Reviews — From the December 2012 issue

A Tone Licked Clean

Fairy tales and the roots of literature

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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.

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is a staff writer at <em>Salon.</em> She is the author of <em>The Magician����¯�¿�½������¢������¯������¿������½������¯������¿������½s Book: A Skeptic����¯�¿�½������¢������¯������¿������½������¯������¿������½s Adventure in Narnia.</em>

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