Walt Disney was by no means the first to disguise or eliminate sex, violence, and family conflict from the surface of the tales. Long before Disney transformed Snow White’s stepmother into an evil queen, the Grimms had seen to it that Snow White’s treacherous biological mother was replaced by a stepmother. (…) Wilhelm Grimm rewrote the tales so extensively and went so far in the direction of eliminating off-color episodes that he can be credited with sanitizing folktales and therefore paving the way for the process that made them acceptable children’s literature in all cultures.In this study of the Brothers Grimm’s Nursery and Household Tales, Maria Tatar discredits the myth that the Grimms were mere collectors of “authentic” folk tales that came straight from the mouths of peasant storytellers and captured the true “German spirit”. Of course, the reasons why the Brothers saw themselves as such have to do with the cultural climate in which their work was developed, but in any case, they were rewriters as much as they were collectors, and they left a visible mark on the tales.
A few examples: did you know that most “wicked stepmothers” were in fact biological mothers until the Brothers Grimm changed the stories? And that while they didn’t have much of a problem with violence, they erased most references to pregnancy and sexuality from the stories? Or that they added moral judgements, either explicitly or through strategically placed adjectives like “proud”, “arrogant”, “merciful” or “compassionate”? Or that “The Girl Without Hands” was originally a story about an incestuous father—the role played by the devil in the better known versions of the story was originally played by the heroine’s father?
I hope I’m not making The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales sound like a condemnation of the work the Brothers Grimm did. It’s not: what it is is a history. And understanding the tales’ history can better our understanding of them. Also, it’s a great deal of fun.
The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales is an in-depth study of fairy tales, but it’s one that’s meant to be accessible to the general reading public. It’s interesting, clear, and very fun to read. I’ve been reading fairy tales and books about them for a few years now, and sometimes I actually forget how our culture tends to perceive them. According to most definitions, fairy tales all have happy endings; they're about idealized situations, and even if they have dark elements, all wrongs are righted in the end; they teach simplistic moral lessons; they allow no shades of grey; and so on. This book will show you that this is not the case, but it will also show you where these perceptions comes from.
Also, I think I mentioned the other day that reading this book gave me a bit of a brain crush on Maria Tatar. Let me how you how it began:
Ernest Jones’s essay on psychoanalysis and folklore exemplifies the extent to which the efforts of critics can be misguided by excessive emphasis on sexual symbolism. Taking off a bride’s shoe, Jones asserts, has ‘the same defloration significant as to tear through the bridal wreath or to loosen [a] girdle.’ (…) One can scarcely help wonder how Jones would have interpreted the tale of Thousandfurs, who flees her father’s castle with a golden ring, a spinning wheel, and a bobbin, and then hides in the hollow of a tree, conceals her clothing in a nutshell, and prepares a tureen of soup with a ring at its bottom for the king who marries her in the end. The possibilities become too dizzying to contemplate.She then adds: “That psychoanalytic critics rarely agree on the symbolic meaning of an object or figure in a tale is also not designed to inspire confidence in their methods,” and can you argue with that? As much as I object to how sexist and rigid psychoanalytic interpretations of fairy tales can be (and believe me, I object a lot), my main problems with them really are methodological at their core.
The book also addresses the fact that one of the many reasons why fairy tales are often dismissed is their predictability, the fact that they have a structure, recurrent plot elements, and typified characters. I couldn’t agree more with what Maria Tatar has to say about this (and which actually reminded me of what Tolkien says on his wonderful essay “On Fairy Stories”):
A stable plot still leaves much room for variation. Skillful raconteurs can take the same story line and give it unique twists and turns. The tone may vary from one tale to the next, and the hero may be presented in different lights.My favourite chapter was probably “Taming the Beast”, in which Maria Tatar deals at length with a question I have mused over several times: what kind of collective madness could possess generation of retellers and critics to see “Bluebeard” as a cautionary tale about female misconduct? (Actually, the answer isn't all that difficult to guess.)
What Bettelheim and others do with few hesitations, reservations, or second thoughts, is to turn a tale depicting the most brutal kind of serial murders into a story about idle female curiosity and duplicity. These critics invite us to see the heroine’s quite legitimate curiosity as a perversion (or at least as a serious peccadillo), one that brings in its wake “serious regrets”. The genuinely murderous rage of Bluebeard and his folkloric cousins would presumably never have been aroused has it not been for the (symbolic) infidelity of his wives. As horrifying has those multiple crimes may be, they still do not success in deflating attention from the heroine’s single transgression.…and my brain crush grows. Maria Tatar is wise, insightful, clear, and occasionally deliciously ironic. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales is a book no fairy tale lover should miss.
A few more interesting passages:
Since traditionally folktales were related at adult gatherings after the children had been put to bed for the night, peasant raconteurs cold take certain liberties with their diction and give free play to their penchant for sexual innuendo or off-color allusions. In eighteen-century French versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the heroine unwittingly eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her grandmother, is called a slut by her grandmother’s cat, and performs a slow strip-tease for the wolf. An Italian version has the wolf kill the mother, make a latch cord of her tendons, a meat pie of her flesh, and wine from her blood. The heroine pulls the latch, eats the meat pie, and drinks the blood. Even this folktale, which in its later-day version appears to be the most explicitly didactic of all, evidently started out as a bawdy tale for adults hardly suitable for children. As much as some readers may be shocked by the cruelty and violence of the Grimms’ tales, they would find many of their versions tame in comparison with their corresponding peasant variations.(Have you posted about this book too? If so, let me know and I'll be happy to add your link here.)
A comparison of Perrault’s “Donkey-Skin” (the French counterpart of “Thousandfurs”) with Perrault’s “Cinderella” offers a typical contrast. In “Donkey-Skin”, the king’s unrestrained passion for his daughter is explained as nothing more than a temporary aberration caused by excessive grief over the loss of his wife. The king becomes confused, imagines himself a young man, and labors under the delusion that his daughter is “the maiden he had once wooed to be his wife.” Perrault is clearly at pains to frame excuses for the advances the king makes to his daughter. In “Cinderella”, by contrast, he strains his verbal resources to summon up negative terms (“haughty”, “proud”, “mean”, and so on) to describe Cinderella’s stepmother. Even when they violate basic codes of morality and decency, fathers remain noble figures who rarely commit premeditated acts of evil. Stepmothers, however, are unreconstructed villains, malicious by nature and disposition.
If there is a secret message planted in fairy tales, it is inscribed in plain sight, right on the surface of each tale’s events. Reading fairy tales requires us to set aside our preconceptions about the “lessons” imparted by specific tales. More often than not, these explicit lessons come from the pens of experts in the art of bowdlerizing fairy tales. Perrault, as we have seen, found Bluebeard’s murders of less consequence than the curiosity of Bluebeard’s wife about a forbidden chamber. He was perfectly prepared to read “Bluebeard” as a cautionary tale about warning women against excessive curiosity. Those who trust the tale rather than its teller will quickly understand why Perrault and others were so anxious to single out curiosity as the principal subject of “Bluebeard”. By highlighting the centrality of curiosity, Perrault succeeded in obscuring the connection between forbidden chambers and crimes of passion.