Feeling inspired to revisit and enhance my memory of traditional fairy tales I recently pulled out our household copy of The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tater.
In her intro, author A.S. Byatt revisits her immersion in fairy tales as a child and grabs my attention by flinging some proverbial poo at Hans Christian Andersen via the below quote (okay, maybe she wasn’t really flinging poo but it felt that way).
“But I learned to distinguish between them and the authored tales of Hans Christian Andersen (and de la Mare and Thackeray). My developing idea of the “real” (authentic) fairy tale centered on the Brothers Grimm. It included also some of the Nordic stories collected by Asbjorsen, some Perrault, and some English tale –“Jack and the Beanstalk,” for instance. These tales might be funny or horrible or weird or abrupt, but they were never disturbing, they never twisted your spirit with sick terror as Andersen so easily did. They had a discreet, salutary flatness.”
A somewhat bemusing sentiment seeing that as a child I adored Hans Christian Andersen and shied away from Grimm. It wasn’t even because of Disney as The Little Mermaid was not released until I was 12. My favorite book of fairy tales was a collection of Andersen with heavenly illustrations (It got ruined in a hurricane when I was a teen. Great sadness!). The endings had not been tampered with and the little mermaid in the tale I so loved did not get her prince. However I never interpreted the ending as unbearably sad. Perhaps being a young child I didn’t have the hormonal awakening necessary to connect with the idea of wanting the prince. But when the little mermaid is given a chance to attain a soul by becoming one of the “daughters of the air” I was entranced. In the illustration they looked like ethereal butterfly women, sylphs. It didn’t sound too bad to me. Of course the Snow Queen and a score of others also have their scary elements, but I’m not certain how they are worse. I have copy of the Annotated Hans Christian Andersen as well and I’ll revisit it after I’m done with Grimm to see if I can grasp just what the hell A.S. Byatt is going on about.
But that was not even my first thought as there was something WAY MORE CRAZY WEIRD about this!! Last night I had a dream that I was sitting at a table with some other faceless individuals as we were collecting fairy tales for some purpose or other. The dream centered on the fact that these people were arguing to me that Andersen’s fairy tales were not genuine or lacking in some way and so could not be included. I was upset and confused on how they could say this and tried to defend him.
Yeah…I dreamed that last night BEFORE encountering the above in my readings today. So that’s my “WTF???” moment of the week. 🙂
Moving on to Taters preface we get into some fun facts on why the Brothers originally began collecting and preserving German oral tales and how, when, and why they chose to either improve or alter them.
An example of this comes in comparing the opening sentences of The Frog King and how they changed in the 1812, 1819, and 1857 editions.
The 1812 first edition:
“Once upon a time there lived a princess. One day she went into the forest and sat down by a cool well. A golden ball was her favorite toy. She loved to amuse herself by throwing it up into the air and catching it when it came back down.”
The 1819 edition:
“Once upon a time there lived a princess who was so bored that she didn’t know what to do. She took a golden ball that she liked to play with and went out into the forest. In the middle of the woods there was a well with clear, cool water. She sat down next to it and threw the ball in the air, then caught it, and that’s how she amused herself.”
The 1857 edition:
“Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lived a king who had beautiful daughters. The youngest was so lovely that even the sun, which had seen so many things, was filled with wonder when it shone upon her face.
There was a deep, dark forest near the kings castle, and in that forest, beneath an old linden tree, was a spring. Whenever the weather turned really hot, the kings daughter would go out into the woods and sit down at the edge of the cool spring. And if she was bored, she would take out her golden ball, throw it up in the air, and catch it. That was her favorite plaything.”
I agree, the last one sounds better. 😉
Attention is also given to the removal of sexual elements, including one in Rapunzel I had not heard. However my favorite comes in an early form of Little Red Riding Hood…
“Little Red Riding Hood was not always an innocent who strays from the path. In French peasant tales, she is a seductive young woman who performs a striptease before the wolf —complete with an inventory of each item of clothing she removes”
Tater explores the removal of sexual and/or bawdy elements for the purpose of child readers and then says something I encounter all the time;
“What is less predictable is that the brothers had no reservations whatsoever about preserving, and in some cases intensify, the violence in the tales”
Seems the notion of sex being worse for children than violence has a longer history than I realized. As a parent I encounter it among other parents quite a bit. A common question from mothers when gauging the appropriateness of a film or TV show they are uncertain about is “Does it have any sex in it? Or just violence?” I also saw a post by a young Mormon girl on Goodreads who was sorry she would not be able to read A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas when it comes out because it was said to be a New Adult title and would contain sexual description. However she was a big fan of (and allowed to read) the Throne of Glass series by Maas…which happens to be about a female teen assassin.
I won’t harp on this subject matter, just didn’t realize the phenomena stretches back as far as it does.
Once I finally got to the below I wondered if Tater was trying outright make me not want to read her anthology;
“In the years following the publication of the first edition of the tales, Wilhem Grimm charted a new course for the collection. Openly admitting that he was taking pains to eliminate “any phrase unsuitable for children,’ he was also no longer invested in the notion of literal fidelity to oral sources and aimed to turn the raw narrative energy of folktales into a tamer cooked version, one both safer for children and more attractive for the adults reading to them.”
After all that I have yet to read the first tale, which happens to be The Frog King. I’m looking forward and I liked it when I was little even if I thought it was creepy for the frog to keep asking to sleep in the girls bed (wouldn’t any one?). If anything strikes me as gab worthy during future reads I’ll share. Otherwise I’ll just be happy to more easily recognize the various fairy tale elements in whatever new fiction I pick up.