Once Upon a Time: The lure of the fairy tale and really violent stories designed to scare us to death
July 19, 2012
In Grimms’ Fairy Tales there is a story called “The Stubborn Child” that is only one paragraph long. Here it is, in a translation by the fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes:
Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.
This story, with its unvarnished prose, should be clear, but it isn’t. Was the child buried alive? The unconsenting arm looks more like a symbol. And what about the mother? Didn’t it trouble her to whip that arm? Then we are told that the youngster, after this beating, rested in peace. Really? When, before, he had seemed to beg for life? But the worst thing in the story is that, beyond disobedience, it gives us not a single piece of information about the child. No name, no age, no pretty or ugly. We don’t even know if it is a boy or a girl. (The Grimms used ein Kind, the neuter word for “child.” Zipes decided that the child was a boy.) And so the tale, without details to attach it to anything in particular, becomes universal. Whatever happened there, we all deserve it. A. S. Byatt has written that this is the real terror of the story: “It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.” That is true of very many of the Grimms’ tales, even those with happy endings.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born to a prosperous couple (the father was a lawyer), Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm in 1786. The family lived in a big house in the Hessian village of Hanau, near Kassel, and the boys received a sound primary education at home. But when they were eleven and ten everything changed. Their father died, and the Grimms no longer had any money. With difficulty, the brothers managed to attend a good lyceum and then, as their father would have wished, law school. But soon afterward they began a different project, which culminated in their famous book “Nursery and Household Tales” (“Die Kinder- und Hausmärchen”), first published in two volumes, in 1812 and 1815, and now generally known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The Grimms grew up in the febrile atmosphere of German Romanticism, which involved intense nationalism and, in support of that, a fascination with the supposedly deep, pre-rational culture of the German peasantry, the Volk. Young men fresh from reading Plutarch at university began sharing stories about what the troll said to the woodcutter, and publishing collections of these Märchen, as folk tales were called. That is the movement that the Grimms joined in their early twenties. They had political reasons, too—above all, Napoleon’s invasion of their beloved Hesse, and the installation of his brother Jérôme as the ruler of the Kingdom of Westphalia, a French vassal state. If ever there was a stimulus to German intellectuals’ belief in a German people that was culturally and racially one, and to the hope of a politically unified Germany, this was it.
Two things sustained the Grimms. First, their bond as brothers. For most of their lives, they worked in the same room, at facing desks. Biographers say that they had markedly different personalities—Jacob was difficult and introverted, Wilhelm easygoing—but this probably drew them closer. Wilhelm, when he was in his late thirties, made bold to get married, but the lady in question simply moved into the brothers’ house and, having known them for decades, made the domestic operations conform to their work schedule.
That was their other lodestar: their work. Eventually, their specialties diverged somewhat. Wilhelm remained faithful to folklore, and it was he who, after the second edition of “Household Tales” (1819), did all the editorial work on the later editions, the last of which was published in 1857. Jacob branched out into other areas of German history. Independently, Jacob wrote twenty-one books; Wilhelm, fourteen; the two men in collaboration, eight—a prodigious output. Though their most popular and enduring book was “Household Tales,” they were serious philologists, and, in the last decades of their lives, what they cared about most was their German Dictionary, a project on the scale of the Oxford English Dictionary. Wilhelm died at seventy-three. Jacob carried on for four years, and brought the dictionary up to “F.” Then he, too, died. Later scholars finished the book.
There are two varieties of fairy tales. One is the literary fairy tale, the kind written, most famously, by Charles Perrault, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Hans Christian Andersen. Such tales, which came into being at the end of the seventeenth century, are original literary works—short stories, really—except that they have fanciful subject matter: unhappy ducks, princesses who dance all night, and so on. To align the tale with the hearthside tradition, the author may also employ a certain naïveté of style. The other kind of fairy tale, the ancestor of the literary variety, is the oral tale, whose origins cannot be dated, since they precede recoverable history. Oral fairy tales are not so much stories as traditions. In the words of the English novelist Angela Carter, who wrote some thrilling Grimm-based stories, asking where a fairy tale came from is like asking who invented the meatball. Every narrator reinvents the tale. The historian Robert Darnton compares the oral tale tellers to the Yugoslavian bards studied in the twentieth century by Albert Lord and Milman Parry, in the effort to understand how the Homeric epics were composed. The premodern tale tellers might also be thought of as descendants of the scops of the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages or of the griots of West Africa, men whose job it was to carry stories. But scholars tend to associate fairy tales with women, at home, telling stories to one another to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks such as spinning (which often turns up in these narratives). Each woman would add or subtract a little of this and that, and so the story changed.
In the Grimms’ time, industrialization was starting to simplify or eliminate certain domestic chores. For that reason, among others, the oral tale was beginning to disappear. Intellectuals considered this a disaster. Hence the many fairy-tale collections of the period, including the Grimms’. They were rescue operations. The Grimms, in the introduction to their first edition, assert that almost all their material was “collected” from oral traditions of their region and is “purely German in its origins.” This suggests that the tales were supplied by humble people, and the brothers say that their primary source, Dorothea Viehmann, was a peasant woman from a village near Kassel. They claim that they did not change what Viehmann or the others said: “No details have been added or embellished.”
Much of this was not true. The people who supplied the first-edition tales were largely middle class: the brothers’ relatives, friends, and friends of friends. As for Viehmann, she was not a peasant but the wife of a tailor. She was also a Huguenot. In other words, her culture was basically French, and she was no doubt well acquainted with French literary fairy tales, Perrault’s and others’. So much for the material’s being “purely German in its origins.” But at least Viehmann was an oral source. Many items in the Grimms’ first edition came not from interviewees but from other fairy-tale collections.
Most important, the brothers, especially Wilhelm, revised the tales thoroughly, making them more detailed, more elegant, and more Christian, as one edition followed another. In the process, the stories sometimes doubled in length. The folklore scholar Maria Tatar supplies three sentences from the brothers’ original draft of “Briar Rose,” which we call “The Sleeping Beauty”:
[Briar Rose] pricked her finger with the spindle and immediately fell into a deep sleep. The king and his retinue had just returned and they too, along with the flies on the wall and everything else in the castle, fell asleep. All around the castle grew a hedge of thorns, concealing everything from sight.
And here, after seven successive revisions, is how that passage reads in the final edition of “Household Tales”:
[Briar Rose] took hold of the spindle and tried to spin. But no sooner had she touched the spindle than the magic spell took effect, and she pricked her finger with it. The very moment that she felt the prick she sank down into the bed that was right there and fell into a deep sleep. And that sleep spread throughout the entire palace. The king and the queen, who had just come home and entered the great hall, fell asleep, and the whole court with them. The horses fell asleep in the stables, the dogs in the courtyard, the pigeons on the roof, and the flies on the wall. Even the fire that had been flaming on the hearth stopped and went to sleep, and the roast stopped crackling, and the cook, who was about to pull the kitchen boy’s hair because he had done something wrong, let him go and fell asleep. And the wind died down and not a single little leaf stirred on the trees by the castle.
All around the castle a briar hedge began to grow. Each year it grew higher, and finally it surrounded the entire castle and grew so thickly beyond it that not a trace of the castle was to be seen, not even the flag on the roof….