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Book Review: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition

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When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their “Children’s and Household Tales” in 1812, followed by a second volume in 1815, they had no idea that such stories as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Cinderella” would become the most celebrated in the world. Yet few people today are familiar with the majority of tales from the two early volumes, since in the next four decades the Grimms would publish six other editions, each extensively revised in content and style. For the very first time, ” The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm” makes available in English all 156 stories from the 1812 and 1815 editions. These narrative gems, newly translated and brought together in one beautiful book, are accompanied by sumptuous new illustrations from award-winning artist Andrea Dezso.

From “The Frog King” to “The Golden Key,” wondrous worlds unfold–heroes and heroines are rewarded, weaker animals triumph over the strong, and simple bumpkins prove themselves not so simple after all. Esteemed fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes offers accessible translations that retain the spare description and engaging storytelling style of the originals. Indeed, this is what makes the tales from the 1812 and 1815 editions unique–they reflect diverse voices, rooted in oral traditions, that are absent from the Grimms’ later, more embellished collections of tales. Zipes’s introduction gives important historical context, and the book includes the Grimms’ prefaces and notes.

The source material for Children’s and Household Tales was originally collected from books as well as friends and acquaintances in and around Kassel, Hesse in what is now Germany as well as Westphalia for the romantic poet Clemens Brentano between 1806 and 1812.  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm eventually came to distinguish between the Naturpoesie of the German Volk and the Kuntspoesie, or cultivated literature, which arose from and subsumed it.  Ultimately, Brentano found the collected tales unsuitable toward his purposes and gave the brothers his blessing to do with them as they pleased.  The first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published in 1812.

While even those tales were edited  in order to create something more than a skeletal fragment of a story, they are generally representative of local traditions.  The Grimms explained in their introduction (included)

“We have tried to grasp and interpret these tales as purely as possible. In many of them one will find that the narrative is interrupted by rhymes and verses that even possess clear alliteration at times but are never sung during the telling of a tale, and these are precisely the oldest and best tales. No incident has been added or embellished and changed, for we would have shied away from expanding tales already so rich in and of themselves with their own analogies and similarities.”

This first edition met with only moderate success.  Critics complained of crude, malformed stories.  Indeed, the second version of “A Story About a Brave Tailor” ended with “[The rest of this tale is missing.]”  They lamented the copious scholarly notes (also included).  And they noted the unsuitability of straightforward violence by children for children.  These are the selling points for the original tales and the very aspects that would disappear as Wilhelm Grimm strove to make their work palatable to a larger audience.

“It was not until the second edition of 1819 that there was a clear editorial change of policy that led to the refinement of the tales, especially by Wilhelm, who became the major editor from 1816 onward.”

Each successive edition was a little more puritanically Christian, a little less violent, a little more polished.  As they gathered more tales, they gathered more versions and selected the subjective best, or best parts, among them.  As their audience broadened, the variety of voices narrowed.

Translator Jack Zipes is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.  I first heard of him when he presented at 2007’s Fantasy Matters conference.  He wrote the introduction fro Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples in addition to dozens of his own books about fairy tales, folklore, and their collectors and creators.  Patrick Rothfuss, who also presented, calls him “brilliant.”  So, in case the academic credentials weren’t enough, he’s got the support of two of the biggest names in modern fantasy as well.  He describes the importance of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition in an interview.

The first edition is special and significant because one can still hear and ascertain the different voices of the people who provided the tales to the Grimms. These voices were effaced in later editions. If one studies the seven editions published by the Grimms, one can trace the continual editing of Wilhelm Grimm, who transformed the tales into aesthetically pleasing literary works. He also deleted many tales that appeared to be French stories, and he added Christian references, folk proverbs, ornate description, and moralistic comments. The tales in the first edition are curt, blunt, raw, and  dazzling in their naivete–that is, in their frank approach to the fantastic and absurd situations in people’s lives. In fact, many of the tales are more kafkaesque than Kafka’s tales.

Andrea Dezsö is a visual artist who works across a broad range of media. Her permanent public art is installed in two NYC subway stations, at CUNY Fiterman Hall, and at the US Embassy in Bucharest. Dezsö exhibits in museums and galleries worldwide and is associate professor of art at Hampshire College. (via Princeton University Press)

These early tales map the contours of an entirely different context in which tales are told versus the sanitized versions most readers are familiar with.  Of particular interest are the tales that were removed.  “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” is exactly as disturbing as it sounds.  The frankly amoral presentation of the tale incites the reader to contemplate its implications and formulate a preemptive response here, now.  “The Tablecloth, the Knapsack, the Canon, and the Horn” upsets class boundaries in an apparently unacceptable way.

So it wasn’t just brutality that was removed, but also overt class struggle.  The tale readers know as “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” had a distinctly dangerous character to it. The 1812 “Good Bowling and Card Playing” features not a fool, not even a desperate character, but a youth with no better options.

Now, there was a young man from a poor family who thought to himself, ‘Why not risk my life? I’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to win.  What’s there to think about?’

In a similar vein, the early “Rapunzel” doesn’t let her secret  visitor slip so much as innocently inquire about her pregnancy.

This edition is an essential companion to the typical Grimm collection based on the 1857 seventh edition.  If you love the tales, the ability to compare and contrast the classics with the originals is invaluable.  Should you wonder which version to start with, Zipes himself edited and translated The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm All-New Third Edition.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition is appealing because it offers the best glimpse into the folk tradition available in nineteenth century Europe and delivers it in a plain unadulterated manner.  It’s an eye opening look at the stories that have evolved into some of the most significant cultural metaphors in the Western world.

However, It’s worth noting that it has some esoteric appeal as well.  A certain type of pedant will enjoy the book because it will win arguments.  If you’ve ever heard someone, at some time, say something like “In the original “Snow White,” it wasn’t a kiss that woke her up.”  With this book in your perfectionist armory, you can tell folks exactly what the original stimulant was.

This volume should be in the library of any reader interested or invested in how and why stories change over time.  If you’ve ever found yourself particularly fond of an old text that’s continually reinterpreted or represented in any media, you’re likely to find something close to epiphany when you read these original tales.  The notion that there’s a pure story, the sort of one true form reinforced by postmodern intellectual property law, exhausts itself.  The Cinderellas of Cinder and Once Upon a Time are as valid as any other.

And, of course, if you’re here because we marked ourselves with Hipster Ariel, this is absolutely the one book of fairy tales that must be on your shelf.  It’s the intimidating, original, scholarly work that ends all other works.  The air of authenticity shimmering off it’s simple crisp cover and authoritative title only hints and the locally curated small batch tales collected within.

Recommended for Scholars, tale tellers, and Hipster Scouts.

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