Saturday, January 6, 2018

Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms' Fairy Tales

I got a new book for Christmas! Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimm's Fairy Tales by Ann Schmiesing. I had heard about it on Surlalune and the topic is one of special interest to me-although I'm mostly a stay at home mom now, I also teach a couple music classes to adults with intellectual disabilities. And I'm now amazed I've never realized how common a topic disability is in fairy tales before!

I've only read the introduction so far but I'm really excited to read more. As Schmiesing points out, there are very few studies done on the topic of disability in fairy tales, despite how often it occurs (think the birds pecking out the stepsisters' eyes in Cinderella, or thumbling tales, or many other examples the book will explore). In fact, disability usually functions in one of two basic ways: it sets a protagonist apart and gives them an extra challenge to overcome (such as thumblings) or is indicative of a villain, either by nature or given as a punishment. In fact, some form of disability is often the impetus of the story itself. David T. Mitchell suggests that the purpose of stories is to explain that which has "stepped out of line", and that understanding differences in people are one of the things that "propel the act of storytelling into existence."

Thinking of disability in broader terms, it's not surprising that it appears so often in the Grimms' collection. Wilhelm suffered from poor health, and his first son grew very ill and died in infancy. Because of poorer living conditions, illness and other disabling conditions were far more common during the Grimms' lifetimes, when the average life expectancy was only about 35.

Of course, the stories often treat disabilities in ways that aren't exactly politically correct today. Most people are aware of some of the issues in fairy tales when it comes to gender studies, but not as many people are aware of issues when it comes to people with disabilities in literature. The Grimms were a product of their time, as were their storytelling sources. When folklore scholars have attempted to tackle these issues they often lack sensitivity and awareness,  but many disability scholars may not have a proper grasp of fairy tale studies (Schmiesing cites one article that mistakenly assumed that the Grimms were not two collectors and editors, but one author, "B. Grimm"!!! I'm extremely intrigued as to where that "B" came from...) Interestingly, as Wilhelm edited the stories over the course of the editions, he tended to (probably unintentionally) enhance or add portrayals of disability.

Other authors, in Schmiesing's opinion have taken disability in folklore a little too literally, attempting to give various characters a specific diagnosis. This is often just speculation which ultimately misses the point of how the disability functions. Yet others don't take it literally enough-treating the disability as only a metaphor representing something else and ignoring crucial parts of the story. Fairy tales are certainly a challenging genre to study because of their nature, taking place in "a world in which metaphors take on literal meaning.," as she quotes from Maria Tatar. But from everything I've read so far, I think Schmiesing will strike that much needed middle ground, as someone who is aware of both disability and folklore study. Can't wait to read more!


  1. B. Grimm... Brothers Grimm perhaps?

    Interesting topic.
    As for the "added" portrayals of disability, quite a few are probably attempts at rationalization. Poor hearing or poor eyesight is often used to explain why a villain is rather easily tricked. E.g. in later edition the witch in Hansel and Gretel not being able to tell that Hansel is sticking out a chicken bone rather than his own finger is explained by her being almost blind ("dull" eyes=cataract?).

    Why of course not all ailments in fairy tales have a real life equivalent, there are some stories in the Grimm collection that do actually featurenpro- and antagonists with real life disabilities or mental disorders, most notably De Spielhansl which features a protagonist with a surprisingly accurately portrayed gambling addiction. The read can at times be quite uncomfortable, because from todays perspective the story makes inappropriately light of such a serious topic.

    1. Oh it's got to have been Brothers Grimm! Still hard to imagine how little research went into that article...

      I'm looking forward to reading more but I'm sure you're right about the rationalization. And to be fair, Schmiesing does allow that you can probably attribute specific disabilities to certain characters, which can make for interesting study, but that some scholars have taken it too far.

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