The Brothers Grimm’s book of fairy tales – 200 years on

by Kate De Goldi / 19 May, 2012
Kate De Goldi traces the Brother Grimm's tales’ influence on her and other writers.

My primer four Croxley IG School Exercise Book records a perfectly representative story from my early years, the pencilled printing and Sister Barbara’s confident red ticks faded now, 46 years later. The story begins: “Once upon a time there were ten good little children. Their names were Christine and Beverley, Timothy and Patricia, Ingrid and Terry, Jenny and Elizabeth and Gail and Mary-Lou, and that’s all. And their mother was Kathleen [me]. Now, they had a little house in the middle of a deep wood …”

The story is pages and pages long (with a random Chapter Two heading midway); all the children are beautiful and so are their clothes; they have an adopted bear, they spend their days hunting; there is a bad witch who eventually metamorphoses into a good fairy and saves the day she has previously ruined; finally, and emphatically, there is a happy ending: “Then they had a Christmas party.”

I don’t remember writing this story but it has intrigued me since I first reread it 20 years ago, demonstrating as it does the strong influence of reading on early writing and, in particular, the elements of fairy tale that had so clearly been laid down already in my reading life. And my listening life. There were certainly fairytale collections in our family home and they were read often to me and my sisters, but the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen came to us most urgently and persuasively through the collection of 45rpm records in which all the (severely truncated) tales were narrated with singalong musical accompaniment by the Peter Pan Orchestra and Chorus.

I can still readily call up the hectic pace of the strings and every word of each ditty: “Don’t worry, Gretel, Hansel is beside you …”; “Cinder, Cinder-RELLa, went to the ball …”; “Sleep, sleep, sleep, Sleeping Beauty, sleep till your dreams coooommme truuuuue.” Etc. Constant listening to those 45s meant the syntax and cadence of the stories – oddly faithful to fairy-tale “music” despite the ridiculous concision of the retellings – went deep into the bones. Hence, no story could be real unless it opened with “Once upon a time”; hence, the frequency with which my sentences began “Now …”

Interestingly, the six-year-old me artlessly adopting the tone and structure and many of the habits of fairy tale was also, throughout that primer four book, blending the mythic and supernatural with elements from my very ordinary suburban life in 1960s Christchurch. The names are my cousins’ and classmates’; dotted throughout are Canterbury place names, much domestic paraphernalia and the glancing anxieties of my private world. In my own small way, I was discovering the enduring allure of fairy tale: that its characters and preoccupations reflect eternal human anxieties and desires (fear of abandonment, of devouring, of loss; greed, generosity, wisdom and folly …); that its shape and structure are reliably solid and – paradoxically – porous enough for readers or writers to insert their own pressing story in the interstices.

There is a large and absorbing scholarly industry around the origins, adaptation and interpretation of fairy tale and the persistence of its attraction. Bruno Bettelheim controversially applied a Freudian analysis to the Grimms’ tales and argued their importance to children as a way of grappling with fears in remote symbolic terms. Subsequent revisionists, notably Jack Zipes and Marina Warner, have asked whether the reverse might be true: could the old tales hinder growth and encourage arrested romancing? But no one denies the stories’ grip on the Western collective unconscious.

The Brothers Grimm are largely responsible for this. Setting out with patriotic zeal and democratic ideals to gather the oral stories of the German “folk”, they knowingly drew on a long tradition of the pan-European fairy story, a solid core of stories that enmeshed the written and the oral. Nor were their stories always the rough-hewn and ribald of the common folk. Many came from educated women in their own social class. The brothers expanded and adapted their original 1812 Household Tales over two decades, gradually changing their audience focus from adults to children, adding edifying morals and Christian values. It is their versions that have been consistently drawn on by the hundreds of novelists, illustrators, opera librettists, film directors, playwrights, television scriptwriters and advertisers in the two centuries since.

Although we feel we know the stories well, it is often bowdlerised picture-book versions of varying quality, or the potent Disney interpretations, that have laid down the co-ordinates. And often it is only the better known of the fairy tales – Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel… A writer considering a reimagining of one of the stories might usefully go back to the Grimms’ own texts. Household Tales – in the edition illustrated by Mervyn Peake, with an introduction by Russell Hoban – is very good. The Juniper Tree, a selection by Lore Segal of lesser-known Grimm stories, with pictures by Maurice Sendak, amounts to a critical reinterpretation of the brothers’ true intent. My particular favourite is The Annotated Brothers Grimm, a superb edition from the scholar Maria Tatar; the introduction by AS Byatt is a treat.

After the source material has been absorbed, the next step might be to check out modern retellings by writers caught – for good or ill – by fairy tales’ charms. Perhaps begin by immersing oneself in Ursula Dubosarsky’s brilliant channelling of fairy-tale narrative voice in The Red Shoe, and her fellow Australian Margo Lanagan’s voluptuous expansion of Snow White and Rose Red, Tender Morsels: this is a spectacular example of a writer mining what Angela Carter termed “the latent content” in the traditional story. Then dip into one of Adele Geras’s Egerton Hall Trilogy. One is quite enough of these wildly overheated adaptations of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel in a 1960s boarding school setting; they offer a sharp lesson in how not to proceed.

On a quite different plain is Carter’s celebrated collection, The Bloody Chamber, wherein the author recast Grimm (and others’) tales in bold feminist terms and thrilling prose – and greatly excited a generation of writers and readers. One of those readers was Margaret Mahy, whose wondrous 1995 novel The Other Side of Silence is, to my mind, the perfect fusion of fairy-tale shape and ingredient and the writer’s own powerfully propulsive subject matter. Working with the elements of a less well-known Grimm story, Jorinda and Jorindel – thick forest, old castle, shape-changing witch, innocent maiden, adventurous young man, captive birds – Mahy weaves a profound and moving – and thoroughly contemporary – story about the riddle of parenting, the manipulations of children, the vanity attendant on talent, the complex responsibilities of the writer, the frailties and heroic possibilities inherent in any human.

It is the work of a writer within whom the old fairy stories had been working their powerful magic for decades, performing a strange alchemy with her own recurring themes. Throughout the novel, the narrator, Hero, refers to the family volume of Old Fairy Tales; she frequently interprets both her ordinary and extraordinary experiences with reference to the people and events in the Tales. But Mahy is too limber and adventurous a thinker to let the tales remain a fundamentalist text. She applies an imaginative torque that transforms Jorinda and Jorindel for a new time. Jacob and Wilhelm would have been enchanted.

Kate De Goldi’s new novel, The ACB with Honora Lee, will be released in October.


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