Two Magical Centuries: How the Grimms Cast a Spell on the World

December 22nd, 2012

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Kristen Allen, Dec 20, 2012 (Photo-Gallery).

Exactly 200 years ago, the Grimm brothers published the first edition of their fairy tales. Many of the originals were brutal and there was no lack of blood, gore and carnality. But thanks to a bit of clean-up work, they have gone on to enrapture people around the world. What is the secret to their success? … //

  • … So what is the secret of Grimms’ Fairy Tales’ nearly universal appeal? The Grimms were dedicated linguists and philologists who saw fairy tales as a living record of cultural history. Their unique approach somehow managed to tap into our collective consciousness.
  • “The ‘Kinder- und Hausmärchen’ are like a concave mirror that captures a fairy tale tradition marked by several cultures, compiles it in a new form, bundles it together and reflects it in such a way that a new tradition emerges and, bound to the work itself, unfolds with worldwide impact,” reads the description of the work in the successful nomination for membership in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry in 2005.

Our Oldest Testament: … //

… Family Friendly Revisions:

  • But the appeal of the Grimms’ particular versions of such tales comes from their painstaking revision process, which took place over the course of 45 years through seven different editions, says Noel Daniel, editor of publisher Taschen’s new translation of the original tales, released last year along with stunning vintage illustrations she pulled from archives around the world. “Their great creative act was editing what they got,” says Daniel. The result “takes hold of our imaginations when we are young children and stays with us throughout our lives.”
  • Over its 30-year history, the art book publisher had never released a children’s book, but saw the Grimms’ work and its ageless appeal as an opportunity to change that. Daniel selected stories from the final 1857 edition, their most pared-down, child-friendly version. Her aim, she says, was to “go back to the source and cut through all the cleaning up and derivatives that have come since.”
  • The fact is that Grimms’ Fairy Tales, despite their original title, were not initially aimed at children. It was only in response to outside pressure, which came after translations of their early editions that were geared toward children had success abroad, that they began to weed out the more offensive elements of the stories and remove some stories altogether. “They decided to modify the really truly frightening, brutal, scatological, incestuous or bawdy tales,” Zipes says. For example, one tale entitled “How Children Played at Slaughtering,” in which kids try to emulate a butcher and one child ends up dead, did not make the cut for the final edition.

Relevant Problems: … //

A New Responsibility:

  • Still, amid the love fest accompanying the tales’ 200th anniversary, casting a critical glance at the texts is also important. Many of the stories are sexist, reflecting a patriarchal culture. Zipes cites the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood,” which originated in the medieval period, as a metaphor for rape in which women are blamed for the crime. “We have a responsibility to revise the Grimms’ tales according to a new utopian ideal,” he says. “Artistically, we have to rethink ways we can convey the problems of these stories such as incest, rape and child abuse and use the metaphors in a way that will resonate so people will confront these issues in a way that will do justice to women and people of different races.”
  • While some creative people have done this — Zipes cites feminist Angela Carter’s collection of tales “The Bloody Chamber,” and Ann Sexton’s revised Grimms’ tales called “Transformations” — the fairy tales typically produced today, especially out of Hollywood, the world’s great fairy tale factory, fail to make this leap.
  • Disney has made a fortune producing beloved animated versions the Grimms’ tales, such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and most recently “Tangled,” a film about Rapunzel. But these films, in particular, fail to take a modern approach. “All Disney films should be abolished,” Zipes says. “They are simplistic, highly sexist, somewhat racist and stupid.”

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