The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm's Fairy Tales

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm's Fairy Tales

Long ago, when wishes often came true, there lived a King whose daughters were all handsome, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun himself, who has seen everything, was bemused every time he shone over her because of her beauty.  Near the royal castle there was a great dark wood, and in the wood under an old linden tree was a well' and when the day was hot, the King's daughter used to go forth into the wood and sit by the brink of the cool well, and if the time seemed long, she would take out a golden ball, and throw it up and catch it again, and this was her favorite pastime.

Once upon a time, in a different clime and place, people did not sit around their television sets or computers and watch Jersey Shore or discuss in mocking tones some faux pas committed and then posted on YouTube for all to behold.  Rather, people from village to village would tell and retell stories that mixes fantasies in with (pardon the pun) grim realities.  In England, several folklore traditions and rhyming poems were gathered together under the Mother Goose umbrella by the late 17th century.  In late 17th century France, Charles Perrault borrowed heavily from existing regional folk tales and created memorable tales that passed into several languages.

By the time the German nationalist and linguist brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm began gathering disparate German-language folk tales in the early 19th century, the medium for expressing stories had begun to change.  It was little accident that it was in the 17th century, when literacy was beginning to become more widespread in England and France that popular transcriptions of hoary tales began to emerge.  Germany, fragmented as it was until the mid-19th century, was slower to see a rise in interest in national folktales.  When the Grimm brothers began the research that culminated in Grimm's Fairy Tales, they had as their target audience adult German readers, particularly the educated burgher class, who would (so they hoped) treasure these tales as written survivors of Germany's rich oral historic past.  Instead, what happened was within a generation, these tales had passed into the province of children, where stories such as "The Frog Prince" (quoted above), "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Tom Thumb," among others became viewed as being mere childish fantasies, doomed to fade just as juvenile attitudes wilt in the strong heat of maturity.

Ingrained as those attitudes are even today, it is difficult to look at these stories through the prism which the Grimm Brothers viewed these tales.  Yet if the reader is willing to not just suspend disbelief but to embrace what is happening behind and around the texts, to explore what the brothers left unstated (or presumed to be understood by their original audience), then that reader may discover a depth to these stories that at first glance might not be readily apparent.

One place to start would be the very short tale of "Knoist and His Three Sons."  While the Easton Press edition might not be the most elegant, this translation by Louis and Bryna Untermeyer does give the gist of the tale fair enough for purposes of analysis:

Between Werrel and Soist there lived a man whose name was Knoist, and he had three sons.  One was blind, the other lame, and the third stark-naked.  Once on a time they went into a field, and there they saw a hare.  The blind one shot it, the lame one caught it, the naked one put it in his pocket.  Then they came to a mighty big lake, on which there were three boats; one sailed, one sank, the third had no bottom to it.  They all three got into the one with no bottom to it.  Then they came to a mighty big forest in which there was a mighty big tree; in the tree was a mighty big chapel; in the chapel was a sexton made of beech-wood and a box-wood parson, who dealt out holy-water with cudgels.

"How truly happy is that one
Who can from holy water run!"

In this tale, we see all sorts of contradictions, from the sailing within a boat with no bottom to the blind doing the active hunting of a rabbit to the final turn of phrase regarding the holy water-filled cudgels.  If we stop and consider this short tale for a moment, there is nothing overtly fantastical about this, or at least not in the sense of its internal structure and thematic elements existing (nearly) independent of actual life.  Instead, it is the rhyming couplet at the end which carries the rather forceful message of the tale, one that is much more serious than whimsical.  

This is not isolated to this one particular tale.  Consider the darker implications behind a tale such as "Little Red Riding Hood."  While several other cultural historians have argued that this tale serves as a metaphor for the (de)flowering of a maiden, I believe the key lies in element of the cakes and wine.  In the older, French-derived versions of the tale, the wolf kills the grandmother and serves Little Red Riding Hood her blood as wine and her flesh as cakes, a sacrilegious reference to the Eucharistic Host.  It is telling that by the time that the Grimm brothers have recorded this story, the Eucharistic element has been diminished into nothing; the Wolf has eaten whole both grandmother and granddaughter before each is rescued by the huntsman.  Yet the imagery still persists nearly two centuries after the Grimm Brothers' version:  vulnerable girls are still stalked each and every day and the guileless may be powerless against the guileful.  
This "deep reading" approach does little, if anything, to diminish the joy of reading paupers becoming princes, of the famished receiving unexpected bounty, or the haughty experiencing a sudden downfall.  Who doesn't rejoice when in a tale the good triumph over the wicked, even if it might not occur as often as desired in real life?  An attentive reader, reading these tales not just as childish musings but rather as stories that reflect the desires and fears of centuries of folk tale-relating villagers, might find herself becoming entranced with these wondrous stories all over again.  Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Lsrry said...

Interesting discussion of this review is taking place here. Some interesting points have been raised about structural problems with this review. While I don't agree with them all, I do think it's worth mentioning here.

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