Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review
The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: 
The Complete First Edition. Translated by Jack Zipes
My review appeared in The Age in 2014

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were philologists and scholars living in the French-occupied Germanic kingdom of Westphalia in the nineteenth century. They overcame social prejudice and poverty, and much of their work in the field of folklore reflects their utopian dreams as well as their socio-political opinions. The Grimms believed that the most natural forms of culture are linguistic, and are located in oral traditions. They sought narrative order, in particular in the family constellation. The words ‘happily ever after’ never appear in their stories. Characters may live ‘happily to the end of their days’, but that’s not quite the same, is it?
The brothers’ grand project, which included writing a history of the German language, a German grammar and also a German dictionary, was to define and fortify German culture and national identity. In 1857 they published Children’s Stories and Household Tales as part of their overall plan, and it included stories that originated not only in Germany, but came also from a wider landscape. The 1857 edition was the seventh edition of the tales, and is the one best known today. The first edition (published in two volumes – Volume One in 1812, Volume Two in 1815) consists of 156 stories, while the seventh edition has 210. The Grimms didn’t simply add stories over the years; they deleted, made many changes and revisions and embellishments, adding over fifty tales. The raw and pungent flavour of the first edition morphed into the more polished, puritanical, sentimental, Christian and child-friendly refinements of 1857. Gone is some repulsive violence (notably a story in which the father slaughters a pig; one son then kills the other son; the mother then kills the perpetrator; meanwhile another brother drowns in the bath; then the mother hangs herself; then the father dies of a broken heart) to be replaced sometimes by a more homespun note, a more didactic bourgeois tone, an emphasis on patriarchal and middle-class values. Of course a great deal of breath-taking horror survives into the 1857 edition (think of ‘The Juniper Tree’), and some was added.

The result, writes Jack Zipes, translator and editor of this handsome new Princeton University edition of the 1812/15 publication, is that the ‘essence of the tales is more vivid’ in the earliest version where the Grimms made the ‘greatest effort to respect the voices of the original storytellers or collectors’. Zipes is an American scholar who has published widely on folk and fairy tale since 1979, and is one of the most prolific, respected writers in the field. He argues that the 1812/15 edition is perhaps more important for students of the work than the edition of 1857. It is an amazing fact that this is the first English translation of the 1812/15 collection. There is an extensive Introduction in which Zipes outlines his ‘rediscovery’ of the tales in the process of his translation. At the end of the book Zipes adds his personal summary of the Notes the Grimms provided. To each of the volumes of stories (1812, 1815) there is a six page Preface by the Grimms. There is an index of tales in the Zipes book, but I must say I longed for a full index. Curiously, in such a scholarly work that is clearly not intended for children, there are also twenty black and white illustrations which don’t seem to me to add anything.

Reading this latest translation, I was inspired to compare the first and seventh editions. ‘Cinderella’ is in both editions, and is now probably the uber-fairytale of world culture, although the version that informs everything from royal weddings to movies to Japanese tampons and Chinese hairclips is the French one from Perrault in 1696. The plot is the same in the German and the French, (Victim-girl overcomes impossible odds by virtue of beauty and goodness, and with the help of magic. She happily marries a wealthy and handsome prince.) The details of each version are different. The Grimms’ version in the first and final editions is the one where the spirit of the dead mother assists Cinderella who visits the tree beneath which the mother is buried. There are two sets of slippers, one silver, one gold. No glass – glass is French. (The brothers were familiar with French, Italian, Polish and Slavic versions.) The sisters, who have beautiful faces but black hearts, chop off their toes hoping to fit into the slipper. (Today it’s possible to have ‘Cinderella cosmetic surgery’ where toes are removed so that feet can fit into fashionable shoes.)
In the 1812 Grimm edition the story ends with the wedding; in the 1857 edition however there is an additional scene. As the sisters approach the church, pigeons peck out one eye from each sister. As they leave the church the birds peck out the other two eyes. ‘And so they were punished for their wickedness and malice with blindness for the rest of their lives.’ This additional grisly detail about the eyes comes as a surprise. The brothers sometimes removed horrible images, sometimes kept them, sometimes added them on. In both editions the ending of ‘The Goose Girl’ involves being dragged along naked inside a barrel studded with nails.
The glass slippers of the French version of ‘Cinderella’ have always seemed so foreign to the Grimms. However, in the 1812 volume there is a little story called ‘Okerlo’. Here’s how it ends: ‘My slippers were made of glass, and as I stepped on a stone, they broke in two.’ Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
The story of ‘Bluebeard’ appears in the 1812/15 edition, but is absent from the 1857 collection. In 1987 Jack Zipes included ‘Bluebeard’ in his Complete Tales of the Brothers Grimm, but it is likely that the ‘Bluebeard’ readers of today know has come from translations of the French as set down by Perrault in 1697. In the 1857 Grimm there are three tales which can be considered variants of ‘Bluebeard’, being ‘Old Rinkrank’, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, and ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, but the tale of the bluebearded man who keeps corpses of women in a locked room was left behind by the brothers after 1815. The only explanation I have found for their doing this comes from Casie Hermansson’s Bluebeard, a Guide to the English Tradition. Hermansson says that it was ‘omitted because it was thought to be Perrault’s own tale.’ That doesn’t ring quite true, since the brothers collected their material from far and wide. Copyright issues? Unlikely. Sentiment? National politics? Zipes states in the notes on the stories that the origin of the tale, for the Grimms, was the Hassenpflug family. ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ are both in the 1812/1815 edition, but ‘Old Rinkrank’ isn’t. ‘Bluebeard’ is no more violent or sexual than many another tale in the 1857 collection. The absence of ‘Bluebeard’ after 1815 remains a puzzle – all the more fascinating for that.
Clearly, the new Zipes translation of the first edition, with all its notes and annotations, is a must, a treasure for anyone with a serious interest in fairy tales, the motifs of which linger perpetually in the collective mind. The stories, says Zipes, have a ‘beguiling honesty and an unusual perspective on human behaviour and culture’. They do.

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