated there. The classical scholar Graham Anderson’s study Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000) located ancient models for Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood, The Three Wishes, Rumpelstiltskin, The Singing Bone, and others. These stories have been the common currency of many cultures for thousands of years, slipping from teller to teller and from place to place over the millennia.


8 Books for Keeps No.187 March 2011 A vigorous new translation


The central importance of the Grimms to our understanding of the fairy tale is re-emphasised in Maria Tatar’s vigorous new translation and selection, The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. This is essentially the text of her Annotated Brothers Grimm (2004) shorn of the individual notes to each story, and without the lavish illustrations. The more modest format (which retains the excellent introductory essays by Maria Tatar and A S Byatt) throws us back on the stories themselves – stories that, in Tatar’s words, ‘hiss and crackle with narrative energy’. The Frog King; Rapunzel; Hansel and Gretel; The Brave Little Tailor; Snow White; The Golden Bird; The Worn-out Dancing Shoes. These are stories that illuminate the imagination. And along with them come those that haunt the mind with their ‘unsparing savagery’, including that grimmest of all Grimm tales, The Juniper Tree, in which a stepmother murders her stepson and serves him up in a stew. Her cruelty is revealed by a beautiful bird that flies up from the juniper tree under which the boy’s mother was buried, chanting:


My mother, she slew me, My father, he ate me, My sister, Marlene, Gathered my bones, Tied them in silk, For the juniper tree. Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!


began collecting folktales, the idea of folklore as an academic discipline did not exist. It was, essentially, invented by the Grimms as they went along.


‘ ’ When they


The Grimm Reader is crammed full of great stories, vividly told. They are tales from oral tradition, but the sense of orality is a fake construct of Wilhelm Grimm’s literary sensibility. Jacob Grimm’s original plan had been to collect the stories in the field and publish them word-for-word, mistakes, confusions, slang, dialect and all. But that is not what happened.


In his search for a way to voice and shape traditional oral tales on the printed page, Wilhelm did stay true to the directness and immediacy of the spoken story, but there is no denying that his fingerprints are all over the Grimms’ fairy tales. To take The Frog King, the first story in The Grimm Reader as an example, we can trace a long process in which Wilhelm gussies up the tale with progressive ‘improvements’. Unusually, a pre-publication manuscript survives. In this, the first sentence reads simply:


The youngest daughter of the king went out into the forest and sat down at a cool well. Then she took a golden ball and was playing with it...


The first edition of 1812 is similar, but tidied up:


There was once a king’s daughter, who went out into the forest and sat down at a cool well. She had a golden ball, which was her favourite toy, she threw it up in the air and caught it again in the air and it was her delight.


By the second edition of 1815, this has been expanded to:


There was once a king’s daughter who was so bored that she did not know what to do. Then she took a golden ball with which she had often played and went out into the forest. In the middle of the forest was a pure cool well... By the time the text was finalized, the terse original has been


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