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Online via Blackboard
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Not for kids … an illustration from the new edition of Grimms’ fairytales. Illustration: © Andrea DezsöRapunzel is impregnated by her prince, the evil queen in Snow White is the princess’s biological mother, plotting to murder her own child, and a hungry mother in another story is so “unhinged and desperate” that she tells her daughters: “I’ve got to kill you so I can have something to eat.” Never before published in English, the first edition of the Brothers Grimms’ tales reveals an unsanitised version of the stories that have been told at bedtime for more than 200 years.
The Grimms – Jacob and Wilhelm – published their first take on the tales for which they would become known around the world in December 1812, a second volume following in 1815. They would go on to publish six more editions, polishing the stories, making them more child-friendly, adding in Christian references and removing mentions of fairies before releasing the seventh edition – the one best known today – in 1857.
Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, says he often wondered why the first edition of the tales had never been translated into English, and decided, eventually, to do it himself. “Though the Grimms kept about 100 of the tales from the first edition, they changed them a good deal. So, the versions with which most English-speaking (and German-speaking) readers are familiar are quite different from the tales in the first edition,” he told the Guardian.
His version of the original 156 stories is just out from Princeton University Press, illustrated by Andrea Dezsö, and shows a very different side to the well-known tales, as well as including some gruesome new additions.
How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat. They offer her slices of bread, but can’t stave off her hunger: “You’ve got to die or else we’ll waste away,” she tells them. Their solution: “We’ll lie down and sleep, and we won’t get up again until the Judgement Day arrives.” They do; “no one could wake them from it. Meanwhile, their mother departed, and nobody knows where she went.”
Rapunzel, meanwhile, gives herself away to her captor when – after having a “merry time” in the tower with her prince – she asks: “Tell me, Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming too tight? They don’t fit me any more.” And the stepmothers of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel were, originally, their mothers, Zipes believing that the Grimms made the change in later editions because they “held motherhood sacred”. So it is Snow White’s own mother who orders the huntsman to “stab her to death and bring me back her lungs and liver as proof of your deed. After that I’ll cook them with salt and eat them”, and Hansel and Gretel’s biological mother who abandons them in the forest.
Zipes speculates that the Grimms’ changes were “reflecting sociologically a condition that existed during their lifetime – jealousy between a young stepmother and stepdaughter”, because “many women died from childbirth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and there were numerous instances in which the father remarried a young woman, perhaps close in age to the father’s eldest daughter”.
Cinderella’s stepsisters go to extraordinary attempts to win the prince in the original Grimms version of the tale, slicing off parts of their feet to fit the golden slipper – to no avail, in the end, because the prince spots the blood spilling out of the shoe. “Here’s a knife,” their mother urges, in Zipes’ translation. “If the slipper is still too tight for you, then cut off a piece of your foot. It will hurt a bit. But what does that matter?”
Zipes describes the changes made as “immense”, with around 40 or 50 tales in the first edition deleted or drastically changed by the time the seventh edition was published. “The original edition was not published for children or general readers. Nor were these tales told primarily for children. It was only after the Grimms published two editions primarily for adults that they changed their attitude and decided to produce a shorter edition for middle-class families. This led to Wilhelm’s editing and censoring many of the tales,” he told the Guardian.
Wilhelm Grimm, said Zipes, “deleted all tales that might offend a middle-class religious sensitivity”, such as How Some Children Played at Slaughtering. He also “added many Christian expressions and proverbs”, continued Zipes, stylistically embellished the tales, and eliminated fairies from the stories because of their association with French fairy tales. “Remember, this is the period when the French occupied Germany during the Napoleonic wars,” said Zipes. “So, in Briar Rose, better known as Sleeping Beauty, the fairies are changed into wise women. Also, a crab announces to the queen that she will become pregnant, not a frog.”
The original stories, according to the academic, are closer to the oral tradition, as well as being “more brusque, dynamic, and scintillating”. In his introduction to The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, in which Marina Warner says he has “redrawn the map we thought we knew”, and made the Grimms’ tales “wonderfully strange again”, Zipes writes that the originals “retain the pungent and naive flavour of the oral tradition”, and that they are “stunning narratives precisely because they are so blunt and unpretentious”, with the Grimms yet to add their “sentimental Christianity and puritanical ideology”.
But they are still, he believes, suitable bedtime stories. “It is time for parents and publishers to stop dumbing down the Grimms’ tales for children,” Zipes told the Guardian. The Grimms, he added, “believed that these tales emanated naturally from the people, and the tales can be enjoyed by both adults and children. If there is anything offensive, readers can decide what to read for themselves. We do not need puritanical censors to tell us what is good or bad for us.”
To order The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm for £21.21 (RRP £24.95) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.
If you attend this performance and write a paragraph in reaction to it, you may replace any zero or low score on a homework assignment with 10/10.
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