Reading Grimm’s Tales

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Today, the brothers Grimm are honoured with a Google Doodle, as seen in this YouTube clip:

My earliest memory of a Grimm’s tale is of my father telling me the story of Little Red Riding Hood. I now know that he told me the watered-down version, but even then I considered it downright horrid. I used to grab his face and cover his mouth with my hands, begging him not to tell “the part about the wolf”. Invariably he did get to the part about the wolf. I loved it, but it scared me such that I went an entire week having recurring wolf nightmares. Dad ended up telling me more kid-friendly stories for a while.

Earlier this year, I participated in an online course through Coursera and the University of Michigan – Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World by Prof Eric Rabkin.

Our very first reading assignment was Household Tales by the Brother’s Grimm, the Lucy Crane translation with illustrations by Walter Crane. By the way, you can download this ebook for free (legally!) here.

I learned very quickly that Grimm’s tales are decidedly… well…. Grim! You can’t really say that each story offers a moral, because it doesn’t. Sometimes, the bad guy (or the cunning guy, depending on how you look at it), wins. More often than not there isn’t a happy ending. Beastiality and cannibalism and promiscuity feature regularly. Parents in the stories are sometimes downright evil.

Upon doing some research, one learns that these tales were not written first and foremost for children or even for entertainment – the Grimm brothers were historians, and they went about preserving their national heritage in a time when industrialisation was sweeping through Europe and traditions were quickly disappearing.

Looked upon as a historical document, as UNESCO did when they placed these tales on their “Memory of the World” list, the murky waters clear. The Gallant Tailor and The Table, The Ass and the Stick refer to the major trades of the day (milling, joinery, turnery and tailoring), while tales of courtship reflect not only societal divides, but the ownership of a damsel’s future by her father, such as the haughty princess given to a beggar in King Thrushbeard. Feudalism and its associated discontent appear regularly in Grimm’s tales, notably in Six Soldiers of Fortune.

But perhaps most prevalent imagery throughout these tales is the troughs and peaks of success. The Raven regains her royalty, as do The Twelve Brothers; children abandoned by parents find their way home. Historically one might consider this a fantastical representation of Germany coming to her right as a country. At the time of the Brothers’ collections, revolutionary events in Europe were instrumental in the recognition of German independence, her arts and humanities. And though Germany was flourishing, the danger  for losing their heritage persisted, so much so that in their preface the brothers stated that “nothing more remained from all that had blossomed in earlier times.”

Of course, not all tales can be said to be historical either. The Straw, The Coal and The Bean is a delightful anecdote describing the black rim around beans, perhaps a story mothers told their children at suppertime; a tale that may well have been forgotten had it not been preserved.

Will I tell my kids the watered-down version of these tales? Most probably. There is enough scariness in this world of ours. They can read the true gritty version one day, but I’d like that decision to be up to them, when they are old enough to read these dark and twisted tales. But do I believe in their rightful place in the history of literature? Most definitely!

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