Household and children’s stories (Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1812)

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From the evil stepmother to Prince Charming: Household and children’s stories by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (1812).

Reading Household Stories today is an enriching experience for anyone interested in fantasy literature and folklore. We all have enjoyed these stories in many ways: told to us by our parents or guardians, read in children’s adaptations and of course the Disney animated versions.

But many things come as a shock to the quick-witted reader. One of them is how family unfriendly they are. They include abuse, mutilation, murder and cannibalism, while their bowdlerised versions (mostly) don’t. Lesson number one, dear reader: these stories were not written for children. They are folk tales collected by two brothers called Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in 19th century Germany. As part of a nationalistic project. We’ll get to that later. If you’re any familiar with folk and myths you already know that they are anything but family-friendly, especially bearing in mind that childhood as a period of life where people are pure and innocent and need to be protected from what the world really is at the end of the day, is a really modern concept. So well, adults get bored, adults tell each other stories to help cope with the way the world is, many centuries later some editor decides they will sell more books if they slap the “for children” label on the cover. So it goes.

So the first reaction of some people is to automatically assume that the “original” version is the best because, hey, it’s the original. Damn Disney studios, who dared to adapt them into something that was actually palatable to modern audiences and had a moral that is acceptable by today’s standards! Because that’s another thing I’m at. A lot of us assume a fairytale is a fairytale because it has a moral. And in a lot of the original stories the moral is that it’s better to be pretty, lazy and deceiving than ugly and honest. The good are not rewarded and even more so, the bad are not punished automatically, they get rewarded anyway more often than not.

And anyway, which one is the original version? These tales have been polished by the tides of many centuries of retelling, and they were only fixed for a brief period of time when the Grimms wrote them down, because as you can see they haven’t stopped changing since then. It’s not even clear that they gathered the stories from actual illiterate peasants, but they didn’t really care because they were more interested in the stories serving a nationalistic project to unify Germany as a single people, by means of proving that culturally, they were always such. You’ll have to figure out yourselves if banning the book in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich was a justified move or not.

All in all, it’s not great commuting reading, all the opposite really. But if you are interested in really understanding what fantasy and speculative fiction are all about, you have to sit down and read carefully through this at least once. Happy trails!

References:

The Guardian: Grimm’s Fairy Tales: 200th anniversary triggers a year of celebration.

The New Yorker: Once upon a time.

Biting Dog Press: A short interview with Jack Zipes.

Coursera: Fantasy and science fiction: the human mind, our modern world.

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