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Complete collection of Grimms’ fairy tales a beautiful success

“Hansel and Gretel” is one of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales that has become world famous.
“Hansel and Gretel” is one of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales that has become world famous. Courtesy illustration

“The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition,” translated and collected by Jack Zipes, illustrated by Andrea Dezso (Princeton University Press, 519 pages, $35)

Romanticism, as a European aesthetic, rose at the end of the 18th century in direct revolt against the Enlightenment project to place artistic expression within the boundaries of classically expressed reason. Poetry, art and music exploited this revolt to produce the mature visions of Beethoven, Holderlin, Wordsworth and Coleridge – among many other writers, composers and painters, most of whom took as their inspiration the louder longings of the soul as benchmarks for creation, while at the same time regarding intuition and what Freud later called the unconscious as the well-springs of imagination. One of the more curious and fruitful offshoots of the Romantic movement in Germany (or what was then Germany, a collection of political leftovers from the Holy Roman Empire), produced the Grimms, brothers from the small towns of Hanau and Steinau in Hesse, Jacob (1785-1863); Wilhelm (1786-1859); who were educated in Latin and Greek. In their own childhoods, there is no evidence that any books were available of folk or fairy tales, or that they were exposed to an oral tradition of such storytelling.

Upon the death of their father in 1796, the Grimm brothers became the sole support of their mother, four siblings, and a substantial household. They prepared to study law at Marburg. They gave no indication that philology and folklore were on their minds. To follow in their father’s footsteps and become either a magistrate or lawyer was their goal. Years later, having become the foremost collectors and publishers of folk tales in Europe, the brothers seem to prove the adage that “all avenues are open to the law student, provided that he give law up.” At Marburg, the brothers came under the influence and protection of Friedrich Carl von Savigny, a young professor of jurisprudence whose historical and “organic” approach to legal history depended on romantic notions of the “Volkish” origins of law from a dim Teutonic past. For Savigny, as for the Grimms later, culture was originally the common property of all members of a Volk. The Grimms, at that point, were drawn to the study of old German literature. The law disappeared for them, and around 1806 they jointly undertook the collection of oral folk talks, children’s stories and fairy tales common to the German regions of Hesse, old Nordic texts and medieval literature.

In 1803, the Grimms met two men who changed their lives. Clemens Brentano, a gifted romantic poet, and Achim von Arnim, one of Germany’s most famous romantic novelists, who were themselves involved in collecting old German folk songs. The two writers engaged the Grimms, knowing of their emerging talent as archivists and collectors of folk tales. Thus, the Grimms were financially able to focus their energy toward research and collection, trying in their own way to discover the “natural poetry” (Naturpoesie) of peasants and villagers. In letters, books and essays written between 1806 and 1812 (despite being hampered by the Napoleonic wars), the Grimms formulated their views about the origins of literature based on tales, legends, myths, pagan belief and, in general, “oral art.” Their original purpose was to write a scholarly treatise about the history of German poesie and how it receded during the Renaissance, taking refuge thereafter in oral tradition.

In 1812, the Grimms published volume one of Kinder- und Hausmarchen, usually translated as “Children’s and Household Tales,” containing 86 stories. In 1815, they published a second volume with an additional 70 tales. Unique to the tales was the fact that the Grimms published the stories “raw,” many in original dialect or sub-variants of local German speech, others as fragments, ditties, sayings and aphorisms. Among these original tales, who knew that stories like “Cinderella,” Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel,” as well as lesser known stories like “The Robber Bridegroom,” the “Frog Prince,” “Little Red Cap” and dozens of others would become world famous? As the years went by, under criticism from religious and academic quarters, Wilhelm Grimm in particular set about “cleaning up” the tales, organizing them into more formalized wholes, deleting the more scandalous, violent, or macabre ones, thus producing after seven more editions, what we in the West now know as “the fairy tales” in their modern, Disneyfied form.

The Complete First Edition of “The Original Folk and Fairy Tales” of the Brothers Grimm is a beautifully made, fascinatingly produced, and hauntingly original work of art. Jack Zipes, emeritus professor of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, along with illustrator Andrea Dezso, a visual artist and professor at Hampshire College, have made a book for the ages, one enjoyable by a wide range of readers and a delight for the eye and ear. The famous tales are present – “Little Snow White,” “Briar Rose,” “Puss in Boots” and “The Frog King” – as are a host of lesser known but important stories, along with a group of ribald, mysterious, obtuse, and some downright malignant tales featuring death, cannibalism, slaughter and revenge. It is a delight to read these magic short pieces, especially in their original form, free of the carnage of revision, censorship and expurgation that the tales underwent on their way from their German romantic origins to Victorian rectitude. Princeton University Press has included in this edition a brilliant preface by Zipes, along with 20 beautiful illustrations and a complete index.

These originally oral tales feature a cast of characters straight out of late-feudal times – kings and princesses, millers, artisans, peasants, evil mothers (Wilhelm substituted step-mothers in later editions as a sop to Christian sentiments about motherhood), nasty animals, brooding servants and dullards galore. Birds, cats, mice, geese and frogs stand in for humans, and exhibit all the human frailties, moral weaknesses and jealousies one can imagine. Walter Ong, the noted linguist and philosopher, once observed that when the oral and literate traditions collide there is a lot of original friction. Nothing could illustrate the truth of this dictum better than this exquisite volume of Grimm stories as they were first published in 1812, stories that combine the savagely weird, the hauntingly violent and the beautifully wise.

Gaylord Dold is a crime novelist based in Wichita. Visit his website at www.gaylorddold.com.

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