Reviews — From the December 2012 issue

A Tone Licked Clean

Fairy tales and the roots of literature

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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.)

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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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