Rebekah at bekahcubed chose Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club for November – as many of them as one wanted and had time to read. I knew I would not be able to read a whole volume, but I wanted to read some of the more well-known ones to see how they compared.
I knew I would get to more of them via audiobook than regular book, and the edition I had chosen, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition, was translated and edited by Jack Zipes in 2014. His introduction, though a bit wordy and repetitive, was quite interesting. I had not known that German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had not actually traveled around the country collecting tales, as is commonly thought. They originally studied law, but one professor, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, believed in an interdisciplinary approach in that history, language, literature, law, religion, etc., all influenced each other. Thus “the brothers eventually came to believe that language rather than law was the ultimate bond that united the German people.”
I also had not known that the brothers themselves revised the stories a great deal from their first edition (in 1812) to the seventh (in 1857). The original stories had details that were thought unsuitable for children (gruesomeness in some, “adult” details in others like Rapunzel getting pregnant by the visiting prince). Later editions also excluded some stories from other countries and added other stories that the Grimms had collected in the meantime. I can’t fault the Grimms for continually revising their work: I tend to tweak things I have written nearly every time I look at them. This and the fact that there were varying versions of the tales even in their day makes me a lot more forgiving of the modern twists on them. In his introduction, Zipes includes the first several paragraphs of a couple of stories from a few different editions to note the changes. I did like hearing how some of the stories originated even while feeling later versions were probably better.
“Florid descriptions, smooth transitions, and explanations are characteristic of most of the tales in the 1857 edition.” This version is a translation of the 1812 and 1815 editions. I only listened to a few stories from the first, and they are sparse, mostly unembellished, and simply told.
Zipes translated the originals into “succinct American English.” While this makes them easily understood, I do miss the “fairy tale style” of the wording (for instance, the prince gives Cinderella her missing slipper and says merely, “Try it on. If it fits, you’ll become my wife.”) I don’t know how much of the lack of that is due to his translation or to the simplicity of the originals: perhaps that’s a product of later editions. There are also a lot of exclamations taking God’s name in vain: again, I don’t know if this is Zipe’s doing or if there are equivalent expressions in the originals.
I did get to listen to quite a few more tales than I had thought I would. Here are a few thoughts on the ones I read:
“The Frog King”: A beautiful princess plays with her favorite thing, a golden ball, until it drops into some water. She’s distraught until a frog comes up out of the water and promises to fetch the ball for her if she’ll take him to be her companion, letting him eat from her plate, drink from her cup, and sleep in her bed. She agrees, but in her excitement over getting her ball back, runs off to the castle, forgetting about the frog. He comes to the castle to claim her promise, which she resists until her father makes her keep her word. When she has had enough and throws the frog against her bedroom wall in disgust, he turns into a prince, and they marry and live happily ever after. There’s no “you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a handsome prince” here, not even true love’s kiss transforming the frog. In fact, if I were the prince, I would have thanked the princess after the transformation and moved on. 🙂
“The Companionship of the Cat and Mouse.”: A cat and mouse lived together and stored some of their food under the altar in the church. Three times the cat leaves under false pretenses and eats some of the stored food until it’s gone. When the mouse discovers this, the cat eats the mouse. Zipes’ introductions says that many of the tales champion the underdog, but in this case the undermouse got the raw end of the deal.
“The Virgin Mary’s Child”: The Virgin Mary helps out a poor couple by taking their 3 year old daughter to care for her in heaven. Everything goes well until the girl grows, and Mary has to leave for a while. The girl is told not to go into a certain room, but she does. Mary knows she has disobeyed, but the girl won’t confess, so Mary makes her leave heaven and makes her mute. She’s discovered by a king, who marries her. When she has a child, Mary comes back and gives the girl – or young woman now – a chance to come clean. She doesn’t, so Mary takes her baby away. Some therefore think she’s an ogress who has eaten her own child – especially when this happens two more times. The third time, the woman is sentenced to die burned at the stake. She finally wants to confess to Mary that she lied and disobeyed, and then Mary restores her speech and her children.
“Rapunzel”: begins with a husband and wife wishing for years for a child. When the wife finally gets pregnant, she craves the rapunzel (a type of lettuce) in the neighboring garden. The husband gets some for her, but the wife’s craving increases. When he sneaks into the garden a second time, he finds the fairy (in later versions a sorceress) who owns the garden, and who is very angry over his theft. He explains why he is taking it, and the fairy says he can take all he wants as long as they give the baby to her when it is born. She takes the baby, and when the baby grown into a young woman, she locks her away in a tower with no doors. The fairy gets in and out by asking Rapunzel to let down her long hair, and then the fairy uses it to climb up. A prince happens by and hears Rapunzel singing, and is so taken with her voice that he wants to see her. He can’t find a way in, but he observes what the fairy says when she comes, and the next night when the fairy is gone, he calls up to Rapunzel to let down her hair. Rapunzel is frightened by him at first, but in a short time falls in love. They see each other every night. Finally Rapunzel asks the fairy why her clothes are getting so tight. The fairy perceives Rapunzel is pregnant (I don’t suppose you can fault Rapunzel if she has been locked away in a tower since she was 12. But the prince should’ve known better!) The fairy is so angry, she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and banishes her. The fairy ties Rapunzel’s hair to a hook, and when the prince comes up, he finds the fairy instead. He is so distressed he throws himself out of the tower, and loses sight in both eyes. Eventually Rapunzel gives birth to twins in a desolate land. The prince, in his wanderings, hears her singing and finds her. Two of her tears fall on his eyes, and they are healed.
“Hansel and Gretal” are children of a poor woodcutter and his wife. There is not enough food, so the mother instructs her husband to take the children out into the woods and leave them. The children overhear, so Hansel takes some pebbles and drops them along the trail. When their parents leave them, the moon shines on the pebbles and they find their way back home. But the mother insists the father take them even deeper into the forest. Hansel is unable to get more pebbles, so this time he drops bread crumbs to mark the trail. But the birds eat the crumbs. Hansel and Gretel are distressed and try to get home for a couple of days, when they find a house made of bread “with cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows.” When the old woman inside discovers them, she feeds them well, but locks Hansel away to fatten him up to eat him. She was actually a witch who had built the house on purpose to lure children. She makes Gretel act as servant for several days, until she asks Gretel to check something in the oven, planning to shut her in. Gretel prays for help, feigns ignorance, and asks the witch to show her what she means, and when the witch is in the oven, Gretel shuts her in and locks the door. She rescues Hansel, they fill their pockets with the witch’s jewels, and go back home, where they are able to provide for their father. The evil mother had died.
“Herr Fix-It-Up” and and “The White Snake” have different settings but are similar in that the main characters help various animals who then help them on their quest to perform three tasks to win a princess.
“The Fisherman and His Wife”: The fisherman one day catches a talking flounder who claims to be an enchanted prince. The fish asks the man to spare him, which he does. When the fisherman tells his wife what happened, she says he should have wished for something in return. She sends him back to ask for a hut, which the flounder grants. The wife is content – for a week, when she sends her husband back to ask for a castle. He does, reluctantly, and the fish grants it. But the wife is still discontent. She sends him back to ask the fish to make her king, then emperor, and then pope. The fish grants each request until the wife admire a sunrise and decides she wants to be like God. When the fisherman reluctantly once again asks the fish, the fish sends them back to their original shack, where they are said to be living to this day.
“Cinderella” was pretty much as I had heard it, except the step-sisters were beautiful and were the main problem rather than the step-mother. There were three balls rather than one; no sewing mice but there were helpful pigeons; no fairy godmother, but a magic tree planted on Cinderella’s mother’s grave which she could wish on; no pumpkins turning into coaches; golden rather than glass slippers. Cinderella has to leave before midnight each night, and on the third night the prince pours pitch on the walkway so she can’t get away so fast (seems like that would be a problem for the other guests…). The step-mother did advise her daughters to cut off part of their feet to fit into the golden slipper, which they did, and almost fooled the prince, until the pigeons pointed out their bleeding feet. (This prince seems a little dim…) Finally he gets the shoe on the right foot and then finally recognizes Cinderella, the pigeons confirm she’s the one, and they live happily ever after.
“Little Red Cap” was exactly same as “Little Red Riding Hood.” The only thing different from the version I knew was that, after the fiasco with the wolf and being rescued by the huntsman, a second wolf attempts to distract Red, but she has learned her lesson and resists this time, and she and her grandmother trick the wolf into falling into a trough of water where it drowns.
“Death and the Goose Boy”: The goose boy is tired and wants to leave the world, and when he meets Death, he asks him to take him across the river out of the world. But Death can’t right them because he is on another mission. When he finishes that, he asks the goose boy if he still wants to go. He does. His geese turn into sheep, and he “heard that the shepherds of places like that become kings.” “The arch-shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” give him a crown and take him to the castle of shepherds.
“Briar Rose” is the story of Sleeping Beauty and was pretty much as I remembered hearing it, though different than the Disney version.
“Little Snow White” was also close to the version I knew except it was her mother, not a step-mother, who was jealous of her beauty and had the magic mirror. She was changed to a step-mother in later versions. She also made three attempts on Snow’s life, the last one being the magic apple. In the end she was punished by being made to dance with burning shoes until she died.
“Rumpelstiltskin” was pretty much the story I knew. It’s never explained why the girl’s father tells the king his daughter can spin straw into gold: he is only mentioned in the beginning.
I hadn’t thought I would get to this many, but they are fairly short in this volume. I did enjoy both the familiar and unfamiliar ones. Now that I have started, I would love to hear or read the rest some time. But I don’t think that they are best enjoyed one right after another for several stories in a row, for me, anyway. I tended to lose details that way. Now that I have the audiobook, though, I can listen to 2 or 3 at a time in-between other books. I don’t know if I will ever listen to the whole thing, but there are several more stories I’d like to explore. I think they’d best be enjoyed either as individual children’s books with nice illustrations or as an illustrated collection of several of them. But I do think this original version is good for reference and for seeing how they started – at least the original written versions. Many of the stories themselves had been told orally for hundreds of years, so who knows what the actual originals were. But we’re indebted to the Grimms for writing them down for us.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)