"Once Upon a Time"
The lure of the fairy tale.
July 23rd, 2012
The New Yorker
In Grimms’ Fairy Tales there is a story called “The Stubborn Child” that is only one paragraph long. Here it is, in a translation by the fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes:
Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.
This story, with its unvarnished prose, should be clear, but it isn’t. Was the child buried alive? The unconsenting arm looks more like a symbol. And what about the mother? Didn’t it trouble her to whip that arm? Then we are told that the youngster, after this beating, rested in peace. Really? When, before, he had seemed to beg for life? But the worst thing in the story is that, beyond disobedience, it gives us not a single piece of information about the child. No name, no age, no pretty or ugly. We don’t even know if it is a boy or a girl. (The Grimms used ein Kind, the neuter word for “child.” Zipes decided that the child was a boy.) And so the tale, without details to attach it to anything in particular, becomes universal. Whatever happened there, we all deserve it. A. S. Byatt has written that this is the real terror of the story: “It doesn’t feel like a warning to naughty infants. It feels like a glimpse of the dreadful side of the nature of things.” That is true of very many of the Grimms’ tales, even those with happy endings.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born to a prosperous couple (the father was a lawyer), Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm in 1786. The family lived in a big house in the Hessian village of Hanau, near Kassel, and the boys received a sound primary education at home. But when they were eleven and ten everything changed. Their father died, and the Grimms no longer had any money. With difficulty, the brothers managed to attend a good lyceum and then, as their father would have wished, law school. But soon afterward they began a different project, which culminated in their famous book “Nursery and Household Tales” (“Die Kinder- und Hausmärchen”), first published in two volumes, in 1812 and 1815, and now generally known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The Grimms grew up in the febrile atmosphere of German Romanticism, which involved intense nationalism and, in support of that, a fascination with the supposedly deep, pre-rational culture of the German peasantry, the Volk. Young men fresh from reading Plutarch at university began sharing stories about what the troll said to the woodcutter, and publishing collections of these Märchen, as folk tales were called. That is the movement that the Grimms joined in their early twenties. They had political reasons, too—above all, Napoleon’s invasion of their beloved Hesse, and the installation of his brother Jérôme as the ruler of the Kingdom of Westphalia, a French vassal state. If ever there was a stimulus to German intellectuals’ belief in a German people that was culturally and racially one, and to the hope of a politically unified Germany, this was it.
Two things sustained the Grimms. First, their bond as brothers. For most of their lives, they worked in the same room, at facing desks. Biographers say that they had markedly different personalities—Jacob was difficult and introverted, Wilhelm easygoing—but this probably drew them closer. Wilhelm, when he was in his late thirties, made bold to get married, but the lady in question simply moved into the brothers’ house and, having known them for decades, made the domestic operations conform to their work schedule.
That was their other lodestar: their work. Eventually, their specialties diverged somewhat. Wilhelm remained faithful to folklore, and it was he who, after the second edition of “Household Tales” (1819), did all the editorial work on the later editions, the last of which was published in 1857. Jacob branched out into other areas of German history. Independently, Jacob wrote twenty-one books; Wilhelm, fourteen; the two men in collaboration, eight—a prodigious output. Though their most popular and enduring book was “Household Tales,” they were serious philologists, and, in the last decades of their lives, what they cared about most was their German Dictionary, a project on the scale of the Oxford English Dictionary. Wilhelm died at seventy-three. Jacob carried on for four years, and brought the dictionary up to “F.” Then he, too, died. Later scholars finished the book.
There are two varieties of fairy tales. One is the literary fairy tale, the kind written, most famously, by Charles Perrault, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Hans Christian Andersen. Such tales, which came into being at the end of the seventeenth century, are original literary works—short stories, really—except that they have fanciful subject matter: unhappy ducks, princesses who dance all night, and so on. To align the tale with the hearthside tradition, the author may also employ a certain naïveté of style. The other kind of fairy tale, the ancestor of the literary variety, is the oral tale, whose origins cannot be dated, since they precede recoverable history. Oral fairy tales are not so much stories as traditions. In the words of the English novelist Angela Carter, who wrote some thrilling Grimm-based stories, asking where a fairy tale came from is like asking who invented the meatball. Every narrator reinvents the tale. The historian Robert Darnton compares the oral tale tellers to the Yugoslavian bards studied in the twentieth century by Albert Lord and Milman Parry, in the effort to understand how the Homeric epics were composed. The premodern tale tellers might also be thought of as descendants of the scops of the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages or of the griots of West Africa, men whose job it was to carry stories. But scholars tend to associate fairy tales with women, at home, telling stories to one another to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks such as spinning (which often turns up in these narratives). Each woman would add or subtract a little of this and that, and so the story changed.
In the Grimms’ time, industrialization was starting to simplify or eliminate certain domestic chores. For that reason, among others, the oral tale was beginning to disappear. Intellectuals considered this a disaster. Hence the many fairy-tale collections of the period, including the Grimms’. They were rescue operations. The Grimms, in the introduction to their first edition, assert that almost all their material was “collected” from oral traditions of their region and is “purely German in its origins.” This suggests that the tales were supplied by humble people, and the brothers say that their primary source, Dorothea Viehmann, was a peasant woman from a village near Kassel. They claim that they did not change what Viehmann or the others said: “No details have been added or embellished.”
Much of this was not true. The people who supplied the first-edition tales were largely middle class: the brothers’ relatives, friends, and friends of friends. As for Viehmann, she was not a peasant but the wife of a tailor. She was also a Huguenot. In other words, her culture was basically French, and she was no doubt well acquainted with French literary fairy tales, Perrault’s and others’. So much for the material’s being “purely German in its origins.” But at least Viehmann was an oral source. Many items in the Grimms’ first edition came not from interviewees but from other fairy-tale collections.
Most important, the brothers, especially Wilhelm, revised the tales thoroughly, making them more detailed, more elegant, and more Christian, as one edition followed another. In the process, the stories sometimes doubled in length. The folklore scholar Maria Tatar supplies three sentences from the brothers’ original draft of “Briar Rose,” which we call “The Sleeping Beauty”:
[Briar Rose] pricked her finger with the spindle and immediately fell into a deep sleep. The king and his retinue had just returned and they too, along with the flies on the wall and everything else in the castle, fell asleep. All around the castle grew a hedge of thorns, concealing everything from sight.
And here, after seven successive revisions, is how that passage reads in the final edition of “Household Tales”:
[Briar Rose] took hold of the spindle and tried to spin. But no sooner had she touched the spindle than the magic spell took effect, and she pricked her finger with it. The very moment that she felt the prick she sank down into the bed that was right there and fell into a deep sleep. And that sleep spread throughout the entire palace. The king and the queen, who had just come home and entered the great hall, fell asleep, and the whole court with them. The horses fell asleep in the stables, the dogs in the courtyard, the pigeons on the roof, and the flies on the wall. Even the fire that had been flaming on the hearth stopped and went to sleep, and the roast stopped crackling, and the cook, who was about to pull the kitchen boy’s hair because he had done something wrong, let him go and fell asleep. And the wind died down and not a single little leaf stirred on the trees by the castle.
All around the castle a briar hedge began to grow. Each year it grew higher, and finally it surrounded the entire castle and grew so thickly beyond it that not a trace of the castle was to be seen, not even the flag on the roof.
As Tatar has pointed out in her book “The Classic Fairy Tales” (1999), what the Grimms produced falls somewhere between the oral and the literary tale. But the brothers should not be reproached for departing from the original. First of all, whose original? Perrault had written a famous version of “The Sleeping Beauty” more than a century before—Wilhelm, in expanding “Briar Rose,” probably drew on it—and the story was older than Perrault. Most literary tales were derived in some measure from folk sources, and, once they were published, they in turn influenced folk versions. Finally, oral tales, when transcribed faithfully, are often barely readable. Tatar offers an example from the first draft of the Grimms’ first edition. This is part of a sentence:
Early the next morning the forester goes hunting at two o’clock, once he is gone Lehnchen says to Karl if you don’t leave me all alone I won’t leave you and Karl says never, then Lehnchen says I just want to tell you that our cook carried a lot of water into the house yesterday so I asked her why.
Though a scholar might publish this in, say, the Journal of American Folklore, nobody else would try to get anyone to read it.
The Grimms, however, changed more than the style of the tales. They changed the content. Their first edition was not intended for the young, nor, apparently, were the tales told at rural firesides. The purpose was to entertain grownups, during or after a hard day’s work, and rough material was part of the entertainment. But the reviews and the sales of the Grimms’ first edition were disappointing to them. Other collections, geared to children, had been more successful, and the brothers decided that their second edition would take that route. In the introduction, they dropped the claim of fidelity to folk sources. Indeed, they accurately said more or less the opposite: that, while they had been true to the spirit of the original material, the “phrasing” was their own. Above all, any matter unsuitable for the young had been expunged.
As with the rating committee of the Motion Picture Association of America, what they regarded as unsuitable for the young was information about sex. In the first edition, Rapunzel, imprisoned in the tower by her wicked godmother, goes to the window every evening and lets down her long hair so that the prince can climb up and enjoy her company. Finally, one day, when her godmother is dressing her, Rapunzel wonders out loud why her clothes have become so tight. “Wicked child!” the godmother says. “What have you done?” What Rapunzel had done goes unmentioned in the second edition. Such bowdlerizing went on for a half century. By the final edition, the stories were far cleaner than at the start.
But they were not less violent. The Grimms were told by friends that some of the material in the first edition was too frightening for children, and they did make a few changes. In a notable example, the first edition of “Hansel and Gretel” has the mother and the father deciding together to abandon the children in the woods. In later editions, it is the stepmother who makes the suggestion, and the father repeatedly hesitates before he finally agrees. Apparently, the Grimms could not bear the idea that the mother, the person who bore these children, would do such a thing, or that the father would readily consent.
This is an admirable scruple, but a puzzling one, because it is largely absent from other Grimm tales, many of which feature mutilation, dismemberment, and cannibalism, not to speak of ordinary homicide, often inflicted on children by their parents or guardians. Toes are chopped off; severed fingers fly through the air. A typical, if especially appalling, case is “The Juniper Tree.” As usual, there is a stepmother who hates her stepchild, a boy. He comes home one day and she asks him if he wants an apple. But no sooner does the boy lean over the trunk where the apples are stored than she slams the lid down and cuts off his head. Now she starts to worry. So she props up the boy’s body in a chair, puts his head on top, and ties a scarf around the neck to hide the wound. In comes Marlene, the woman’s own, beloved daughter. The girl comments that her stepbrother seems pale. Well, give him a slap, the mother says. Marlene does so, and the boy’s head falls off. “What a dreadful thing you’ve done. But don’t breathe a word,” the stepmother says. “We’ll cook him up in a stew.” Then the husband comes home and she serves him the stew. He loves it. “No one else can have any of it,” he says. “Somehow I feel as if it’s all for me.” You can hardly believe what you’re reading.
You get used to the outrages, though. They may even come to seem funny. When, in a jolly tale, a boy sees half a man fall down the chimney, are you supposed to get upset? When you turn a page and find that the next story is entitled “How Children Played Butcher with Each Other,” should you worry? Some stories do tear you apart, usually those where the violence is joined to some emphatically opposite quality, such as peace or tenderness. In “The Twelve Brothers,” a king who has twelve sons decides that, if his next child is a girl, he will have all his sons killed. That way, his daughter will inherit more money. So he has twelve coffins built, each with a little pillow. Little pillows! For boys whom he is willing to murder!
In sum, the Grimm tales contain almost no psychology—a fact underlined by their brevity. However much detail Wilhelm added, the stories are still extremely short. Jack Zipes’s translation of “Rapunzel” is three pages long, “The Twelve Brothers” five, “Little Red Riding Hood” less than four. They come in, clobber you over the head, and then go away. As with sections of the Bible, the conciseness makes them seem more profound.
Since the Second World War, some people have argued that the violence of the Grimm tales is an expression of the German character. Louis Snyder, in his book “Roots of German Nationalism” (1978), has a whole chapter on what he sees as the Grimms’ celebration, and encouragement, of pernicious national traits: “obedience, discipline, authoritarianism, militarism, glorification of violence,” and, above all, nationalism. Of course, the Grimm tales were nationalist: the brothers hoped to make their young readers feel and be more German. But in the nineteenth century there were fervent nationalist campaigns in most European countries. That is how many Western empires fell. And though ethnic pride was the Nazis’ chief justification for their movement, that wasn’t necessarily the fault of ethnic pride. Nazism fed on many trends that, previously, had been harmless—for example, the physical-culture movement of the early twentieth century, the fad for going on nature hikes and doing calisthenics. This became a feature of Nazism—an argument for purity, strength, the soil—but it existed also in countries that fought the Nazis, including the United States.
Nevertheless, the Grimms are premier representatives of the nationalism that became Aryanism in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and the Nazis were grateful to them. Hitler’s government demanded that every German school teach the Grimms’ book. After the war, accordingly, the Allies banned the Grimm tales from the school curricula in some cities. Still today, certain people, notably feminists, would like to move them to the back shelves of the library, because, so often, the villain is a woman, doing violence to girls, and also because the girls seldom resist. When, in “Snow White,” the heroine is being hunted down by the terrible queen-stepmother, she does almost nothing to save herself. Finally, she sinks into utter passivity, immobilized in a glass coffin, waiting for her prince to come. In the words of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in “The Madwoman in the Attic,” she is “patriarchy’s ideal woman.”
Gilbert and Gubar actually defend the wicked stepmothers, whose arts, they say, “even while they kill, confer the only measure of power available to a woman in a patriarchal culture.” That is, these women at least have some gumption, unlike the little Barbies they are trying to eliminate. Such feelings are widespread. On a rock at the edge of Copenhagen harbor sits a bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (who, unlike Disney’s, does not get her man). Over the years, her head has been sawed off repeatedly; she has been blasted off her rock with explosives. A dildo was once affixed to her hand, apparently in celebration of International Women’s Day. At the same time, some writers have recommended that the feminist critics look more closely at the Grimm collection. According to the novelist Alison Lurie, an expert on children’s books, it is primarily the most popular tales, especially the ones adapted by Disney, that feature the wilting violets. Others of the stories have spunky heroines.
But you do not have to be a member of any special political camp to object to the Grimm tales; you only need to be a person interested in protecting children’s mental health. After the Second World War, there was a powerful movement in the United States for realism and wholesomeness in children’s books. No more cannibal stews but, rather, “Judy Goes to the Firehouse.” (This is the trend that Maurice Sendak, to the outrage of many, bucked with “Where the Wild Things Are,” in 1963.) Writers reluctant to part with the Grimm tales suggested that we go on reading them to our children but point out the poisonous stereotypes they contain. Presumably, as your child is nodding off, you are supposed to give her a shake and tell her how the prince’s rescue of Snow White reflects the hegemony of the patriarchy.
Other writers have proposed that we revise the tales again. Why not? Why should the Grimms have the last word? Jack Zipes, in his book “Breaking the Magic Spell” (1979), addresses “Rumpelstiltskin,” the story in which, as the Grimms tell it, a king offers to marry a miller’s daughter if she can spin straw into gold. She has no idea how to do this. A gnome, Rumpelstiltskin, offers to do the job for her. But, once she marries, he says, she must give him her first child. When, at the end, she reneges on the deal, he becomes so angry that he tears himself in two. With apparent sympathy, Zipes quotes a writer, Irmela Brender, who, saddened that Rumpelstiltskin is destroyed, when all he ever wanted was a little companionship, has proposed a version in which the miller’s daughter, instead of denying Rumpelstiltskin the baby, invites him to move in with the royal family:
“We could do a lot of things together. You’ll see how much fun we can have.” Then Rumpelstiltskin would have first turned pale and then blushed for joy. He would have climbed on a chair and would have given the queen a kiss on her cheek. . . . And they would have been happy with each other until the end of their days.
W. H. Auden once described the Grimm-sanitizers as “the Society for the Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Cooperative Camp of Prudent Progressives.”
Then, there are those who believe that the Grimm tales, whatever their cruelty, are indirectly good for us. One camp here consists of the psychoanalytic critics, most notoriously Bruno Bettelheim, whose 1976 book “The Uses of Enchantment” dropped like a hot brick into the tepid waters of children’s literature of that period. Bettelheim argued that fairy tales, by allowing children to attach their unsavory repressed desires to villains (dragons, witches) who were then conquered, helped the children to integrate and control such desires. To Bettelheim, a Freudian, the most important conflict was the Oedipus complex. In his view, it was because of that nasty struggle that the Grimm tales so often featured a wicked stepmother. The child is given the opportunity to hate her mother (in the form of the stepmother) and still, as she does in life, love her mother (the real mother, conveniently absent from the tale).
Such an interpretation makes some sense. Bettelheim went further, though. In “The Frog Prince,” he says, the reason the princess dislikes the amphibian in question is that the “tacky, clammy” feel of a frog’s skin is connected to children’s feelings about the sex organs. This seems a perfect example of the psychoanalytic critics’ habitual indifference to the obvious. Human beings—and probably princesses, especially—don’t generally like creatures that are sticky and warty. To provoke such recoil, you do not have to resemble a sex organ. Furthermore, this particular frog has been pursuing the princess day and night. Finally, he invades her bed. In response, she picks him up and hurls him against a wall, whereupon he explodes and his little guts dribble down the plaster. Fortunately, this causes him to turn into a prince, but, even if he hadn’t, many of us would have endorsed her action.
While Bettelheim tells us that fairy tales help us adjust, Jack Zipes has said the opposite: that the value of fairy tales is that they teach us not to adjust, because the oppressive society in which we live is something we should refuse to adjust to. Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, has written sixty books on or of folk tales: critical studies, collections, translations. His newest entry is “The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre” (Princeton), but it does little more than repeat the theory of fairy tales that Zipes has been putting forth for several decades. Zipes is a Marxist of the Frankfurt school. He was also heavily influenced by the German philosopher Ernst Bloch and by the student movement of the nineteen-sixties. In keeping with those positions, he believes that fairy tales, because they are grounded in a naïve morality, offer us a “counterworld,” which encourages us to step back, consider the dubious morality of our own world, and take steps to reform it. As he puts it, fairy tales may “expose the crazed drive for power that many individual politicians, corporate leaders, governments, church leaders, and petty tyrants evince and to pierce the hypocrisy of their moral stances.” This interpretation leads to expectable conclusions. In “The Ugly Duckling,” for example, the duck, in envying the swans, shows “a distinct class bias if not racist tendencies.”
If some of this seems comical, it should be said that Zipes, in his books, shows a real love of fairy tales, especially the Grimms’. Such are the mysteries of literary criticism. His views, however dated, are still, like Bettelheim’s, endorsed by some writers. Maria Tatar seems to be inheriting the position of dean of fairy tales, and in her “Annotated Brothers Grimm” (2004)—this is one of Norton’s series of copiously annotated classics—she apparently feels that she can afford to be nice to everyone. This makes some of the notes in her edition bewilderingly latitudinarian—she nods to Zipes, to Bettelheim, to Gilbert and Gubar. Also, at times she seems very wide-eyed. She tries to find some basis for what seems to her the surprising appearance of anti-Semitic feeling in a few of these nineteenth-century stories. Had Wilhelm been consorting with the wrong people? In any case, she says, such characterizations are unfair to Jews.
Still, her edition is the one I would recommend. The book is dazzlingly illustrated, by Walter Crane (the best), Arthur Rackham, Gustave Doré, Maxfield Parrish, and others. (In the second edition, due to be published in October, there will be six new stories and many more pictures.) Another virtue of Tatar’s edition is that she has isolated, at the end, a group of “Tales for Adults”—stories that she feels should be examined by parents before they are read to children. Included in this section is “The Stubborn Child,” together with such items as “The Hand with the Knife” and “The Jew in the Brambles.” Still, “The Juniper Tree,” which Tatar herself describes as “probably the most shocking of all fairy tales,” is not placed among the “Tales for Adults,” presumably because it is too characteristic, too echt Grimm, to be cordoned off in a special section. (Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.)
In truth, most of the Grimms’ tales cannot be made wholly respectable. The rewritings that seem most persuasive are sometimes more unsettling than the Grimm versions—for example, Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” inspired by “Little Red Riding Hood.” This story stresses the eroticism of the girl’s encounter with the wolf. When she enters her grandmother’s cottage, she almost immediately understands what her situation is, but she decides not to be afraid. She asks:
What shall I do with my shawl?
Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it again.
She bundled up her shawl and threw it on the blaze, which instantly consumed it. Then she drew her blouse over her head; her small breasts gleamed as if the snow had invaded the room.
And so on with the rest of her clothes. Then she laughs in the wolf’s face, rips off his shirt, and throws that, too, into the fire:
She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.
The blizzard will die down.
The blizzard died down, leaving the mountains as randomly covered with snow as if a blind woman had thrown a sheet over them, the upper branches of the forest pines limed, creaking, swollen with the fall. . . .
See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.
Does the violence in the Grimm collection need a symbolic reading? Marina Warner, in her book on fairy tales, “From the Beast to the Blonde” (1994), says that most modern writers ignore the Grimms’ “historical realism.” Among the pre-modern populations, she records, death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality. The widowers tended to remarry, and the new wife often found that her children had to compete for scarce resources with the children of the husband’s earlier union. Hence the wicked stepmothers. As for the scarcity of resources, Robert Darnton has written that a peasant’s basic diet around that time consisted of a porridge of bread and water, sometimes with a few homegrown vegetables thrown in. Often, there was not even porridge. In the Grimm story “The Children Living in a Time of Famine” (Tatar moved this, too, into “Tales for Adults”), a mother says to her two daughters, “I will have to kill you so that I’ll have something to eat.” The little girls beg to live. Each goes out and somehow finds a piece of bread to bring back. But it is not enough. The mother again says to the girls that they must die: “To which they responded, ‘Dearest Mother, we’ll lie down and go to sleep, and we won’t rise again until Judgment Day.’ ” And so they lie down together and die. This is a hair-raising story, but also, I think, a wishful fantasy—that the children might die without crying.
And so you could say that the Grimm tales are no different from other art. They merely concretize and then expand our experience of life. The main reason that Zipes likes fairy tales, it seems, is that they provide hope: they tell us that we can create a more just world. The reason that most people value fairy tales, I would say, is that they do not detain us with hope but simply validate what is. Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic. Maybe, after this life, we will go to Heaven, as the two little girls who starved to death hoped to. Or maybe not. Though Wilhelm tried to Christianize the tales, they still invoke nature, more than God, as life’s driving force, and nature is not kind.