Book Review: Grimm’s Fairytales. Taschen.
Fairy stories are part of our everyday lives. We laugh about kissing the frogs to find the prince. We’ve all had our share of ugly sisters and big bad wolves. Our bright ideas are like the goose that lays the golden egg. Anybody with the right kind of cat knows that it wears boots.
Animal helpers figure large in fairy tales, as do reversals of fortune; the King becomes a beggar and Cinderella becomes Queen. Puddings multiply, broomsticks fly, the witch gets shoved in the oven, and the right people live happily ever after.
Many of the stories happen in a forest – Sleeping Beauty’s castle is deep in the wood. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods by their wicked stepmother. Rapunzel’s tower is discovered by the prince in a remote part of the forest.
The forest was a permanent pre-industrial reality, but there remains a part of our psyche that is still wooded. We know what it means to be lost in the woods or that life is a journey through a dense forest.
Fairy tales have an uncanny way of hiding at the heart of our psychic dilemmas. Jung’s essay, The Phemomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales explores this connection in detail. A related, though quite different approach, can be found in Freudian Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment; the meaning and importance of fairy tales (1976)
Feminist re-workings and re-readings of traditional tales – whether Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, or Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, demonstrate the enduring elasticity of these stories. Even Disney has not been able to destroy the strangeness of the motifs – Rapunzel’s tower, Cinderella’s slippers, the glass coffin for Snow White,
Disney’s first fairytale movie was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), though the oddness of keeping house for seven miniature men was not explored.
In 2005 UNESCO named the collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales for inclusion in their Memory of the World register – an initiative to safeguard documents vital to world history.
It is not clear which versions they are ‘safeguarding; the tales themselves have had all kinds of variations and incarnations.
Taschen’s beautiful new edition takes 27 of the collected 210 tales, illustrating them with very different artists whose work ranges across two centuries. British illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and George Cruickshank sit beside modern Czech, German, and American drawings. Any child’s imagination will be delighted and provoked by the inspired pairings of story and illustrations.
The stories themselves are re-translated here from the final 1857 version of the tales, obsessively collected, edited, and re-edited by the brothers Grimm over 40 years.
These tales did not begin as tales for children, but as an urgent scholarly archive of folk tales that were an oral tradition, and in danger of being lost. Many of the earlier versions are brutally sexually – the Prince rapes Sleeping Beauty. The graphic mutilations of the Ugly Sisters are straight out of Snuff porn. The Wicked Queen is stuffed in a barrel studded with nails and dragged through the town until she bleeds to death. That’s why I wonder exactly what UNESCO has preserved?
In any case, an oral tradition is subject to change. The themes and patterns are clear but the details alter over time. Readers will notice though, how there is always a significant object at the centre of the pattern; the glass slipper, the tower, the gingerbread house, the golden road, the flowing fountain. These objects work like icons; anchoring the story and releasing the imagination.
The new translations by Matthew P Price might be a little too Americanised for European taste. Dwarves figure things out. The verb ‘gotten’ (I suppose we have to call it a verb) intrudes everywhere. There are too many clichés of phrasing, ‘drag your feet’. ‘Get under my skin,’ People run as fast as their feet can carry them and are dealt cruel blows. Inevitably, with only person translating, there is a sameness of expression. It is a pity that Taschen didn’t take the same trouble over the translations as they have with the illustrations. Matthew Price is sincere and has made an effort not to stray off into flights of fancy, but his language is not exciting, and it doesn’t point up the patterns present when you hear a good storyteller tell these stories out-loud.
A well-known writer for each story would have made this a remarkable collection. It may be that the title of the Introduction: More than Words Can Say, tells us what we need to know. As orally collected tales, these stories are exactly what words can say.
This is a book worth buying though – and grown-ups reading to their children can take the liberty of reverting to an oral tradition and re-invent the language as they choose.
Children reading for themselves will discover the patterns; children have a curious way of doing that. The rhymes are here too – at heightened moments the prose always moves into poetry – Mirror Mirror on the Wall.
Editor Noel Daniel has bravely kept the nastiness that Disney versions cut out. These happenings are not the scary adult kinds of nastiness, but there is wounding and violence.
Children will be comforted by this; kids know there are awful things in the world. Grimm’s stories confront darkness but light it up by those acts of resourcefulness and kindness and courage that change everything.
Plus a little bit of necessary magic.