extended into an idealized perfection, which adds poetic images and literary adornments that were clearly never present in the original narration. Tatar’s translation reads:
Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lived a king who had beautiful daughters. The youngest was so lovely that even the sun, which had seen so many things, was filled with wonder when it shone upon her face.
There was a deep, dark forest near the king’s castle, and in that forest, beneath an old linden tree, was a spring. Whenever the weather turned really hot, the king’s daughter would go out into the woods and sit down at the edge of the cool spring. And if she was bored, she would take out her golden ball, throw it up in the air, and catch it. That was her favourite plaything.
Though they glossed over the fact that many of their informants were educated and middle class, the Grimms did value the narrators from whom they collected their stories. But because of the literary mediation to which the tales were subjected, those narrators are not given ownership of the tales, and their individual voices are hushed. Dortchen Wild (whom Wilhelm was later to marry) was 16 years old when the Grimms first recorded her stories, such as Rumpelstiltskin, Furrypelts, and Mother Holle, and her narrative style was probably rather more breathless and enthusiastic than the Grimms’ measured texts allow.
It is this suppression of the living voice of the storyteller that is the most serious of the charges laid against the Grimms by revisionist folklorists in books such as John M Ellis’s One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (1983) and Jack Zipes’ The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (1988). But without the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, it is unlikely that we would now possess our treasure-trove of authentic folktale texts recorded by the scholars inspired by the Grimms’ example.
The redemptive power of fairy tales
One of the greatest of these folktale collectors was the Dane, Evald Tang Kristensen, whose vast archive provided the raw material for the best recent book on the wonder tale, Interpretation of Fairy Tales by the late Bengt Holbek (1987). In this thorough survey and re-evaluation of the nature and meaning of the fairy tale, Holbek includes a very interesting quote from the nineteenth-century folklorist Moses Gaster. It concerns the supernatural and magical elements that mark the fairy tale out as a special form of literature. Gaster writes that one bond united the narrator and his audience: ‘the belief in the reality of the tale’. This is, I think, an insight of great importance, and it probably explains why fairy tales are now regarded as suitable for children, who are able to suspend their disbelief while listening to the tale, and not for their original audience of adults.
The imagination of a great narrator of fairy tales is suffused with this sense of magic, which becomes a prism through which the everyday world is viewed. In her essay ‘The World of European Märchen-Tellers’ (1995), Linda Dégh describes what happened when the Hungarian storyteller Zsuzsanna Palkó was summoned at the age of 74 from her remote peasant community to Budapest, to be awarded the title Master of Folk Arts:
Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859).
Throughout her stay in the city, she identified her tale concepts in real life, matching reality against the background of a deeper, subjective truth. ‘This is where Little I Don’t Know could have lived,’ she whispered. ‘His palace is just like the one in which King Lajos was reared... and, oh yes, there is the telephone, like the one the palace guard had at the gate when he
reported to the king that a guest was arriving, but he didn’t know if it was an emperor or a king...’
Already by the time the Grimms started collecting, the notion that the transforming magic of the fairy tale was a way of interpreting adult concerns for an adult audience was not regarded as tenable, which explains both why the Grimms called their collection Children’s and Household Tales, and why they altered and adjusted their material to suit a young audience. In The Frog King, for instance, they toned down the eroticism, and introduced moralistic elements, such as the king’s priggish observation that, ‘Once you make a promise to someone, you have to keep it.’
It is interesting that a group of starkly violent and often morally repellent fables at the end of The Grimm Reader, which were genuinely intended for children, are separated off by Tatar as Tales for Adults. So times change. These stories – which include the anti-semitic ‘Jew in the Brambles’ and various ‘frighteners’ such as ‘How Children Played Butcher with Each Other’ and the grisly story of ‘The Stubborn Child’ who even after death keeps sticking his arm out of the grave, until his mother strikes it with a switch – are fascinating, but sit rather uncomfortably with the fairy tales that make up the rest of the book.
Those fairy tales, with their redemptive power to transport us into an enchanted world, have had a profound impact on our culture. They take us deep into a world in which wishes come true, and the humble and the generous triumph over the mean and the proud. In her Introduction to The Grimm Reader, A S Byatt makes strong claims for the primacy of stories and storytelling. ‘Stories,’ she writes, ‘are a pervasive and perpetual human characteristic, like language, like play.’ And in the words of Walter Benjamin, ‘The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales.’ n
Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist.
The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar, W W Norton, 2010, 978 0 393 33856 0, £12.99 pbk
Books for Keeps No.187 March 2011 9
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