Friday, November 9, 2012

The Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm

So often I have heard people harken back to earlier times, wishing they could be transported to them or that the people of the present would adopt the values of the by-gone era.  Invariably, I find, when someone talks with such a glow over a certain period, they are thinking of a time before they were born, a time which they never experienced firsthand.

As an aside, if you haven't seen it, this was handled brilliantly in what I fear may be Woody Allen's final masterpiece Midnight in Paris.

I've known people (at times been one myself) who idealize periods of history.  Being the sort of man who knows bawdy songs by heart that were written long before my own nation even existed, I also invariably know the most depraved and horrible acts that humans accomplished in any period that someone may be idealizing.  Isn't that what learning history is really about?

The collected tales of the Brothers Grimm are well known, even by people who haven't read them, as earlier, much darker versions of many of the fairy tales that have entered our collective knowledge.  It is true, but the horror seems to serve the function of fear motivations (don't go into the woods alone, don't take gifts from strangers, and so forth) for the amelioration of children, rather than exploiting horror for entertainment value.  Personally I did not find all of the incest and evisceration nearly so shocking as the bizarre and fungible morality throughout.  For example, the version of what we know as the frog prince has the princess behaving like an absolute monster to the frog.  Eventually she throws it against the wall which is what catalyzes the transformation into the prince (seems an odd way to break a curse).  I thought, "Okay, here it comes with the comeuppance!  Sock it to her, Jacob and Wilhelm!" Nothing doing.  The prince whisks her off with all speed to marry her.  The book was filled with these sort of moments.

I suppose I could (and probably should) get away with reading this whole series without mentioning the Disney adaptations.  I am finding that the emerging picture as I see it is of an increasingly desperate and insecure company.  To wit, Snow White is strikingly similar to the original.  They've added the earlier appearance of the prince in order to work a duet into the beginning.  They've subtracted the evil Queen eating the false heart of Snow White and the evil Queen's gruesome manner of death (as well as the repetition of attempts leading up to the poisoned apple).  Likewise with "Briar Rose", retitled Sleeping Beauty, simply adds a boss fight at the end of the story for catharsis.  But comparing Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, each bear as much resemblance to the original as a hyperion to a satyr.

I do agree that this is a collection that every household should own.  I would read them to a child (and probably will when Ezekiel comes of age).  I think that it is a volume well worth preserving in our collective knowledge and, like so much else out there, the original vastly surpasses the filtered versions in quality.

As a quick aside, I am well into the works of Andersen and have noticed that this remains one of the slimmer volumes in the series.  I am perplexed.  The volume contains the (presumably) original works of Aesop, the compilation of unoriginal works by the Brothers Grimm, the mixed bag of Andersen's.  Why wouldn't he round out the volume with the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde?  Actually, I know the answer to that question and it is a tragedy and a travesty.  

More soon.


  1. Have you seen the film entitled Willa, an American Snow White? I found that an interesting adaptation with shades of Sunset Boulevard thrown in.

    One of the things that interests me about fairy tales, folk tales, is that they frequently describe the clash between civilized people and other sorts of humans - take the ogres, for instance. Monsters of that sort are among us still, breaking surface periodically in news headlines.

    I find also interesting that these tales, in some form or another, are found in disparate (if disparate is the word I want) cultures, Cinderella for instance. The Cinderella story is set up by what happens to the girl's father - he is killed in a disaster and all of his ships and warehouses full of goods destroyed. The sort of thing that could be explained by something like the Black Sea Flood hypothesis. Additionally, something of that sort would prompt migration of civilized people into the hinterlands inhabited by Neanderthal or similar groups of "other" humans whose cultural practices and appearance would have made them seem like monsters. Chrichton's (have I spelled that correctly?) entertaining 13th Warrior derives its story line from the idea of a pocket of Neanderthals living in isolation near a more developed group of homo-sapiens.

    Betelheim's The Uses of Enchantment is worth reading in tandem with Grimm, but Betelheim seems to posit a deliberate Freudian dialectic in the stories from what I think may be the ancient homeland.