Grimm Reality

What are the ‘original’ fairy tales?  

This is a question that’s intrigued me for most of my life and I posted some of my thoughts last month, in Pumpkin Tales.

It’s an interesting fact that most people in the western world consider the tales told/collected by the Brothers Grimm to be the original versions.  And I do agree largely with the comments made by Adam Glidwitz in his recent article, In Defense of Real Fairy Tales – published in the Wall Street Journal, no less.  Here I thank Dead Machinery’s Blog  for the introduction and pointer.

Fairy tales still command our attention and a hold a certain amount of weight to be taken ‘seriously’, it seems.  Which is great!  The conversation about these tales should never end!  They’re so vital to our culture, our consciousness, our condition…  Whether we realise it or not.

Fortunately, as I said, there are still a lot of people out there who value the meat and substance of these stories enough to tell them, read them, write them, re-write them, and write about them.

Good.  Ultimately, that’s what counts.

That the tales themselves are being told and retold shows us a little of their value and weight, their necessity in our lives – both children and adults – even if we can’t quite get to the bottom of what they’re telling us.  But maybe that’s the key.  Perhaps it’s their mystery and elusiveness, their ability to hover just at the edges of our understanding, that make them so powerful.  And keep us coming back for more.  Long after we should’ve outgrown them.  After all, they’re children’s stories, right?

First page of Grimm's Children's and Household...

But, the question of the original..?

Glidwitz says,

“The real Grimm fairy tales enthrall children because they are bloody. […] The children I meet literally cannot believe that Cinderella’s step-sisters dismember themselves to get the slipper to fit. And they really cannot believe that adults have been peddling the sweet, anodyne version of the story all this time, when there was another version that was so much cooler.”

This is true, and a there’s been a lot of research and psychoanalysis to back this.  And there’ve been a lot of dark and macabre fairy stories produced to satisfy that same hunger in more grown-up audiences – who can feel free to indulge in a little fantasy story-telling when it’s so black and twisted and oh-so-not-for-children.

As a culture, we keep going back to Grimm because we want to.  Because those tales still satisfy a need in us.  But not, necessarily, because they are the ‘original’.

Last month, I mentioned that the version of Cinderella collected by Charles Perrault in France, 1697, actually featured the pumpkin and the fairy godmother – 115 years before Grimm, and 253 years before Disney.  This morning I rediscovered my old University copy of Giambattistta Basile’s Il Pentamerone, fairy tales collected during his life in Naples and published posthumously in 1634/6 – featuring the story Cat Cinderella.  Sixty-three years prior to Perrault; 178 years before Grimm and 316 years before Disney.  In fact, the Grimms themselves say of the collection, “We may therefore look on this collection of fifty tales as the basis of many others…”

Grimm Details

There’s a truly grim detail in Basile’s tale that I’ve never seen included in any other rendition of the story: Cinderella (Zezzola) herself is responsible for the murder of her unkind stepmother, installing her teacher as a favoured substitute in her place – who then turns out to be even more wicked.  She really should have known, when it was the teacher who suggested the murder in the first place!

Neither the Grimms, nor anybody else, have kept this detail, and I personally don’t get the sense that this fits in with the ‘original’ idea of the story.  It makes the character too complex, and her reward at the end not completely fitting.

However, Cat Cinderella does share many common features with the Grimms’ Aschenputtel, of course – although there’s a date tree instead of a hazel tree (or a fairy godmother!) and the sisters’ eyes don’t get pecked out at the end.  So, where did that Grimm detail come from?

Well, apparently, it didn’t even feature in the Grimms’ first collection of 1812.  It was added to a subsequent edition in 1819.  Philip Pullman mentions this in the note to Cinderella in his new book, Grimm Tales for Young and Old. I checked it on both versions via Project Gutenberg and the versions (although not so clearly the dates) add up.  Here we may ask, ‘So, what’s the ‘original’ Grimm then?’

But the real question is, if both Basile and the Grimms felt themselves at liberty to add EXTRA gory details like these into their stories, which, oh sacrilege are supposed to be the original versions, word for word from the forest – where does that leave the hunter of the truly wild fairy tale?

We need to go back, way back.  Much further back in time than nineteenth, or even seventeenth century Europe.

But here we must wait.  As the clock has long struck twelve and my pumpkin is leaving…

Which are your favourite versions of the fairy tales?

Oliver Herford illustrated the fairy godmother...


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