Three researchers of literature talk about the evolution of Grimms’ fairytales

Would you have Cinderella or Rapunzel told to you any other way? What if you were told Rapunzel got pregnant by the prince and she did not know what was happening to her. Or if you were told that it was Hansel and Gretel’s parents who decided to discard their children in the forest. Or worse still if you had to face the fact that the initial rivalry was between Snow White and her own mother, not a wicked stepmother… If your heart is breaking, hold it, for you have crossed the years of hearing fairy tales. Listen now to this wonderful discussion between folklorist Juliette Wood, mythographer Marina Warner and German professor Tony Phelan, where some truths are told.

“The Grimm brothers were born in 1785…in Germany, in a village near Frankfurt. They grew up in a middle class family, had a fairly stable childhood till their father died… following the ideals of work and education and betterment which actually come out into their stories much later on…got good University education and entered a kind of civil service but pursued their academic interest which was essentially linguistics. From a sense of what language was, they became interested in the German people, its speakers, and thereafter to what their heritage was and that brought them into the study of manuscripts…initially to the study of manuscripts that were in the libraries of the East German aristocrats. And then into the peasant world to come back to the stories, they felt, were behind the manuscripts,” says Wood.

She continues, “In Grimms’ version, Cinderella was actually called Aschenputtel, the girl in the ashes. Her mother dies and the stepmother arrives with two beautiful daughters. They are beautiful in face but treacherous at heart…so they are not ugly stepsisters. They abuse Cinderella, constantly throwing beans and peas into the ashes and making her pick them up from the heat…a tease…and then she is given a hazel branch which she plants on her mother’s grave and then the branch grows into a tree and beautiful birds settle on the tree and they grant her wishes. She grows up and the king has a party to find a wife and she wants to go. The sisters tell her, no, you can’t unless you pick the peas out of the ashes…she calls the animals who help her pick them out and she goes to the grave and gets a dress for the party. She escapes from the prince. He puts pitch on the road, her slipper, golden, not glass, gets caught…he comes to the house, the sisters put the slippers on and in order to fit, one cuts off her heel and the other her toe( the mother tells them to do it saying once you are queen you would not have to walk). Cinderella fits into the shoes and goes off with the prince…the stepsisters were struck blind for their unkindness…”

These stories were called Kinder-und hausmaerchen or children and household tales because even though these stories were entertaining, they were not without cruelty so did not really suit a child. They were also called ‘Wonder tales’ but says Warner, “The Grimm brothers are actually folklorists…it connects to the way it is told. If something supernatural happens, it is told in a succinct, deadpan, normal way…no surprise…even to the grotesque,” says Warner. “What you get from these tales is consolation; either a happy ending or delicious revenge, very often revenge stories. There is also an enormous set of stories where the hero will have luck and animals on their side and how he makes good…animist world. The Grimms were interested in that…they felt it led to religion. Brothers Grimm shaped the romanticism of the period…they looked for universal wisdom in the tales.”

The stories were not from a homogeneous source. . “Not all stories are authentically German,” admits Phalen, “some came from people who had heard it…in the case of some others it was kind of appropriation. But I think they were assigned to collect folklores for it was feared they would disappear...many however had already appeared in print in the 16th Century.”

The first edition was full of the coarse details not very delicate to relate. The brother Wilhelm was the first one to become aware of it and he began “cleaning” it up. The other brother Jacob seems to have been the one more interested in the scholarly work and keeping true to the original. The stories really caught the imagination of the people when Ludwig, the third brother, started doing the illustrations. The speakers identify the period as one when German nationalism was being shaped. An emerging middle class was looking for literature to instruct their children in values; wanting to educate them appropriately. Hansel and Gretel was very short in the first edition. The parents decide to abandon children in agreement. “Wilhelm had trouble with this…he makes her stepmother…stepmothers play an important role because maternal mortality was very high in those days…third version Wilhelm was uncomfortable with an acquiescing father, so father objects…and the fourth version was all tidied up with the parents rejoicing when the children return. Similarly in Snow White, in the first version the rivalry was between mother and daughter. In the second the proverbial stepmother was brought in. You will also notice all stories exonerate the father…”

Warner adds that stories change a lot before we hear them in the “…interplay between the unlettered and the more lettered transmitter…some stories have become popular, some are trash…you can see traces of the Bible, Arabian Nights…good stories travel.”