(Published in the Business Standard, March 2012.)
They were the best of stories, they were the scariest of stories, told in an age of wisdom, forgotten in an age of foolishness, collected in an epoch of belief, rewritten in an epoch of incredulity.
2012 may be Charles Dickens’ bicentenary, but it also marks another great storytelling anniversary—it was 200 years ago that the Brothers Grimm brought out their fairy tales. In the two centuries since the publication of Tales for the Nursery and the Household, Rapunzel, Briar Rose, the Frog Prince and a score of other characters have become so firmly ensconced in reader’s minds that it’s easy to forget how young they are—much younger than Sinbad the Sailor, for instance, or the Baba Yaga of Russian nightmare.
The brothers Grimm were also the first bowdlerisers of the fairy tales, setting off a process of sanitizing these dark materials that continues today in Disney’s prettily bland retellings. “We like them,” Wilhelm Grimm wrote of fairy tales, “without reflecting why.”
The versions he and his brother Johann set down were drawn direct from the deep well of folklore. In the first edition, for instance, the story of the frog prince is frankly carnal—the princess flings the frog from her in disgust, he lands on the bed and transforms into a handsome prince. She joins him—but by the second edition, their meeting is much more chaste.
The scholar Maria Tatar chronicles the true nature of the fairy tales in detail. In the original, Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in two, ripping his body apart; Briar Rose’s unsuccessful suitors, trying to break into the castle where the princess lies sleeping, are caught by the thorny hands of the briar bushes and torn to bits. Rapunzel’s dalliance with the prince is discovered when her belly swells; fathers try to marry their daughters, the violence of the world is unmasked.
Perhaps the most representative was a chatty disquisition, excised from future editions of Grimm’s tales. It was about a group of children who, playing a game in imitation of the village butcher, end by butchering their playmates. The original fairy tales were guides to a bloody, brutal and bestial world, as most stories that start with “once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after” usually are at their core.
This may have been because few of the tales were conceived by the brothers Grimm, or indeed told by men at all. The genius of the brothers Grimm, who were later to make their reputations with a path-breaking grammar and dictionary, lay in their ability to locate and listen to the women who were carriers of the tales.
“Women teach babies and children to speak, which is the same as teaching them to think,” writes Germaine Greer. The women who shared their stories with the Brothers Grimm were an extraordinary bunch, acknowledged by most scholars as the true storytellers—even if their names don’t appear on the green and black covers of the original Grimm’s fairy tales.
Frau Dorothea Viehmann was a peasant woman in her fifties, who contributed many of the tales in the second volume of Grimm’s fairy tales, which came out in 1815. In their preface to the second edition, the brothers Grimm wrote of her with palpable admiration: “Her large eyes saw sharply and clearly. She preserved the old legends in her memory … Her manner of storytelling was deliberate, confident, and uncommonly lively – she clearly took pleasure in it.”
She could tell her tales twice over, first as a storyteller, and then again slowly, so that the Grimm brothers could transcribe them. The 40 tales she added to the collection may have come from her memories of growing up in her father’s inn; the Grimm brothers saw her as a natural storyteller.
Wilhelm Grimm was married to another wonderful storyteller—Dorothea Wild, the apothecary’s daughter, told him stories around “the stove in the summer-house” when they were children. She and her five sisters lived in the house next door; the Grimm brothers added many of Dorothea’s stories to their collection.
There were many other sources, but most of them were women—Friedericke Mannel, a country girl with a sharp memory for the old winter tales, Jeanette and Marie Hassenpflug, who told the Grimm brothers different versions of Red Riding Hood, the lively sisters Anne and Ludowine Haxthausen, who copied their stories into “an album embroidered with pearls” for the brothers Grimm.
But the strangest story, told by Donald Hettinga in his life of the Brothers Grimm, concerns Frau Creuzer. Like a character in a fairy tale, the old woman denied knowing any folk tales at all when Wilhelm Grimm asked, perhaps because she thought she might be ridiculed. Frau Creuzer lived in a hospital; Wilhelm managed to persuade the superintendent to visit her with his children, for she never refused to tell children her stories. She told her tales to the children, and they passed the stories on to Wilhelm, and so this story found its happy ending.