The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
“A young princess was called Snowflower because she was white like snow and was born during the winter. One day her mother became sick, and the princess went out to pluck herbs that might heal her. As she went by a big tree, a swarm of bees flew out and covered her entire body from head to foot. But they did not sting or hurt her. Instead, they carried honey to her lips, and her entire body glowed through and through with beauty.”
Such in the magical beginning of “Snowflower,” a fairy tale collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – in this case, it is the middle and end of the tale as well, only a fragment of a story that was never finished, included in Jack Zipes’ authoritative new collection, The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Jack Zipes, who is a professor of German at the University of Minnesota (and whose name sounds strangely like a character in one of the tales) has translated all 210 stories plus 40 more from the original German edition that have never appeared before in English.
Of course, everyone knows these fairy tales from childhood. “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Cap” (or “Little Red Riding Hood”), “Brier Rose” (“Snow White”) – these are probably the most popular tales in English or any other Western language, such a common pool of mythology that they belong to our collective identity. But if you know only the Walt Disney version, you are in for a shock. To put it mildly, these stories are not always nice.
Remember the glass slipper from “Cinderella”? That charming Prince who goes house to house the day after the ball hoping to find the beautiful maiden who lost her shoe at his palace? In the Grimm version (very grim, indeed), the first evil stepsister cuts off her toe with a knife hoping to make her foot fit into the slipper so that she might be Queen. The second stepsister cuts off her heel, trying to do the same thing. To no avail, of course, because the Prince sees a trail of blood oozing from both sisters and is not fooled. Only Cinderella will do, and at her wedding a pair of vengeful pigeons peck the two evil sisters’ eyes out. “Thus they were punished with blindness for the rest of their lives due to their wickedness and malice” – so ends the tale, with a suitably Calvinist message.
Jacob Ludwig Grimm (1785-1863) and his brother Wilhelm Carl Grimm (1786-1844) were scholars of German folk traditions and spent much of their lives inviting storytellers into their home and writing down the tales they heard for posterity. Germany at the time was a loose collection of principalities, not a modern state, and the brothers’ interest in Germanic folk roots had political overtones – a desire to exalt the common culture of a people divided by artificial borders, a yearning for statehood. A century later, the Nazis picked up on this theme and fell in love with the stories all over again as symbols of the German folk – folk stories and folk wagons (Volkswagens, that is) being quite the rage.
The Grimm fairy tales are dreams or nightmares, take your pick. They are often weird and abrupt, and you may (or may not) want to read them to children. I have a friend, a preschool teacher, who likes to change the ending of “Red Riding Cap” so that the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood talk things over and work out their differences amicably . . . but, alas, in the original, our young heroine gets eaten alive in a disturbingly sexual manner, until the handsome woodcutter comes along and cuts the girl and her grandmother from the wolf’s stomach. Rather gory.
Freud, Jung, Joseph Campbell, Erich Fromm, and Bruno Bettelheim are just a few of the psychologists and scholars who have taken a long, deep look at these tales, plumbing their depths for meaning. You can read the Brothers Grimm for pleasure, or horror, or insight into the odd workings of the human soul – but read them, you must. The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales are basic to our culture, and Jack Zipes’ recent edition, illustrated by John B. Gruelle, is a must-have volume for any household . . . even if you keep it on a high shelf well-hidden from your kids.