Read the fairy tale about a frog prince that is not kissed by the princess but tossed against the wall with the intent to kill, except the violence turns him into a prince (and then they marry). Cinderella’s stepsisters, urged by their mother, cut off parts of their feet to get the golden slipper on, but the prince notices “blood streaming out of the slipper” and knows of each girl’s deception. Snow White ends up in a glass coffin that a prince finds in the woods and who falls in love with her; however, it is an irritated servant stuck lugging her around the castle, because the prince wants the glass coffin at his side at all times, who happens to pop out the poisoned apple that is lodged in her throat from jostling her on a tight passage. These are just a few of the classic fairy tales we grew up with in their original form as they are revealed in the 1812 Grimm’s fairy tale first edition, translated into English for the first time. This authentic look at fairy tales that were told orally shows that they were written for adults. Extensive notes in the appendix reveal the Grimm’s as brilliant folklorists that gathered information from ancient manuscripts as well as people from all walks of life. If you enjoy the study of folklore, the introduction by scholar and fairy tale expert, Jack Zipes, is full of background knowledge on what the Grimm’s were trying to accomplish in their first volume and what led them to change their focus over 40 years of revisions that created fairly tales less violent, child-centered, and romantic.
One disturbing story that kept reappearing is the woman who marries a rich man who is nice to her, but has a test where he leaves the castle and gives her keys or an object and says she can’t look in one particular room. She does and it is filled with chopped up female body parts. The room is enchanted and the key or object becomes stained with blood that she can’t get out so when her husband comes home he says he has to kill her for looking in the room. She escapes through magic and the husband is punished. Needless to say, we gladly don’t see this serial killer fairy tale cropping up in kids stories. It is a chilling horror story that shows how curiosity is so strong people can’t resist doing what they are told not to do and that some people are dangerous predators. But it also shows storytelling not only as a way to pass on morals, but as a form of entertainment in the horror genre.
The Grimms’ collected stories from well-educated middle-class women that shared stories in social circles that they heard from servants or nannies growing up. They also gathered stories from ancient manuscripts, soldiers, peasants, aristocrats, a pastor, and a tailor’s wife. As Zipes explains, these diverse voices give the first edition a unique voice that reflects the stories’ sociohistorical context. From class struggles where the common man becomes king, to women “lousing” men, to the “simpleton” as an underdog persevering with courage and wit to win the princess, these stories have a flavor that shows a gap between rich and poor and a patriarchal society where women want more but do not break from the conventional norms. As Zipes explains many of the themes are universal: sibling rivalry, greedy tyrants, oppressive rulers, oppressed women and young people, abandoned soldiers, children mistreated, Death rewarding the virtuous boy, and so on. The protagonists are simple-minded and innocent making readers sympathize with him or her. They achieve their goals through humility and kindness and social justice is achieved at the end. The theme of underdogs cooperating to achieve justice is strong throughout the stories. Usually some gruesome death occurs to the “evil” person at the end. Punishment is harsh with villains being burned at the stake, made to dance in hot iron shoes, or rolled in a spiked barrel.
The tales usually have women that are “beautiful” and men that are handsome. They become rich and live happily ever after, but don’t think all the stories have this droll convention. Some of the stories show women not being so satisfied with their life and as underdogs manipulating the men around them to get what they want. “Nasty Flax Spinning” has a king being outwitted by his daughters to avoid the chore of spinning. “The Clever Farmer’s Daughter” shows an intelligent woman who outwits the men around her within a patriarchal society. Not only does she do what is socially just, she is proactive and outwits her dimwit husband, the King. The women in these stories love their husbands and are with them in the end so the story isn’t threatening any social norms. There is a morality to the stories that is not overly didactic. There is also the Simpleton who is either a commoner or the third son of the king that must overcome odds to win the kingdom and princess. The Grimms were studying law at university and had an influential professor that used interdisciplinary methods of studying relationships between laws, customs, beliefs, and values which affected how they wrote the tales. The Grimms gathered stories using this approach and the sociocultural context is evident and interesting to look for when reading.
Many of the stories are tales about how strangers or animals are treated with arrogance or kindness. The kind person is rewarded for his or her actions. The tales are diverse with animal stories, legends, tall tales, and nonsense tales. The weaker animals use intelligences to overcome the larger ones again reinforcing the theme of underdogs succeeding. Usually something miraculous happens to help the underdog. Magic is a necessary element in these tales as it is what allows the protagonist to finish impossible tasks. There is one story with a stereotyped stingy Jew that might offend some and another about three ugly coal black sisters that confused me as they were dressed in black with a little white on their face. The Grimms viewed their collection as an educational primer of ethics, values, and customs. They have legends from all over the world. Even the “Genie in the Glass” is parallel to story in “The Thousand and One Nights” and the notes say that “The Frog Prince” story is related to “Cupid and Psyche” by Apuleius. I kept thinking of stories that I had read aloud to students. “Strega Nona” by Tomie DePoala and “Tunjur, Tunjur, Tunjur,” is just like the fairy tale, “The Sweet Porridge”. If you like fairy tales, don’t miss this fascinating comparison that shows how much they have changed since the nineteenth century.