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Monday, November 07, 2011

The Brothers Grimm - A Bella Online Article

A few years ago I was the short stories editor at Bella Online. I wrote several articles focusing not only on the technical points of short story writing but also on well-known story authors. I recently remembered one that I wrote on the brothers Grimm after viewing the new NBC show Grimm (which is growing on me as is Once Upon a Time; don't ask me which I like better). Below is the article still featured at Bella Online.

"Once upon a time..." are four of the most often-read words in literature. There aren’t many of us who haven’t heard them as a child, preface to tales of distressed damsels, heroic knights, predatory stepmothers, and stalking wolves that have become part of America’s folklore (thanks mostly to Walt Disney). But these tales were not originally meant for children – at least not before Disney candy-coated them in technicolor features. The origins of most of these stories have roots in darker folklore, folklore that was diligently collected by two brothers in the 19th century.

When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set about gathering the mostly Germanic narratives, they did so to preserve the oral history being threatened by a Napoleonic invasion that had set about suppressing the local culture. The brothers were in search of something that would unify the German people under this oppression and were indefatigable in their research. Often they would invite storytellers to their home, and the brothers would write down the tales. Interestingly, many of the storytellers were young women from middle-class families who had heard the stories from governesses and servants.

The narratives relayed were barely disguised morality tales and often had undertones of sex and violence to illustrate the downfall of the wicked and immoral. To make them more palatable for the middle-class gentry, the brothers substantially re-wrote and edited most of the stories, but some element of violence remained. Through various translations, punishments meted out to fairy tale villains were softpedalled because of the barbarity of the originals. For example, in the original "Snow White," the evil stepmother is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls dead. An early version of "Little Red Riding Hood" had both the girl and her grandmother eaten by the wolf. In some subsequent versions, the wolf even offered Little Red parts of her grandmother to eat. The Grimms provided alternative endings to these tales, with the evil stepmother falling off a mountain instead and a resourceful grandmother finding an escape for herself and her granddaughter. Actually, “Little Red Riding Hood” was lifted and conflated from a French version written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault.

Even though the brothers’ original intent was to be patriotic folklorists, they eventually compiled these stories into a collection of 210 fairy tales and entitled it Children’s and Household Tales, published in 1812. Many of these stories are familiar the world over: "Cinderella," "Hansel and Grethel," "The Six Swans," "Rumpelstiltskin," as well as many more. Despite the title, the original collection was not aimed at children, and the brothers even refused to illustrate it. Also, the book was not well received by many parents and clerypersons who considered the content too raw and uncivilized. Eventually, the book found a steadily growing audience and today, nearly two hundred years later, the collection and its various versions are best sellers worldwide; the only other book that outsells this opus is The Bible. Maybe its sustained popularity is due to the fact that it remains a source of imaginative and effective cautionary tales for young children.

So the next time you sit down to read a bedtime story to your little one, you might ponder two brothers who thought to preserve one culture and ended up changing the literature of children throughout the world.


Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 11/07/2011 06:32:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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