“I am Death, who makes everyone equal”
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Godfather Death’
The brothers Grimm did not write for children. Their goal was to offer an exhilarative reading to adults at the end of a tiring day. They would wander in 19th century Germany recording folk tales and myths, which they then completed and embellished with their own personal literary style. The first version of their collection did not have the success they wanted, and in every following version they would make additions and trimmings according to what they thought their readers would like to read.
But they were not completely honest in their claims. Even though they earned the fame of being the collectors of peasants’ tales, many of their stories came from the middle class or even from aristocrats. Also, apart from folk tales, in the first edition of 1812 several original stories by Charles Perrault (written in 1697) were included, which were written for the French “elite”, with the pretense that they originated in the common folk, in the form of a tale.
As Angela Carter notes, to ask where a fairy tale comes from is like asking who invented the first meatball. The versions of each one differ from one region to the other, including parts of local myths and culture, and time and again phrases of folk songs would be incorporated, as well as segments belonging in other tales; in order to produce an image for the protagonist that would seem as similar to each audience as possible.
Wilhelm Grimm was the one who took on the editing and rewriting of the stories. He made them similar in style, added dialogues, removed “provincial” phrases to not alienate his target audience, improved the plot and introduced psychological motifs. He also added religious (Christian in particular) references, as well as elements from Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. Gradually he removed every sexual element and beautified the language to make the text more appealing to his bourgeois readers. He only started addressing children after 1819, adding new tales as well as purely didactic elements to already existing ones.
So, the relationship between the girl and the prince in the original version of Rapunzel, which is sexual (the girl gets pregnant) is a detail not included in following versions, and moral elements absent from the original were added (like the king repenting for condemning his wife to death in the fire). Words with a French root were replaced with German sounding words (“Königssohn” in stead of “Prinz” – “king’s son” instead of “prince”), and angels replaced fairies.
The brothers’ aim in preserving and schematizing the tales as something uniquely Germanic, in the times of Napoleon’s occupation, was a form of “intellectual resistance”. In doing so, they established a methodology of collecting and preserving traditions, which became the model many writers would adopt in the future throughout Europe during occupations. The Grimms’ fables were nationalistic: they wanted to make the children feel more German. They celebrated and encouraged several pestiferous nationalistic characteristics, such as obedience, discipline, autarchy, militarism and the glorifying of violence. The brothers Grimm are representatives of the nationalism that transformed to Aryanism, and the Nazis were grateful to them. Hitler made their work mandatory reading in schools and, later, the victorious Allies banned them from the school curricula.
Let’s see some examples:
In The Girl Without Hands we read: The devil fools a carpenter by promising many fortunes to him if he grants him “that which stands behind his house”. Thinking the devil means an apple tree, the carpenter agrees, only to learn that he agreed to give away his only daughter who was standing in front of the tree at the time. When the devil shows up to take what was his, the daughter performs magic to avert him. The devil gets angry and threatens the carpenter that, if he doesn’t deliver at least his daughter’s two hands, then he will take the carpenter himself as an exchange. Desperate, the carpenter explains to his daughter what happened and asks her to let him chop off her hands to save him. The girl obediently accepts, and the agreement is honored.
In Frog Prince, instead of the princess transforming the frog with a kiss (as we know the story today), he throws him on a wall with force. The Grimms’ version of Snow-white ends with the evil mother-in-law being forced to dance at her daughter-in-law’s wedding wearing fiery iron shoes, until she drops dead, while Show-white watches in bliss. In Cinderella, when the prince searches to find who the glass shoe fits on, in order to hide the fact that their feet are larger, her foster sisters end up chopping off some of their tows and even heels. The prince only realizes the deception when, one after the other, they bleed as they start to walk towards his castle.
Of the most extraordinary examples is the following: In the tale Juniper Tree, the mother-in-law, as usual, hates her husband’s son. One day, as soon as the kid returns home, she asks him if he wants an apple. But just as the kid crouches to take an apple from the trunk where they keep them, she closes the lid with force and cuts his head off. But now she worries about getting caught. So she balances the headless body on a chair as if the kid was resting, with an apple in one hand, puts the head on top and hides the cut with a scarf. Her biological daughter comes along, and complains about her brother not giving her the apple while he does not appear to be enjoining it himself. Her mother gives her permission to slap him, as she does, and his head launches from his body. She tells her not to worry, that they can hide the body by cooking it. As they do. Next, the father arrives, to whom they offer the stew to eat. He loves it and says he wants to eat it all by himself. “It seems to me as if it were all mine”, he says and throws the bones on the table when he’s done. It’s quite difficult to believe you’re reading this.
To a degree, the violence in these originals reflects the Middle Ages culture from which they were drawn. Usually, the historical realism of the Grimm tales is ignored. In the 19th century death at birth was a common cause of death for babies and their mothers. The widowers usually remarried, and the new wife usually found that her own children had to compete with her new husband’s for the limited resources the new, expanded family had available. Hence, the evil mothers-in-law. In the tale Children Living In A Time Of Famine, the mother tells her two daughters “I have to kill you, so that I have enough to eat”. The little ones plead for their lives and search for food to give to their mother, so that they escape their fate. They return with a piece of bread each, but it’s not enough, and their mother tells them again that they must die. “Dearest mother, we’ll lie down and go to sleep, and we won’t rise again until the day of judgement”. And so they do. Certainly a chilling story; and it also reveals some kind of wishful thinking. That the children will die without crying.
In 2001, the Supreme Court of USA rejected a ban on selling violent video games to children. The judge said that the depictions of violence, whether in books or plays, whether in comics or cinema, had never been subjected to government regulation; adding that “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed”. Some parents would feel awkward reading to their children tales about chopping the hands of girls (The Girl Without Hands) or that of a boy pushing a man down the stairs without a semblance of guilt (The Story Of A Boy Who Went Forth To Learn Fear), but most children would know this is mere imagination.
After World War II there was a tendency to apply realism on children stories –Little Mary Goes To The Firehouse is an example– a style not at all similar to that of the Grimm brothers. Those who remained unwilling to depart from the Germanic tales, proposed to keep reading them to children, while at the same time identifying to them the poisonous stereotypes they illustrate. Perhaps they meant that as the child would go to sleep listening to the Cinderella story, it had to be reminded that her rescue from the prince reflected the patriarchal hegemony and a patronizing tone the child should not assimilate. Feminism, later, attacked the powerless and passive caricature of girls and women found in many Grimm tales. The Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is a well-known version where James Finn Garner adapts several famous stories to fit the sensibilities of progressive parents. There, we read in Red Riding Hood:
The wolf said “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone”. Red Riding Hood said: “I find your sexist remarks offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid, worldview. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”
I fail to understand how this “feminist” attitude the girl has, or her sassy comments, would save her from the wolf’s teeth. However, this is exactly what happens above and later in the cabin, where her grandma is “awakened” by another inspired tirade by the girl and jumps out of the wolf’s belly to chop his head off (let’s see how something like that might turn out in real life). It’s no accident that adaptations such as these are not meant for children, but rather to satisfy their parents’ progressive sensibilities.
Equally innovative, but not equally paranoid, is the wonderful animated movie Hoodwinked! (2005), which also depicts Red Riding Hood as an energetic, smart and autonomous heroine, utilizing wit and friendships to get out of trouble. Something similar, though for a more mature audience, is attempted in the movie Hard Candy (also released in 2005), in which a modern Red Riding Hood takes revenge from a pedophile (the modern bad wolf) who stalks her.
Some years ago Tangled was released and Maleficent followed. The list of modern Grimm adaptations is huge, and I will not even bother to mention other versions in literature, plays and comics. In their collective versions, the Grimm tales have captured our imagination for more than 200 years, and they will certainly continue to do so for centuries more.
But, the Grimm brothers were something more than storytellers. As academics they excelled in linguistics, ethnology, law, history and philology. They started writing the German Dictionary, which was the model for the Oxford English Dictionary. Through their recording of the original versions of the tales, their variations per region and the following adapted version, one can see the evolution of the German language itself. The phenomenon of chain shifts of proto-Indo-European consonants in the proto-Germanic language, which is the common ancestor of all Germanic languages, was called Grimm’s Law. The evolution of “t” sounds (as in “trinity”) to “th” sounds (as in “thin”) and “k” sounds (as in “kilo”) to “h” sounds (as in ‘hollow”), and other phenomena Jacob Grimm observed in a variety of languages, are included in the law named after him.
- Wikipedia – Brothers Grimm
- Wikipedia – Grimm’s Law
- James Finn Garner – Political Correct Bedtime Stories
 The ancient Greek word “tritos” was translated and evolved to “third”, and the ancient Greek word “kynas” was translated and evolved to “hound”.