It’s tempting to look at the glut of fairy tale material that’s washed up on our pop-cultural shores of late and conclude that the genre is having “a moment.” Adaptations, like waves, are coming in sets: two TV shows, two films based on “Little Red Riding Hood,” two on “Snow White” (a third was canceled in production), two on “Beauty and the Beast,” not to mention upcoming projects like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Tim Burton’s Pinocchio, Jack the Giant Killer, and the “Sleeping Beauty” riff Malificent, in which, in a magical bit of casting, Angelina Jolie will star as an evil queen.
But really these stories have never gone away, nor, despite parental grousing—“Cinderella” has too much housecleaning; “Jack and the Beanstalk” is unrealistic; and do they have to call them “dwarves”?—were they ever in danger of doing so. There have been who-knows-how-many retellings of the classic tales over the past two centuries, many of them by heavy hitters in the artistico-literary sphere. One such, the novelist Philip Pullman—whose own His Dark Materials trilogy is as unwilling to condescend to the young reader’s supposed delicacy as any Grimm story—has written a timely book of 50 fairy tale retellings, titled simply Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Grimm collection, those stories through which most of us—certainly those of us who grew up with Disney—first encountered the genre. Though it seems at this point like a mythical unity, “The Brothers Grimm” comprised two actual, distinct siblings: Jacob Ludwig Carl, born in 1785, and Wilhelm Carl, born a year later, the second- and third-eldest of Philipp and Dorthea Grimm’s nine children. They tended to do things in tandem: Both studied law at the University of Marburg before both becoming librarians to support the family after their mother’s death, and they never lived apart. It was at Marburg that, interested in what they thought of as indigenous German literature and inspired by a compendium of folk songs, the brothers began to collect folktales of their own. But the Grimms did not, as might be expected, wander the countryside searching for stories at the hearths of the German Volk. Their sources—one of whom, Dortchen Wild, Wilhelm later married—actually came from acquaintances among Germany’s aristocracy and middle class. Some of the stories, far from being German, were borrowed from the Frenchman Charles Perrault.
Narrative in the Grimm stories moves swiftly—this happens, then this, then that—and the thread of the story is often so strong that it’s hard to imagine events taking a different course than they do. Many of the tales begin with the banishment from home of a protagonist. She (for the most part) goes out in the world and acquires skills, tools, or magical properties, comes into conflict with antagonists, occasionally rescues some persecuted person, and is finally saved. There are certain bizarre commonalities: The mother is usually absent or dead (the stepmother, her replacement, serving as the outlet for some kind of repressed Freudian thing), fathers are invariably invisible or weak, and younger siblings are, generally speaking, the good ones.
The brothers’ project, which culminated in 1812 and 1815 with the release of the two-volume Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), was undertaken in a spirit of folkloric patriotism that was widespread in Germany at the time, partially as an effect of Romanticism’s fetishization of pastoral culture, and partly in the interests of solidifying a national identity after the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. The Grimms weren’t the only ones who sought to document what Johann Herder called the “natural” [as opposed to artistic] poetry of the land: Their contemporary Franz Xavier von Schönwerth collected tales as well, 500 of which were rediscovered in the Regensburg municipal archive last spring by curator Erika Eichenseer. The “lost” Schönwerth stories include versions of “Cinderella,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” among others, but Schönwerth didn’t bother to polish them the way the Grimms did. His stories drive forward relentlessly, leaving no room for literary detail or narrative gloss. As a result they’re less effective on the page, which might help explain how they came to be misplaced for so long.
Kinder- und Hausmärchen, on the other hand, went through seven editions in the Grimm brothers’ lifetime, eventually totaling 200 stories and 10 “children’s legends” in the edition of 1857, which is the basis of most translations published in English today. In later editions of their book the Grimms repolished the tales, fleshing the stories out with dialogue, scenic detail, and overtly Christian referents. Where in 1812 Rapunzel liked the prince she’d “pulled up” so well that they “lived in joy and pleasure” in her tower, in 1857 he “climbs up” and marries her first. Not only that: Rapunzel no longer gives away his visits by complaining that her clothes are too tight (because, of course, all that “joy” has made her pregnant), but by stupidly commenting how much heavier the witch is than the prince.