January 16, 2018

Hard Facts of Grimms' Tales

On this day in 1785 Jacob Grimm was born in Hanau, Germany. Between them, Jacob and his brother Wilhelm wrote or edited thirty-five books, including their Children's and Household Tales (commonly known as Grimm's Fairy Tales), first published in 1812. Although trained as lawyers, the Grimm brothers became scholars of folklore (plus, in Jacob's case, philology), and they are regarded as the first to bring any kind of scientific method to the study of the oral tradition. The original goal, partly scholarly and partly patriotic, was to gather and preserve authentic German folk tales. When the Grimms realized that similar versions of their tales had existed in many cultures for a long time, and that their reading public was mostly interested in a good story, they adjusted course. The scholarly tone and footnoting gave way in subsequent editions, and the stories became increasingly sanitized and preachy. Still, the Disneyfication did not go as far as it later would, or as far as some wanted: at the end of WWII, Allied commanders banned publication of the Grimms's tales in the belief that their violence contributed to Nazi savagery.

In The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales (1987), Maria Tatar states that adults today who read the original, unexpurgated tales should be ready for "graphic descriptions of murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest" -- stepsons decapitated by moms and eaten as stew by dads, princes and princesses who do more than sleep in bed, bad girls forced to disrobe and roll down hills in nail-studded kegs, or to have their hands and breasts chopped of for refusing father, etc. In general, says Tatar, the Grimms -- moreso the commercially-minded Wilhelm than the academic Jacob -- downplayed the sex and kept or even increased the violence in the oral material. Often they expanded or smoothed the narrative, or pointed the moral; sometimes they made personal changes, for unclear reasons. In the first edition, "Twelve Brothers" has the misogynist King telling his wife that if her thirteenth child is a girl, the boys must die, as "I would rather cut off all their heads than have a girl among them"; in the second edition, the feminist King says the boys must die so that the daughter's "wealth may be great and that she alone may inherit the kingdom."

(Still, he had a little pillow put in each of their coffins. Even kinder, the mother helped the boys flee, and then the daughter, born so perfect there was a star on her forehead, moved in to do all their housework. So everything was Snow White, until she picked the charmed lilies. This turned the boys into ravens, for which the only cure was 7 years of her silence. So when the Prince saw her sitting quietly in a tree she could only nod yes. But her mother-in-law thought she was too quiet, leaving the Prince no choice but to stake her to a bonfire. But at the last second the 7 years were up, and the ravens put it out and everyone hugged and lived happily etc., except for mother-in-law, who got both boiling oil and venomous snakes in her barrel.)

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