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November 16, 2005

Grimm or What? - Grimm's Fairy Tales

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales
by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
with an Introduction by Padraic Colum
Pp. 863. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975

Selected Tales
by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Translated with an Introduction and notes by David Luke
Pp. 422. Penguin Classics, 1982

The Grimm Brothers' Home Page:

"Love . . sky . . dream . . heart . . bird . ." French love songs
"Princess . . forest . . stepmother . . frog . . huntsman . ." German folk tales as collected and recorded by the Brothers Grimm.

My father used to read them to me, translating as he went along from an old German edition in the Gothic script which had dark little line drawings. And of the key words, the one that stuck was "forest". For the strange fact was that if you look at the map, our home was surrounded by the forests of Rossendale, Trawden, Bowland and Pendle, but these forests had barely any trees and they had gone in Neolithic times if they were ever there. They were moorlands, hunted rather than farmed, and therefore casually classified as forests by the Normans. Of real, deep, dark forests there were none and that (along with the Gothic script) made real forests seem very exotic.

So there was always something exciting about forests for me and I half expected something very peculiar to happen once one had penetrated any distance into one. As time went on and I experienced a reasonable number of forests I began to realise that they were only areas full of trees where it was very easy to get lost so the expectation steadily slipped below a half, but a sliver still remains. In any case, the Grimms are not solely to blame for my forest complex. There were many reinforcements including Wind in the Willows and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But I mainly blame the Grimms.

There are 210 stories in the full Grimm collection. Attempting to read them en masse is undoubtedly an unnatural literary act, but it is repetitive and depressing. The temptation to construct a composite is irresistible.

So here goes: A young man (ex-soldier, huntsman, or peasant chucked out of the family home because there is not enough to eat) is on the move and penetrates deep into the forest. There he meets a dwarf (or old crone or talking animal) who tells him of a cave where he will find a dragon (or large snake etc). Having killed this creature he must extract a ring from its stomach and take it to the city where it will establish his right to marry the local princess and, eventually, succeed as ruler. But when he does this the king (who doesn't think he's posh enough for his daughter) insists on him accomplishing a number of bizarre and pretty well impossible tasks including bringing back a donkey that poos gold bullion. He succeeds, but only with the aid of talking swans (or ravens, frogs, hares, etc) and possibly the devil's grandmother. On completion of the tasks the swans (or whatever) turn into the handsome princes of neighbouring states who had had a spell put on them. He is allowed to marry the princess and somebody who had been unfairly influencing the king against him is torn limb from limb. This can be the king's mother-in-law or wicked brother or a passing Jew, but whoever it is their painful demise causes great rejoicing throughout the land and a period of happiness ensues.

An actual example: a princess and her servant girl set out to the princess's wedding. But, on the journey, the servant girl becomes dominant and they exchange roles and clothes. It is she who marries the prince, but she is betrayed by a talking horse, which, in true Grimm fashion, continues to talk even when she has cut its head off. She is stripped naked and rolled around in a barrel full of spikes, this having been her own suggestion for what should happen to somebody who behaved like her. This is The Goosegirl in its original version and it would take a Thomas Bowdler to make it a fit childrenís story. To be fair, it isn't a children's story and the ten stories classified in the Complete edition as children's stories are much gentler and more Christian than the rest. Nor are they "fairy" stories, notwithstanding the title of the Complete set because they contain little or nothing which would be recognisable as a "fairy" in Shakespeare's land; the confusion arises partly out of the use of the generic French term fee which can mean witch.

I think that even people who have never read a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm have received enough of them indirectly to know that they are "gruesome". But if you read them in succession it is not the gruesomeness, but the randomness which gets you down. Scheisse happens, Zauber happens, but not in any way you can control or treat rationally. Dead folk are sometimes brought back to life using herbs from distant mountains, but sometimes they aren't. In terms of social science this is the "amoral" world of Sicily in the 1950s described in the researches of Edward Banfield where keeping your head down and following the dictates of your intuitive cunning are your best options, though keeping promises can also be important. The same world is described as a "lack of civic culture" in Mexico as it is analysed in Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba's The Civic Culture.

There is stark contrast between these stories and those of Hans Christian Andersen who was born in 1805, twenty years after the Grimms. The Ugly Duckling, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's Clothes et al. are meaningful modern fables. The principal difference is surely not that Andersen is Danish and the Grimms German because they are often European and even global stories in outline at least. It may be that the Grimm's versions have a particular German slant. But the real difference is that Andersen was an "artist", making a living and using traditional tales if at all only as an inspiration to give his audience (children and parents) what they wanted. The Grimm's were academics, to a much greater extent trying to record the authentic flavour of folk tales before they disappeared. The earlier French collections of Charles Perrault are closer to Andersen in spirit because he was consciously adapting folk tales for the most sophisticated audience, French high society. And why is there no significant English collection? I don't know, but I would like to think that it has something to do with the insistence of Bryant, Massingham, MacFarlane and others that an English yeoman was an entirely different creature from a continental peasant.

And, now I recall, I did try to write my own versions in the 1980s when I had small children. I based them on pub signs and they turned out relentlessly nice and Andersen-like. My Green Man was merely an irritating little boggart and the wicked, kidnapping eagle in my Eagle and Child was dealt with by a squadron of Canada geese and suffered no worse fate than to fly away and never be seen again. Naked servant girls in barrels full of spikes would have been considered highly "inappropriate" as they say these days.

One difference between the two published editions is that the Complete is entirely in standard English and makes no attempt at an equivalent to the stories which the Grimm's put down in varieties of Low German and Swiss German dialects. The Selected does using an Irish dialect (of English) as the equivalent of Swiss German and a Buchan dialect as Low German. Thus,

On this the bird let the golden chain fall, and it fell exactly round the manís neck, and so exactly that it fitted beautifully
At that the bird lat the gowden chyne faa, an it fell richt roon the gweedman's neck like it wiz made for im.
When does "dialect" degenerate into mere bad spelling, one wonders? More seriously it is bound to be a problem that dialect is so divisive. There are perhaps only a hundred thousand people who would be at ease in my own Pennine dialect and a good deal fewer in the Buchan. Perhaps one should stick to writing in the standard form and reading aloud in dialect?

Thus far commentary on the text laced with a little pre-existing knowledge but no reference to the various Introductions and critical essays which are readily available. I will ignore the Freudian and Marxian analyses in the belief that readers could easily construct their own. Ditto tedious detail about the interplay of the various motifs in folk tales. But it is amusing to learn that, given that they were collecting for more than half a century, the Grimms in their 1843 edition included The Princess and the Pea, a story made up by Andersen and told to them. That would be like going in search of traditional Irish recipes and coming back with Gaelic coffee! Or that in many respects the stories are substantially bowdlerised. For example the "filthy hovels" particular peasants are said to live in are literally "pisspots". More importantly, most of the wicked stepmothers were originally wicked mothers, but nineteenth century German society couldn't handle that view of motherhood any more than could its English equivalent. Which puts down a good deal of (American) academic research on rates of death in childbirth and the historical significance of the stepmother.

But there remains a huge question about how we look at these tales. They have indisputable explanatory value because they serve as an angle on some eternal human concerns, fears and aspirations. They are a guide to some deep parts of our culture, our "racial memory" as the Victorians would put it. On the other hand I am extremely suspicious of those (like Padraic Colum in the Introduction to the Collected) who would ask us to celebrate such tales as a part of our culture we ought to value. They are nasty, superstitious, ignorant and irrational and belong in the world of "incest and Morris dancing" to borrow Sir Thomas Beecham's phrase. The Grimms themselves were genuine liberals, banished from Hanover for their views. But their work was part of that "romantic" celebration of things folkish which offered spiritual feed to the nasty little nationalist regimes of the twentieth century. The Grimm brothers may not be morally responsible for Hitler and De Valera, but they are part of the same syndrome.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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"They are nasty, superstitious, ignorant and irrational ..."

They are if you insist on understanding them literally. The same might be said of much in the Bible - and now I think about it probably has been. But a man who thought, for example, that the parable of the wise and foolish virgins was actually about lamps and oil would be a very simple-minded man.

Actually, the parallel is apposite inasmuch as some of these stories are probably remnants of ancient religious beliefs expressed in symbolic form, as Andrew Lang suggests.

It would be a mistake to read the stories by means of a rigid decoding mechanism such as Marxism or Freudianism. Nevertheless, that does not mean that they should be read literally either. In fact, symbolic language can't be "decoded" fully anyway, as Marxians and Freudians assume: if it could, why would there be a need for it?

It's not as if tales told in symbols have ceased to be of the highest importance to us:

If they had, we'd all have abandoned art for sociology long ago. I wonder what Eric Voegelin would have said!

By all means keep some of the stories out of the hands of children. Why not? Rousseau suggested as much for Aesop's Fables in _Emile_. But don't assume that all of the stories can be read literally and that their meaning is always both transparent and repulsive.

So I think the essay is mistaken in its over-literal reading of the stories. I don't care for the conclusion either. Human societies are organized in many ways. However, this essay implies there are but two choices: "liberal[ism]" or "nasty nationalist regimes". (The qualifications "genuine" and "little" seemed pointless to me, so I dropped them out of the formulations.) Fortunately, that is not true.

If human life fitted only into these two moulds then I would pity poor mankind.

Posted by: Mike at November 16, 2005 05:07 PM

I liked this review right up to the end, and indeed share the suspicion of Padraic Colum and his utterances.

And yet ... how many people has Morris Dancing ever killed? How many, in contrast, have been killed by 'rationality' (in the sense of 'science', for instance) or secularism?

History does seem to suggest that there are some countries which are more than capable of embracing their 'superstitious', 'irrational' and 'romantic' pasts, without descending into invasion, pillage and mass murder - and other highly 'rational', not very 'ignorant' countries which go on to slaughter millions in the pursuit of what they believe to be scientific, rational, objective aims.

In other words, are the Brothers Grimm to be blamed for the Holocaust? That seems wrong to me, like trying to pin the blame on Wagner or Nietzsche or Luther, when the crime at issue is so clearly a 'modern', 20th century one, where the very up-to-date false idols of science, rationalism and nationalism proved themsevles far more flawed than any 'ignorant' peasant fairy-tale hauled out of a dim past. Personally, I think the Brothers Grimm reflect in their writings a reality of human nature about which we ought to be clear-eyed and cognizant - but about which we ought not to maintain any false sense of superiority.

Compared with what the 'science' that tortured infant twins in the Nazi death camps produced, or the 'science' that consigned whole East European villages to extinction on the basis of some terribly 'rational' theory of 'race', or, come to that, the secularism of Stalin or Pol Pot, who's afraid of the Brothers Grimm? No, give me a spot of Morris dancing in a country that embraces tradition, the Established Church and a strong monarchy any day.

Posted by: Bunny Smedley at November 16, 2005 06:53 PM

A good essay, even if I share some of the reservations of Mike and Bunny Smedley.

However, is it true that there is "no significant collection" of English folk-tales? Surely the Robin Hood cycle (taken from various ballads) constitutes just such a collection? (I retain Dr Allison's term "folk-tales"; it is clear that the Robin Hood stories are in no way "fairy" tales.)

Posted by: Neil Saunders at July 16, 2006 02:20 PM
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