Discussed in this essay:
The Annotated Brothers Grimm, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar. W. W. Norton. 552 pages. $35.
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, by Philip Pullman. Viking. 400 pages. $27.95.
The Fairies Return: Or, New Tales for Old, compiled by Peter Davies. Edited by Maria Tatar. Princeton University Press. 368 pages. $24.95.
Here’s a story: There once was a woman who wanted, more than anything else, to have a child. One winter day, while peeling an apple under the juniper tree in her garden, she cut her finger, dripping blood on the snow. Nine months later, she gave birth to a boy with skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood. But she died when the child was born, and in time her husband took a new wife, who bore him a daughter.
The boy’s stepmother hated him, and made his life miserable. One day she offered him an apple from a chest; when the boy leaned inside to take it, she slammed the lid down and the child’s head was struck off. She placed his head back on his neck and sat him in a chair. When the evil woman’s daughter came home, she told the girl to ask her brother for an apple. “And if he doesn’t give you an answer, slap his face.” Of course the boy didn’t answer, and when his sister slapped him, his head flew off.
“Don’t worry, I know how to cover up your crime,” the woman told her daughter, and she chopped up the little boy and cooked the pieces in a stew. That evening, she served the stew to her unwitting husband, who liked it so much he ate the whole thing, tossing the bones under the table.
The sister, full of sorrow, gathered the bones of her brother and placed them at the roots of the juniper tree. A beautiful bird sprang from the branches and sang a ravishing song, with these words:
My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister buried my bones
Under the juniper tree.
What a fine bird am I!
So goes the first part of “The Juniper Tree,” one of the Märchen, or fairy tales, collected by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm and first published in Children’s and Household Tales in 1812. In the story’s second half, justice is served when the bird uses his song to destroy his stepmother and restore himself to human form.
Most readers know that the Grimms’ original fairy tales are more violent and gruesome than our contemporary versions. In the Grimms’ telling, the murderous queen provides the entertainment at Snow White’s wedding when she is forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes; Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet—a big toe and a slice of heel—to fit into the gold slipper. The original stories, as one National Geographic feature promises, “serve up life as generations of central Europeans knew it—capricious and often cruel.”
Today, popular culture has reimagined the Grimms as traveling con artists (in the 2005 film The Brothers Grimm) and as the founders of a dynasty of paranormal crime fighters (in the current NBC dramatic series Grimm). In life, the two were something almost as odd, if a lot less dashing: they were philologists. Their great work was producing a definitive German dictionary—although they’d gotten only to the letter F when Jacob died, four years after his younger brother, in 1863.
Philologists dig down to the roots of words, and the Grimms saw the stories they began gathering in Germany in the early 1800s as roots of a kind as well. They weren’t alone in that. J.R.R. Tolkien, another philologist entranced by fairy tales, maintained that to ask where stories come from is to “ask what is the origin of language and of the mind.” The contemporary novelist Philip Pullman, whose retelling of fifty of his favorite Grimm stories was published last month in honor of the bicentennial of the brothers’ first edition, once described their collection as “the fountain and origin.” The stark simplicity of the tales, their mix-and-match components, and their ability to retain their identity even after countless retellings, lend them a primal quality akin to that of myth. (There are traces of European pagan tree worship and of the Egyptian myth of Osiris’ murder and resurrection in “The Juniper Tree.”)
The foundations the Grimms believed themselves to be excavating in their work, however, were nationalist and Romantic. They viewed their collection as, in the words of fairy-tale scholar Maria Tatar, “a form of passive resistance, a quiet protest to the Napoleonic occupation, an effort to establish the basis of a German cultural identity.” The tales were part of what Germanness was made of. That identification became a liability after World War II, when the stories’ vivid cruelty (cannibalism, disembowelment, execution by immersion in venomous reptiles, etc.) and episodes of anti-Semitism were taken as evidence of a warped national psyche—if not an actual cause of the warping.
The irony is that the Grimms’ fairy tales weren’t all that German. The preface to the first edition of Children’s and Household Tales assured its readers they were about to read stories that, though gathered from a variety of sources, were “the oldest and best tales” presented in “as pure a form as possible.” The second volume of the edition, published in 1815 and avowing to be “purely German,” in particular celebrated the contributions of one storyteller, Dorothea Viehmann, whose powers of recall, the brothers attested, showed that “devotion to tradition is far stronger among people who always adhere to the same way of life than we (who tend to want change) can understand.” Viehmann, whom the Grimms described as a “peasant woman,” was in truth a tailor’s wife descended from French Huguenots. As Tatar writes in the opening pages of a new Annotated Brothers Grimm, Viehmann “more than likely was as familiar with French contes de fées as with German Märchen.” The contes—which include “Bluebeard” and “Puss-in-Boots,” tales banished from later Grimm editions for excessive Frenchness—were stories of a type popularized in print a century earlier by Charles Perrault and a circle of well-born Parisian writers. They were sophisticated literary works intended for an audience of adults; the very idea of a separate body of literature created specifically for children didn’t emerge in Western Europe until the 1800s.
The Grimms’ collection was a very different enterprise. It heralded a brand-new discipline—folklore studies—and was above all an act of nostalgia, part of a wider nineteenth-century desire to recover cultural traditions that were slipping away. There is nothing more modern than idealizing the premodern past, even when you have to dream up a certain amount of it. Most of the Grimms’ sources were not peasants but the brothers’ literate, middle-class peers. “The Juniper Tree,” along with another iconic tale, “The Fisherman and His Wife,” was furnished to them in written form by the painter Philipp Otto Runge, who adopted a Low German dialect for the task.
The problem with returning to a supposedly authentic oral tradition is that oral culture is always changing. Even within a single folk community at a single point in history, one teller might emphasize the scary parts of a story, another the jokes. She might incorporate the objects around her (which is one reason spindles and spinning wheels figure so prominently in fairy tales; storytelling helped pass the time among people performing routine domestic tasks). “The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration,” Pullman writes in the introduction to his retellings. Assured of that, he nips and tucks and adds a bit of collagen at will, playing his part in the collaboration.
Over the centuries, the most popular fairy tales have mutated to suit the shifting preferences and values of their audiences; as a result, they have become increasingly preoccupied with the ideal of true love. Take the widespread belief that the title character in “The Frog Prince” regains his human shape when the princess deigns to kiss him. The Grimms’ version of this story features no such humility or compassion on the part of the petulant girl. The tale begins with her promising to accept the frog as a companion, and to let him sit beside her at meals, eat from her plate, and even share her bed, all in exchange for the return of her favorite toy, a golden ball, which has fallen into a deep pool. She tries to renege on the deal, but her father decrees that she must keep her word. The frog’s insistence on sleeping with her finally provokes the princess to fling him violently against the wall. His true form, that of a handsome prince, is revealed, and all is forgiven.
The transformative kiss is missing too from the Grimms’ version of “Snow White.” The heroine wakes from her enchanted sleep when the servants transporting her glass coffin to the prince’s castle drop it en route, and the piece of poisoned apple stuck in her throat is jolted loose. She’s saved by a minor workplace accident. Briar Rose, the Grimms’ Sleeping Beauty, does get her reanimating kiss, although in Perrault’s seventeenth-century telling of the story the prince merely shows up at her bedside just as the sleeping curse expires. His claim to her hand is strictly a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
The Grimms themselves made changes over the seven editions of Children’s and Household Tales. At first the brothers saw their work as directed toward other scholars, but like the oral storytellers they admired, they revamped their act as their audience grew clearer. The collection, which became the best-selling German-language book after the Bible, was appreciated most by children and the parents who read it to them. That meant that the stories’ sexual content needed to be toned down and the moral lessons spruced up, modeling for young readers the chaste, diligent habits of the nineteenth-century German bourgeoisie.
In the earliest Grimm version of “Rapunzel,” for example, the witch figures out that her captive has been receiving visits from an amorous prince when the girl naïvely remarks that her clothes have become mysteriously tight around the middle. In the manuscript version of “The Frog Prince,” the impetuous heroine lies down in bed with her ex-amphibian suitor the moment he becomes human; the Grimms made sure that in later editions the pair stepped out to get married first. On occasion, the brothers added retributive violence to the end of a tale, ensuring that Cinderella’s stepsisters get blinded by doves and that Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in half in a fit of pique. While the punishments meted out to the stories’ villains can be chillingly detailed and sadistic, a lot of the carnage in the Grimms’ tales has the surreal, reversible quality of events in dreams. Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are extracted intact from the wolf’s belly, and the heroine of “Fitcher’s Bird,” who discovers her sisters’ dismembered bodies in a locked chamber of her bridegroom’s house, is able to put them back together again.
Some stories just couldn’t be sanitized, however, and they’re often the ones most esteemed by adult readers. Tolkien cherished “The Juniper Tree,” and Pullman, usually an energetic critic of Tolkien, finds a rare point of agreement with him on this occasion, writing that “for beauty, for horror, for perfection of form, this story has no equal.” The premise of “The Juniper Tree” may seem extreme, but variants of it are so numerous throughout Europe that it has its own category in the Aarne–Thompson tale-type index. In that classification system of recurring folktale patterns and motifs, developed by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in the early twentieth century, “The Juniper Tree” is type 720 (“My Mother Slew Me, My Father Ate Me”).
Perhaps even more problematic for the would-be shepherds of young minds is “Thousandfurs” (type 501B), in which a princess must flee her home in disguise to escape a forceful marriage proposal from her own father. Though the wicked stepmother has over time emerged as the marquee fairy-tale villain, stories about girls persecuted by what one Victorian scholar delicately characterized as “unnatural fathers” were once common. As Tatar observed in her 1987 history, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, if you added up all the variants of the banished, degraded heroine recorded in the nineteenth century, “Cinderella and her folkloristic sisters [were] almost as likely to flee the household because of their father’s perverse erotic attachment to them”—or because of the imposition of a Lear-like love test—as they were to be banished or abused by a stepmother. The incest trope is seen early in the legend of the seventh-century Irish saint Dymphna, whose father, like Thousandfurs’, resolved to marry her because she alone possessed a beauty comparable to that of his dead wife, her mother. (Dymphna’s father hunted his daughter down and, when she refused to return to Ireland with him, cut off her head with his sword. Martyrs’ stories, another form of popular narrative, are the reverse image of fairy tales: they always end badly for the protagonist.)
Parental cruelty, according to Tatar, is the single most consistent element in the fairy-tale realm, far more so than romantic love. The fairy tale’s vision of family life as fraught with forbidden desires and murderous rage naturally appealed to the acolytes of psychoanalysis, who saw in the resolution of these terrible conflicts the building blocks of the adult self. In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that the figure of the wicked stepmother allows a child reader (or listener) to “split the image of their parent into its benevolent and threatening aspects.” Conceiving of the stern or prohibitive mother as an evil impostor who has temporarily displaced the true, loving mother allows the child to hate the “false” mother and rejoice in her destruction without guilt.
Bettelheim’s claim that the wicked stepmother represented the dark side of the biological mother seemed daringly insightful when first proposed. But many of the most demonic stepmothers—the wife in “Hansel and Gretel,” who persuades her husband to abandon their children in the woods; the evil queen in “Snow White”—were biological mothers in early editions of Children’s and Household Tales. Even the bird in “The Juniper Tree” describes his murdering parent only as “my mother.” Wilhelm Grimm, apparently disturbed by so many depictions of acute maternal malevolence, turned several of the tales’ filicidal mothers into stepmothers.
Freudian, Jungian, and other psychoanalytic examinations of fairy tales can quickly blunder into absurdity and tautology because the stories are at once cryptic and perfectly frank. The wicked stepmother doesn’t just stand for the real mother’s dark id; she is the mother. The Oedipal (or, more properly, Electra) subtext of “Thousandfurs” isn’t even a subtext; it’s explicit. On the hunt for psychosexual symbolism, Karl Abraham, a protégé of Freud’s, discovered symbols for oral, anal, and genital sexuality in “The Magic Table, the Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack.” Is it really necessary to decode the hidden meaning in such prizes? The three items enumerated in the title provide a limitless supply of good food, a stream of gold pieces, and a weapon that will beat the daylights out of anyone who tries to take the first two away from you—exactly what any sensible peasant would desire.
Yet these tales, so minimal in description with their two-dimensional, often nameless characters and formulaic plots, seem infused with a significance that extends far beyond their plain surfaces. The deep forest where so much of the action takes place both stands for the human psyche and eludes such reduction. Why does everything come in threes—three brothers, three magical objects, three tasks to be performed—and why does that feel so right? The helpful small animals (birds, mice, ants, and fish) and the menacing predators; the donor figures who appear with exactly the advice the protagonist needs; the false brides and homicidal bridegrooms; the kingdoms to be won by whoever can perform some peculiar feat, like making the princess laugh or spending three nights in a haunted castle—the notion that these motifs are metaphors for elements of the self or that they enact the complex dramas simmering within the nuclear family makes intuitive sense. The psychoanalytic critics, too, are digging for roots in the Grimms’ stories, and often as not they find them.
The fairy tale’s most ambivalent relationship, however, isn’t with worried parents or cockeyed Freudians, but with literature. Tatar calls fairy tales the “childhood of fiction,” and like most childhoods, they are both endlessly fascinating and keenly embarrassing to the adults who survived them. In part, this is because the tales lack most of the attributes thought of as literary. Pullman writes that “the tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely” from the fairy tale. So, too, is the distinctive, individualized language of the poet.
What writer wants to be told that his groundbreaking novel or poem belongs to type 1640 (“The Brave Little Tailor”)? The contemporary author turns to fairy tales only when exasperated with the Promethean individualism expected of great artists. In The Changing Light at Sandover, James Merrill writes of abandoning “our age’s fancy narrative concoctions” in favor of the stuff of legends and fairy tales, a “tone licked clean/ Over the centuries by mild old tongues . . . serene, anonymous.” Robert Coover treated the elements of fairy tales as modular units to be mixed and matched in his metafictional collection Pricksongs and Descants, one of many playful assaults he made on the modernist imperative to create something radically new.
The notion that fairy tales could do with a bit of updating seems to lie behind the anthology The Fairies Return: Or, New Tales for Old, compiled by Peter Davies (one of the five brothers for whom J. M. Barrie invented Peter Pan) in 1934. The book was reissued this year by Princeton University Press, with a new introduction by the indefatigable Tatar. It is something of a curiosity, presenting the attitudes of vernacular modernism frozen in amber. The stories can be very droll; in Lord Dunsany’s “Little Snow-White,” the villainess’s oracular mirror has become a gramophone (“Doesn’t seem to take to her new record,” one of the maids observes to another after the machine tells Lady Clink that her stepdaughter, Blanche, has become the fairer of the two), and the concluding wedding is praised as “one of the smartest of the whole of that London season.” More often, however, these retellings are leaden, full of clotted prose and smug allegories in which, say, giants named Demos and Kudos terrorize the land.
Twenty-first-century writers have approached fairy tales with more reverence. In 2005, the novelist Kate Bernheimer founded a literary journal dedicated to the subject, Fairy Tale Review. The most recent of three excellent anthologies of fairy-tale-inspired writings Bernheimer has edited, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, contains stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, and Neil Gaiman, among others. Lydia Millet’s variation on the Grimms’ “Snow White, Rose Red” is exemplary. In the original tale, two sisters offer hospitality to a bear who later delivers them from a nasty dwarf. Millet turns this into the first-person narrative of a shaggy homeless man who comes to the aid of a pair of kindly sisters living in a lake house in upstate New York.
How much can a tale be changed and still remain itself? The Grimms’ variant of “Cinderella”—“Aschenputtel” in German—has no fairy godmother, a figure who first appeared in the Perrault version. Instead, she receives her gown from a white bird that appears in the tree growing over her mother’s grave. But while the donor figure varies quite a bit from tale to tale, the image of the lost footwear is remarkably constant. A Chinese story dating from the ninth century a.d. has Yeh-hsien, who is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, receive beautiful clothes from a magic fish and leave one of her slippers behind at the New Year festival.
What makes Yeh-hsien’s adventures a Cinderella story, one that many children would recognize? Is it the cruel false mother and siblings? The beautiful, long-suffering heroine? Her magical makeover? The prince who saves and marries her? Or is it that minor but persistent motif of the shoe? Whatever makes “Cinderella” “Cinderella,” it’s not the style of the telling or the distinctive voice of the teller. Fairy tales argue for an artistic model of continuity instead of revolution, of the collective rather than the individual; all influence, and no anxiety about it. If the oral tradition offers each of its practitioners a chance to exhibit her particular skills, even the best cannot ignore that the story itself is not of her making, that it existed before her birth and will go on after her death. As the “bear” in Millet’s story relates at the end, “I felt we were all where we were meant to be, all posed in a tableau whose composition had been perfectly chosen a very long time ago.”
The fairy tale is always whispering, contra the hubris of the author, that this has been done many times before, and a very long time ago. If your audience hangs on your every word, remember that audiences have done the same for countless, nameless, long-dead old ladies at their spinning wheels. Your task, like theirs, is to sweeten the work of your companions, to pass the time, and to tame the darkness by inviting it in to a seat by the fire.