The Grimm Hard Facts

February 24: Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two brothers, was born on this day in 1786. Most commentators describe Jacob as the scholar of the family and Wilhelm as the story-shaper, as well as the one responsible for "contaminating" the Grimm tales according to the values which they held, or felt their contemporary audience expected.

 

The brothers' original goal, part scholarly and part patriotic, was to gather and preserve authentic German folk tales. When the Grimms realized that similar versions of their tales had existed in many cultures for a long time, and that their reading public was mostly interested in a good story, they adjusted course. Mostly under Wilhelm's supervision, the scholarly tone and footnoting gave way in subsequent editions, and the stories became increasingly sanitized and preachy. (Though the Disneyfication did not go as far as it later would, or as far as some wanted: at the end of World War II, Allied commanders banned publication of the Grimms' tales in the belief that their violence contributed to Nazi savagery.)

 

In The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales (1987), Maria Tatar states that adults today who read the original, unexpurgated tales should be ready for "graphic descriptions of murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest"—stepsons decapitated by moms and eaten as stew by dads, bad girls forced to disrobe and roll down hills in nail-studded kegs, or to have their hands and breasts chopped off for refusing father, etc. The Rapunzel of the early editions inadvertently lets her jailer know that she's been spending her nights with the Prince, and doing more than sleeping:

. . . she took such a liking to the young king that she made an agreement with him: he was to come every day and be pulled up. Thus they lived merrily and joyfully for a certain time, and the fairy did not discover anything until one day when Rapunzel began talking to her and said, "Tell me, Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become too tight for me and no longer fit?"

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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