May 26, 2009

The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

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.

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.
(Have you posted about this book too? If so, let me know and I'll be happy to add your link here.)


  1. Great, in-depth review! I love literary theory, so this was right up that alley. Thanks for including the passages for us to get a taste of what your "brain crush" really had to say. :)

  2. You know, I always heard that the Grimm version was the real version. Interesting to know that even that was altered.

  3. Where do you find these gems? Fantastic review.

  4. Wow, I am requesting this right away from the library. I never bought into the 'happily ever after' versions of fairy tales mostly because my first exposure was a pretty morose collection of Hans Christian Andersen's tales (I think I cried at the end of every one), and a version of Grimm's which seem to be somewhere inbetween 'original' and 'sanitized'. Plenty of chopped-off hands and cannibalism, but also lots of step-mothers. I would be fascinated to learn more. I've always wanted to read "Grimm's Grimmest" which I've heard is more authentic, but perhaps not?

  5. I really need to read this. Of all the fairy tales I've ever read, I've never actually sat down and read a literary perspective of them. Non-fiction is one of those areas I'm seriously weak in.

    I do wish you would quit making everything you read sound so good!! I swear, I don't need to look for books anymore. I just come over here to see what to read next!

  6. Sheesh. I just learned bucketfuls from your review, so I can't imagine how much I could learn from reading the entire book! It truly sounds fascinating, and I'd really love to give it a try despite the fact that I fear I wouldn't really understand it all. Must stop thinking like that and just dive into these books though. Must. Must. Must.

  7. This sounds so fascinating! I hadn't really known anything about the origins of Grim's fairytales. I will have to add this one to my wish list. Great review, Nymeth.

  8. Such an interesting review. Especially about step mothers.

    I grew up on the German version of the fairy tales - the Grimm, and only relatively recently came across the more adult versions.

    For example, my childhood Cinderella did not have a fairy godmother, but instead had a magical tree growing from her mother's grave.

    And like Daphne says, lots of feet and hands and things being chopped off.

    I always thought the father in that story was remarkably weak.

    Have you read The Virago Book of Fairy Tales? Very interesting. Quite a few versions of blue beard in there, and most certainly they have a subtext about dangerous husbands, rather than mischievous wives.

  9. Ana, another wonderful review!

    This is actually a book that I have on my shelf and as I am dreadfully behind on the non-fiction part of the Once Upon a Time challenge (and of course because I desperately want to read it anyway), I think you have prompted me to bring it off the shelf.

  10. This looks wonderful! I have been wanting to read a good book about fairy tales for a while now, but I didn't know what one would be good, so I put it off. I will be getting this book when I get back home.

  11. Quick additional comment re: Masha -- my version of Cinderella had a magical tree on her mother's grave, too. I much prefer the versions in my book to any others I've seen. I wonder if it's the same?

  12. Now I have a crush on Tatar too! This book sounds right up my alley!

    Thanks for the great quotes (as usual). =)

  13. I always figured Disney had made the fairy tales really saccharine, but I never realized how much until in college I read a bunch of collections of old versions- french, grimm's, and others. This book sounds like it would open my eyes even more!

  14. Thanks for an interesting review. Growing up in Denmark, we are spoon fed with Hans Christian Andersen, whom I never took a liking to at all. I read the Grimm's fairy tales myself when I got a little older, and liked them much better. However, the HC Andersen fairy tales are not really kid's stuff either. A lot of them were meant for a grown up audience, and yes, many of them does not have a happy ending at all.

    Re. Disney, one just have to think of The Little Mermaid in the Disney version compared to the real HC Andersen version. Worlds apart. And definitely NO happy ending.

  15. mjmbecky: Literary criticism can be hit or miss for me, but this was definitely a hit! She's very insightful, and she never gets carried away and forgets what the stories actually say, unlike some theorists :P

    Amanda: They're the originals on which most of the retellings we know today are based, but in their turn they're based on other versions, and so on. That's why some people don't even talk of originals in relation to fairy tales. I mean, there's always one in the sense that someone DID create the story at some point, it didn't just come out of nowhere...but it's pretty much impossible to trace in some cases.

    Scrap Girl: I kept seeing Tatar's name being mentioned in relation to fairy tales, and fortunately my library had this!

    Daphne: Andersen was definitely not one for happy endings :P If I'm not mistaken, Grimm's Grimmest has versions that appeared in the first edition of their tales, so those are less sanitized than later ones.

    Stephanie: I've been on a roll when it comes to non-fiction lately... I have no idea why! Anyway, I think you'd enjoy this. And lol...sorry :P

    Debi: There's absolutely nothing here you wouldn't understand!

    Literary Feline: You know me, and I could read 10 books on fairy tales in a row and never tire of them :P But I really think this is a book anyone would find rewarding. I hope you enjoy it!

    Masha: Thanks! I remember that version of Cinderella too, but not when or where I came across it. And yep, I've read The Virago book. I loved the stories and Angela Carter's notes on them!

    Paperback Reader: Thank you! I'm sure you'll find this book as fascinating as I did :)

    Jenny: This one is an excellent introduction! Another one I highly recommend is From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner.

    J.S. Peyton: She's awesome, isn't she? :)

    Jeane: I grew up with both Disney versions and some of the ones by the Grimms, so I was more or less aware of the changes. But there's definitely a lot to be learned from this book!

    Louise: I much prefer the Grimms to Andersen too. I still remember my shock when I first read the original Little Mermaid! I was quite attached to the Disney story - it was the first tape my parents ever bought for me :P

  16. Wow! I teach using Maria Tatar. She is prolific as a thinker and writer. I use two of her books: The Classic Fairy Tales and The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales.
    She brings intriguing theories and reliable research about fairy tales to all of her work.
    Have your read Jack Zipes? (You may have, there is so much to enjoy here, and I've just arrived.)
    Anyway, I teach college writing and have a blog that my students and others use.
    I will add this blog to my list of go to places. My students will go gaga!

  17. Sounds incredibly interesting. I have The Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes on my list to read, and I think it's similar. I think you reviewed that a few months ago -- you were the one who got it onto my list, I think! Which of these two is better or are they just different?

  18. Nyyyyyyyyyymeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeth!!!!!!

    One day I am going to bury you in books. And I'm going to invite the whole blogosphere to help me!

    (Translation: This sounded interesting before when you mentioned what it was about. Now I'm cursing myself for being such a spender. I could've bought this instead of other things!)

  19. I'm a slacker...I haven't read any of these fairy tales!! But I did read your review and really enjoyed the insights and information that you supplied!!

  20. I really love the idea of this book, but would it best be read if you're already familiar with Grimms' tales? I know the tales as they are most commonly told, which is probably a deviation of the tales told by the Grimms Brothers. One thing that always frustrated me in school while reading secondary material was not being familiar enough with the primary material. I'm rambling. Get ready for a couple rambly comments from Trish since I'm catching up. :)

  21. I believe you hooked me on Jack Zipes, and this looks like a fabulous next read along those lines. I adore Grimms' fairytales (in all their gory glory) and I'm always up for more analysis. Especially if it's analysis I can get behind, versus Bettelheim. Thanks!

  22. I'm always fascinated by fairy tales. This sounds like something that I should pick up!

  23. I was in a bookstore last Sunday and came across a book called Erotic Fairy tales (or something like that). There were fairy tales re-written by the author but before every tale there was a history of it. I read the one before Cinderella and it was really fascinating. It's said that one of the first occurances of this story was from China (or Japan). A shoe signifies a bound foot which was considered to be erotic. The smaller the shoe the more erotic it was. The shoe fell from the sky and the price, I think, was aroused by the sise of it, lol. In some versions Cinderella is also referred to as a prostitute. It's fascinating to say the least. I am okay with the Grimm brothers modifying the stories because obviously you cannot explain what erotic and prostitute means to a child :)

    I will have to get my hands on this one. Thanks for the review Nymeth.

  24. This sounds SO interesting Nymeth. Do you think I'd appreciate it without knowing the fairytales inside out? Ot is it better to be armed with books of fairy tales as well?

  25. I never heard of this woman but I love her!!!!!! Those quotes cracked me up, she's so right:)

    I've just finished Sandman 1 and in one of the stories in the Doll's House there's an early version of Red riding Hood (the one where she eats the flesh and the blood of the grandmother and undresses slowly for the wolf) and it gave me the chills!
    You can't argue with the fact that in whichever version Riding Hood is always clueless and lacking any kind of good sense! I much prefer her in the movie Hoodwinked:)

  26. Interesting! There's something fascinating about the fairy tales and why we can't seem to get enough of them, isn't it? ;) Great review as always!

  27. Fascinating! I'm not really up on my fairytales but I'd love to read a book of the 'original' ones, or a book that has both the peasant folk versions and the later sanitized versions. Is there such a book?

  28. I am so glad you posted this review! I had seen this book and heard it mentioned before, and had been curious about it's contents. It sounds like just the thing I have been looking for. I am really interested in the original sources of the fairy tales that kids see today, and think that this book would be an excellent read. Thanks!

  29. Absolutely awesome!! I MUST have this book. I've loved fairy tales since I was a child. That's why I went into illustration and children's writing for my majors. I absolutely love it!!! You should stop by my website and see my pen and ink illustrations of Riding Hood.

  30. Eeks! You know, I always knew that the Grimm Brothers sanitized their stories, but I never knew how "unsanitary" the originals exactly were. I read a couple of reviews about Grimms Grimmest, but they didn't give the whole picture the way your review did. Great job!

  31. Great review! this book sounds fabulous for any book lover, because it tells where some of our stories came from. thank you!

  32. This one sounds good. I haven't by any means read all of the Grimm stories but I've always enjoyed them. I particularly like adaptations of them be they book or movie. I may have to see about picking this up. Great review!!!

  33. I don't read nearly enough non-fic or books about reading, but I bet I would love this book. I heart fairy tales, and it would be really fun to read a good non-fic book about fairy tales. Thanks for recommending.

  34. This is such a fantastic post! I absolutely adore learning about the origins of fairy tales.

    Awesome that I already own this book too, so I'm all set. lol :)

  35. I love this review! I have a kind of brain crush on Tatar, too... after reading her annotations for Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales.

  36. DiamondsandToads: I have a copy of The Classic Fairy Tales on my tbr shelf that I've been meaning to get to. You used a word that I think describes her very well: reliable. I don't always trust everything I read about fairy tales, but I do trust her. And yes, I've read Zipes - love him too!

    Rebecca: Yes, I did read that one last year. I think they're just different, and complement each other very well. While this book focuses on the tales themselves, the Zipes book is more about the Brothers. Who they were, what motivated them, the cultural climate they lived in, etc. Both are very interesting!

    Shanra: lol! You know, "buried in books" would actually make a nice epitaph :P

    Staci: You're not a slacker! It's never too late :)

    Trish: She actually includes an appendix with some of the tales mentioned in the book, so you can always read them there! And I love me some rambly comments from Trish, so please keep them coming :D

    Kiirstin: I think you'd enjoy this for sure! Hers is definitely an analysis I can get behind. I also recommend Marina Warner, whose approach is mostly historical rather than psychological. From the Beast to the Blonde is a fascinating book.

    Mee: I bet you'd find it very interesting!

    Violet: There are so many theories out there about the origins of well-known tales! I've heard about the oriental Cinderella, but I haven't actually read any of those versions. I should investigate!

    Joanna: Like I was telling Trish, there's an appendix with actual fairy tales, so you're good :D

    Valentina: lol, she really is. And I love her subtle sarcasm. And ooh, I remember that version! It really is gruesome. Also, I haven't actually heard of Hoodwinked. Sometimes I think I live under a rock :P

    Melody: There really is! I never tire of reading them or reading about them.

  37. tanabata: Maria Tatar also edited a book called The Classic Fairy Tales, which focuses on a few well-known tales, like Snow White, Bluebeard, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. and presents several versions of them: early ones, well-known ones by the Grimms and Perrault, modern retellings, etc. It also includes a few essays about fairy tales by several authors at the end. I have a copy which I haven't read yet, but there's no way it won't be awesome!

    Zibilee: I bet this will answer many of your questions! I hope you enjoy it :)

    M.M.E: Thank you for stopping by! I was taking a look at your art and I love it :)

    Naida: thanks!

    Hazra: Grimms Grimmest is one I have to get my hands on! I'd love to read those first edition versions.

    Marie, I really found it fabulous! Informative, detailed, and accessible. A great combination :)

    Ladytink: I still haven't read them all either. I started reading the complete edition I have last year, but I got distracted halfway through :P

    Kim: I bet you would too!

    Joanne: Thank you! I hope you enjoy the book :D

    Marineko: I have my eye on those annotated editions!

  38. I love this kind of stuff! The Bluebeard thing has always annoyed me. Like it was better for her not to know what sort of man she married? Sheesh. I have always loved Angela Carter's take on that story. :-)

  39. Now this sounds right up my alley. I love your new phrase "brain crush" and know exactly what you mean! It's always interesting to look at the motivations and changes made by what has become respected classics such as The Brother Grimm. Am rushing off to track down a copy.

  40. This sounds awesome! I will definitely be keeping an eye out for it!

  41. Oh Nymeth! Thank you for the review of this book. I can not wait to get my hands on a copy and lose myself in this book!

  42. It should be clarified that the first edition of Grimms' tales did contain the much harsher versions described: The stepmothers were biological mothers; there's incest, pregnancies, infanticide, etc. The Grimms were not recording them for children and didn't shy away from that. It was the publishers who requested that subsequent editions be made suitable for children. It's very difficult to find a first edition, though. Most of them you can buy are the third edition.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.