Child murder, domestic slavery, abusive families, cannibalism and intergenerational hatred — what could be better for the festive fireside than a new edition of Grimms’ fairy stories? There hasn’t been a straight translation in English of the original 1812 edition; most retellers in English relied on revised versions by Wilhelm Grimm. Now Jack Zipes has produced the complete first edition of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. It’s a good translation, faithful to the simple character of the originals.
It’s been well received by the fairytale industry, writers and academics who like to remind us that the original versions were rawer than Wilhelm’s family-friendlier edition of 1857. Mind you, a couple of years ago I was sent a version of ‘Red Riding Hood’ that ended with RRH and the wolf making friends. Poor Wilhelm’s pieties had nothing on ours.
Zipes’s view is that the original versions are ‘stunning narratives’ precisely because they are so blunt and unpretentious. Moreover, the Grimms had not yet ‘vaccinated or censored them with their sentimental Christianity and puritanical ideology’. We’re spared here, thank God, most of the squabbles of the fairytale fraternity about the extent to which the later tales are really a creation of Wilhelm, and the tedious rows about whether the sources of the tales were properly working-class.
And yes, there are some obvious changes between this, the first edition, and those with which we are familiar. The best known is that in a couple of stories — ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Snow White’ — it’s the real mother, not the stepmother, who tries to kill her children. That’s hardcore. Elsewhere, the witch finds out what Rapunzel has been up to when her clothes get tight after making merry with the prince. That was altered too.
But what strikes one most after reading the first version of the stories is the extent to which they were improved in the later editions. In simple artistic terms the revised versions are superior; there was a good reason why Wilhelm retold them. The originals are unequivocal, with all the vigour of narrators who cut right to the chase, but it doesn’t make them a better read.
Some are brutal. The one about ‘The Strange Feast’, in which the Liver Sausage invites the Blood Sausage to dinner, would make a horrible little Hitchcock movie. As for ‘The Jew in the Thorn Bush’ (he makes his money fleecing honest Christians and comes to a bad end), it’s unexpurgated all right, but not the way we like. Others are unsatisfying because they lack a moral conclusion. In ‘The Hand with a Knife’, a nice, put-upon girl has to give up a magic knife to her horrible brothers, and they use it to strike off the hand of her elf-admirer: ‘He was never seen after that.’ Eh?
As for the couple of tales of children who play at pig-slaughtering, which end up with kiddies getting killed or dying, they are probably best omitted from Christmas editions. Yet most of the Grimm tales are about underdogs making good; the last shall be first in their world. Stepmothers really don’t come out well, especially ones with children of their own. But in ‘The Children of Famine’, it’s the mother who tells her daughters: ‘I’ve got to kill you so I can have something to eat!’ That ends abruptly: ‘Their mother departed, and no one knows where she went.’
A real difficulty is that some stories lack what we’ve come to think of as the best bits. A version of ‘Bluebeard’, ‘The Castle of Murder’, doesn’t have the artistically satisfying element of the doomed bride asking her sister three times if she can see her brothers coming; instead she escapes in a hay cart. Paganism and piety coexist here. In ‘Death and the Goose Boy’, a poor boy follows Death ‘across the river’ where ‘the arch-shepherds, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ put a crown on his head.
It’s good that there are lots of tales, 156 of them, but when the Grimm brothers billed them as Kinder und Häusmarchen, children’s and household tales, it’s plain that families back then were made of stronger stuff than we are.