It has always been one of my ambitions – when I am devoid of deadlines and work commitments – to read the original Grimm's Fairy Tales. I’ve never been keen on the supersantizsed Walt Disney versions with the huge doe eyes and impossibly small waists (and that’s the blokes), the hydro cephalic heads and Marilyn Monroe hips. I am more drawn to stepmothers getting their hearts torn out by huntsman and by the dancing sisters who danced so much their feet fell off. In fact, I think that might be a reality TV show.
the brothers, looking a bit... Grimm
Then I was given a ten CD set of the stories, introduced and narrated by the rather wonderful Philip Pullman. They are told as he would wish them to be told; simple terms, so the imagination will do the rest.
The characters must be stock figures, basic, two dimensional. They have no life at all apart from that which moves the story on. They have no backstory and no future outside the action. Indeed they often do not even merit a name (if they do it will be Hans or Jack) but are generally known by their job- the miller, the captain, the huntsman, the princess, or by what they wear, the bearskin – the little red riding hood.
The other great thing about fairy stories is that Things Happen Quickly! The son leaves, gets married and has his own child within three sentences. That speed means that all detail is jettisoned. Every word must advance the story (and how often does an editor tell us that!). It's all about what happened next and then what happened after that – and in the real fairy tale, they don’t really live happily ever after.
The characters have no interior life, no secret desires, no hidden regrets. They just are. They are pure. There is little description or imagery apart from as 'white as snow', as 'red as blood.' Appearances are outlined -golden hair, a handsome prince. The rest is up to the reader.
The beautiful illustrations that accompany some of the later texts are meant to be read as books I suppose but these tales really live and breath by oral tradition which allows so much more to come through the imagination. We fill in the blanks ourselves, our prince would be a Richard Burton or a Justin Bieber depending on your age, taste... or lack of it.
The original would only be illustrated by the wee cardboard figures posed ready for action, playing their part in the drama. Two dimensional – this is me, this is what I'm doing. When I've done it the story is over.
So far I’ve only got to CD one, and listening to them as an adult, I can’t help but see the allegorical. The cat and the mouse is a tale of the dangers of the powerful over the powerless.
a frog, happy that he was not told to hop it!
And goodness knows what was going on with the frog who wanted the princess to take him to her bed. OK as soon as she kissed him, he turned into David Beckham so that turned out good for her but it could have ended in some kind of criminal charge. Or disease process.
The end of that story is rather heart-warming. As the sun goes down on the prince and princess riding off to a life of happiness, some character we have no previous knowledge of suddenly appears hanging off the back of their cart making clanging noises. He is dangling there, hanging on for dear life. He is the Prince's manservant and was so grief stricken when his master was turned into a frog, he had to put iron bands round his heart to stop it breaking. When the prince comes back to him, the iron bands break because, his heart is filling with love and expanding. Love will always overcome grief in the end.
Which is true.
The Grimms, Jacob and Wilhelm were the sons of a lawyer. They recorded the stories sent to them by friends or took them from already printed texts, the one thing they did not do was walk round the fields chatting to those who used the oral form of the story. And many Germans were doing this formal recording at the time, as Pullman suggests maybe it was because Germany in 1786 was still to be formed and was a collection of principalities looking for some kind of cultural identity.
The boys were classically educated, serious minded and very intelligent. The first volume was published in 1812, 86 stories with Wilhelm doing the most editorial work. (That grew eventually to 211 tales which changed and evolved to be pious and a bit prudish!) The second volume of 70 stories in 1815. And so on, some stories being added, some subtracted until the 7th edition was 211 tales. All these editions were extensively illustrated.
These first editions were considered unsuitable for children, a kind of political correctness had already started. There could be no such thing as a wicked mother as mothers should be pure and lovely so the wicked stepmother was born. A puzzled Rapunzel wondering why her dress was getting tight after a liaison with a prince was out. Instead she sticks her hair out the window of the tower, but does not tell us what happened when the prince finally climbed up it.
Strangely, the degree of violence perpetrated by the just on the unjust gets more extreme as the editions go on. Then in 1825 the brothers produced a small version thought more suitable for kids.
Looking around on the internet it was interesting to see that WH Auden thought of the book as one of the founding works of Western culture whereas Hitler thought they showed children had sound racial instincts- Cinderella being racially pure and the stepmother being an 'alien' in his sense of the word I presume.
I am looking forward to the next nine CDs, they fair make traffic jams interesting.
Caro Ramsay 13th Dec 2013