Friday, May 7, 2010

One Fairy Story too Many

One Fairy Story too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales by John M. Ellis is good for anyone who's interested in fairy tale history, or conspiracy theories.

I've read other books on the Brothers Grimm, so I knew that they weren't entirely truthful about where they got their tales, and that they doctored them up a bit. But either the other sources didn't come down on the Grimms quite as hard as Ellis, or I still wanted to believe that the Grimms were merely guilty of a little exaggerating, but not outright lying. That's another thing Ellis exposed-how for years, condemning facts about the Grimms were known, yet scholars who had access to the material did a bit of covering up themselves, also to the point of outright lying (This book was published in 1983-scholars share the facts now but virtually nothing was made known before this). For some reason, no one wants to believe that the Grimm fairy tales aren't completely authentic.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

The Grimms claimed that they traveled around Germany, gleaning tales from the mouths of illiterate peasants, who shared tales that had been passed down through generations and weren't influenced by literary tales. They tried to cover up the fact that they really just had their close friends and family, who were not only literate but mostly also from French origin. Which would explain why many of the most popular tales in the Grimms' collection are other versions of Perrault tales. The brothers tried very hard to cover up these facts-like by describing in detail Dorothea Viehmann, who they claimed was an old German peasant woman who told the stories the exact same way every time and had impeccable memory-yet Dorothea Viehmann was a middle-class woman of French descent, certainly literate and familiar with Perrault. Yet once this information was known, scholars ignored it and sang praises of the Grimms, the fathers of authentic folklore.
Gustav Tenggren-The Frog Prince

Then, once the Grimms got their inauthentic tales, they made significant alterations to them. First of all, the Grimms destroyed all of their original manuscripts, a telltale sign of deception right there. The only manuscripts we have today are ones that they had sent to another fairy tale writer, and of those, many were cut from later editions of their collection, or the tales were based on other versions. But from the ones we do have to compare, the we can see evidence of lots of tinkering-mainly in adding descriptions to "fill out" the story, but also of little changes in plot and props here and there. Scholars tried to defend the Grimms, saying they only made stylistic changes, which is first of all not true, and secondly directly contradicts the preface to the first edition of Kinder und Hausmarchen (KHM), in which they claim they took the tales straight from the peasants' lips and didn't alter them at all. They recognized the value of authentic tales in that they made this claim, yet contradicted this with everything they did. In the preface to the second edition they try to cover their tracks, since by then it was obvious that they had made changes since the tales were now different, but again scholars ignore the obvious contradictions. Ellis says: "The rule appears to be: the more the facts throw a bad light on the brothers, the more the brothers must be praised in order to compensate" (p. 41).

Image of the Sleeping Beauty by Anne Anderson

Now, when one does compare the texts, it doesn't seem at first that many of the additions changed the meaning. Yet many of the changes in language "intended to clarify meaning, and to explain the events more thoroughly," (59), and the Grimms therefore "committed the story to a particular kind of explanation and excluded another" (62). Some scholars tried to excuse the inconsistencies by saying Jacob was faithful to the original tales and Wilhelm later went through and made the stylistic changes, but though Wilhem did do much of the work for the later editions, the brothers worked together to create the first edition, which was where the most changes occured.

And though, to me, I assumed from the original, simpler text, the same meanings of events that were later stated by the Grimms, I realized it was probably because I'm so familiar with the more common, Grimmified versions of the tales, so I can't possibly read the original manuscripts in an unbiased way-I automatically put my own pre-assumptions into the events of the tale. My copies of the KHM (and any you find in bookstores today) are both based off the latest editions, therefore the ones most tampered with.

Hansel and Gretel-by Kay Nielsen

Ellis explains reasons for many of the changes to the KHM-"purging the KHM of content they found objectionable: successful crime, sex, suicide, illegitimate birth, wanton violence by children and family members. In the final collection, this kind of content is minimized; crime is punished; only the good prosper; relations between sexes are reduced to clickes which do not allow sexual promiscuity, immorality, or incest to come into view; only sorcerers and witches usually mistreat other people; violence is generally reserved for those who deserve it; and life is too rational and just to allow suicides."

Whew! The above illustrates the classic problems of taking fairy tales that were not originally meant just for children and making them nursury-appropriate. Not only this, but taking tales from times when death and violence and abandoning children were much more common, to the Victorian through modern times where we try to shelter children from such ideas that will unnecessarily frighten them. And though people may disagree on how much we should censor from children, most people agree that there is a difference between adult material and material that is suitable for children. Can I just say that, even with all the moralizing that's been done, I still found it upsetting as a child that the selfish and spoiled Princess from "The Frog Prince" was rewarded with the handome Prince? There is definitely an instinctual desire for right to be rewarded and wrong to be punished and for things to "make sense," for adults as well as children (although how much of this is instinct and how much of this is the patterns of the stories we've grown up with, who knows).

Lastly, Ellis provides thorough studies of the three above pictured tales-Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel-by providing the original manuscripts and three subsequent editions for each tale (in German and in English-which would be great for any German speaking people out there...). It's really good to have the actual texts to compare instead of taking someone else's word for it.

1 comment:

  1. My friend and I cracked open an original German version of the Grimms and a translation the other day. He claimed that Snow-drop's father died, and I said, nope, I have no recollection of that. Neither of us have any German, but from what we could gather, he doesn't die, just simply stops being talk about. The language barrier is difficult, but it's amazing to me what risks to be lost in translation.