Today, December 20th, 2012, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen – Fairy Tales for Children and for the Home by Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm. Like so many books destined to become classics, it was a slow seller at first and only took off several years after publication.
Like most German children, I grew up with Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Of course, Grimm’s tales had somewhat fallen out of favour in the 1970s and were deemed too violent and too old-fashioned by the post-1968 generation. Instead children should read realistic tales reflecting the world they lived in – groan. But luckily, my parents – though nominally members of the 1968 generation – did not think much of its more fringe ideas and so my mother told and read Grimm’s fairy tales to me as bedtime stories. And not the watered down versions either, but the bloody originals, where eyes are pecked out, toes are hacked off, wicked stepmothers dance themselves to death of red-hot coals and wicked maids are stuffed into nail-lined barrels and dragged to death by wild horses. The fairy tales obviously did not harm me, even though I have written a few gruesome stories of my own. Though I blame watching too many sword and sandal epics on afternoon TV for those.
Nowadays, exactly 200 years after they were first published, Grimm’s fairy tales seem far from being in danger of being forgotten. On the contrary, they seem more popular than ever. My personal list of mythology inspired fantasy and SF lists some two A4 pages of Grimm’s fairy tale retellings alone, spanning the whole range from YA to erotica, penned by authors ranging from Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates and Günther Grass via Cornelia Funke and Jim Hines, Alex Flinn and Philip Pullman, Shannon Hale and Patricia C. Wrede all the way to Robin McKinley and Anne Rice (and many, many others – I can’t possibly list every author who did fairy tale retellings). This year alone, not one but two Hollywood films based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves came out. And on US television, there are currently not one but two popular TV dramas loosely based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Once Upon a Time and Grimm respectively. So 200 years after their first publication, the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm are certainly not in danger of extinction. Or are they?
For while there are dozens of updatings and retellings of the Grimms’ classic fairy tales about, the original tales themselves are in danger of falling by the wayside. Instead, Grimm’s Fairy Tales have become one of those classic texts that everybody vaguely knows or at least believes to know, but few people have actually read. And like many other literary classics of this sort – Dracula comes to mind or Frankenstein or The Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro or even the Holy Bible – the various media adaptions and retellings have coloured the view of the originals.
Now I have nothing against fairy tale retellings and adaptions. In fact, I love many of them. The lovely Czech TV fairy tale adaptions such as the 1973 Christmas classic Three Wishes for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel/Tri orísky pro Popelku) or the wonderfully romantic and slyly satirical TV series The Fairy Tale Bride (Arabela) from 1979 were staples of my childhood and are still as delightful as they were back when I was six. The classic animated Disney film versions of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are still as gorgeous as they were back in the late 1930s to 1950s when they were painstakingly animated by hand. And the world would certainly be poorer without Angela Carter’s In the Company of Wolves, Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter, Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red, Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl or Jim C. Hines’ The Stepsister Scheme.
However, there is still a world of difference between a retelling – no matter how wonderfully done – and the originals. I remember when I first saw the classic Disney fairy tale adaptions and read beautifully illustrated children’s books from the US (there was a series of fairy tale picture books illustrated with photos of beautiful cloth puppets in the late 1970s – this flickr set has some images) as a young child, I asked my mother why those beautiful films and books got the stories all wrong. Because as someone who had had the original tales read to her as bedtime stories, I couldn’t help but see that those American films and picture books were missing a lot of parts, mostly the grislier details of dancing to death on red hot coals and chopping off your own toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. The reason was – so my mother told me – that American kids got scared more easily than German kids, so the scarier and bloodier bits of the fairy tales were taken out in the USA. Typing this as an adult, it seems unintentionally funny, though as a kid I fully accepted this and even refrained from telling my American kindergarten friends that this was not how the story goes, because after all I did not want them to be scared. In fact, my mother even got it sort of right, though adult me of course knows that it was the parents rather than the kids who were the problem. American kids would likely have loved Grimm’s original fairy tales with all the blood and the cannibalism and the vague sexual references to pregnancies just as much as I did. Still, I accepted that those cloth doll picture books and Disney films and Czech fairy tale movies were just a version of the story, not the version.
Hence I was stunned when I realized that to many people, often but not limited to Americans, the Disney versions were the real versions of the respective tales and any other versions, including the originals, just some form of aberration. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so shocked – after all, I knew that Americans only got to see Grimm’s Fairy Tales in cleaned up and watered down editions with gorgeous packaging during childhood, so how on Earth should they know that the real version of the tales was often much darker and more violent, when they’ve never been exposed to it?
But various adaptions and retellings are not just crowding out the original tales – in fact, plenty of people now believe that the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant for people living today, because they don’t match modern western narrative styles anymore. A few months ago, I got into a fight with someone on an internet forum who claimed that Grimm’s Fairy Tales were a classic that was no longer relevant and no longer read. I’ve also recently come across at least two interviews with writers I otherwise respect (no links because one was a TV interview and I cannot locate the other) who had written retellings of various classic fairy tales, not just because they had a cool idea for a retelling, but because the originals were deemed to old-fashioned for modern audiences. And in all cases, the complaints were very similar, namely that the characters in the tales were too blank, that they often had no personality beyond “good”, “evil”, “lazy” or “courageous”, that some of them didn’t even have names and that in a few cases the gender of a character was not obvious, for the character was only referred to as “the child”.
And both times I read the interview and thought, “Well, duh.” Because all the supposed deficiencies given are due to the fact that Grimm’s Fairy Tales come from the oral tradition, where things that look like bugs in written storytelling (e.g. one-dimensional characters without names and with little personality) are actually features. Because telling a story is different from writing it down, as anybody who’s ever tried to do both knows. And indeed, fairy tales are best told rather than read out. When I was very young, my mother would sometimes tell a fairy tale – one of the really common ones like Cinderella or Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel that everybody knows – rather than read from a book. The experience is quite different, both for the teller and the audience. I’d advise everybody who has young children to try it at least once. Pick a fairy tale you like and know very well and just tell it in your own words rather than read it out.
Philip Pullman, who has recently published his own retellings of his favourite fifty Grimm’s Fairy Tales, is one of those who gets it. In this interview in the Telegraph he explains that though he tried to go back to the original texts and shed the various popular additions that have crept in in the meantime such as Cinderella’s fairy godmother (does not exist in the Grimm version, only in Charles Perrault’s) or that the frog prince is unenchanted with a kiss (not in the Grimm version either, instead the frog is thrown against the wall in a fit of rage and turns into a prince), he did not feel wedded to the original text, because the fairy tales were originally oral tales, intended to be retold again and again.
And indeed, Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm themselves edited the tales they collected by combining tales which were similar to each other, editing out sexual references (though some still remain) and adding Christian references, though the fairy tales are remarkably non-Christian for the early 19th century. There is only one tale that I can think of – Marienkind a.k.a. Mary’s Child – that is explicitly Christian. Interestingly, it’s also a story I have never liked. It’s a variation on a theme that runs through many of Grimm’s fairy tales, that of the beautiful girl who marries a prince only to find that every child she bears him vanishes shortly after birth, usually stolen by some malevolent entity. The prince begins to suspect that his new wife is a witch who kills or eats babies and has her sentenced to death, usually by burning at the stake. In the nick of time, the truth is revealed. Rumpelstiltzkin is a variation on this theme, as is The Six Swans. These stories always baffled me as a child, for why was the prince such an arsehole and why did the princess never say what really happened? As an adult, I can clearly see the resonances to the many real life cases of young women whose babies were either stillborn or died of sudden infant death syndrome and who found themselves sentenced to death for infanticide, the punishment for which was often burning at the stake. Viewed in that light, those stories seem more like cautionary tales for young girls. Be careful, if you have a baby and it dies, you will be blamed, even if you haven’t done anything, and no one will believe you. Nonetheless, Marienkind is a very peculiar variation on that theme, because the entity abducting the newborn babies of the heroine is not an evil witch or Rumpelstiltzkin or any other malevolent being but the Virgin Mary herself, as punishment for some minor infraction that occurred years before. This always bothered me, because though I’m not Catholic, I always viewed the Virgin Mary as a maternal and generally good woman, so why would she do such a horrible thing to the heroine of the tale?
The fact that Grimm’s Fairy Tales come from the oral tradition also explains why there are so many retellings of the same stories with subtle or big differences. Because basically, these are stories that are intended to be told and retold. And every teller adds their own flourishes. This is also why most retellings, whether Disney’s or the Czech films or 1970s cloth doll picture books or modern YA books, don’t bother me, as long as they don’t pretend to be the one true version of the tale.
Nonetheless, there are some Grimm retellings that bother me a lot, while others don’t bother me at all. I can’t always put my finger on why one retelling will annoy me, while another doesn’t, but at the heart it comes down to respect. For example, I flat out hate any versions which involve the Brothers Grimm themselves and turn them into monster hunters, ghost busters or something along those lines like the 2005 Terry Gilliam movie The Brothers Grimm or the recent TV show Grimm, because those versions are flat out ridiculous and contradict pretty much everything that is known about Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm. Because the real Brothers Grimm were linguistic scholars (their other big work was compiling the first dictionary of the German language) and typical academics. They did not even travel around the country to collect fairy tales, but instead placed ads in various newspapers promising monetary compensation to those who told them fairy tales (quite often young ladies of an upper middle class background who retold the tales they had heard from their nurses as children). The idea of these two closeted academics becoming monster hunters is ridiculous.
And sometimes, I can’t really put a finger on what bothers me about one particular retelling, but not about a very similar one. For example, the old Czech TV series The Fairy Tale Bride a.k.a. Arabela and the current US TV series Once Upon a Time both share the same premise, that of the fairy tale world invading the real world, which causes havoc in both worlds. Yet I utterly adore The Fairy Tale Bride and intensely dislike Once Upon a Time and it’s not just because I can’t stand either Jennifer Morrison or J.J. Abrams. Or why I quite like the Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella, but don’t like the Disney versions of The Frog Prince and Rapunzel a.k.a. Tangled. I guess part of the reason is that though the former take liberties with the source text, they still remain true to its core, while the latter try to turn the classic tale into something it’s not.
Of course, with Disney there’s also the horrible behaviour of the modern day Walt Disney Company who frequently sends cease and desist letters for supposed trademark violations to primary schools putting on Snow White or Cinderella plays and generally act as if they somehow have intellectual property rights to stories which were first written down 200 years ago and have existed in oral form for much longer.
And then there are things like this iO9 article by Dodai Stewart or this Think Progress article by Alyssa Rosenberg, who – both inspired by the two filmic Snow White adaptions released this year – complain that most fairy tale adaptions are so white and don’t meet current US standards for political correctness. I’ll probably catch flack for this, but both articles made me angry. Because the reason that most fairy tale adaptions are so white is that they come from a background – Germany in the early 19th century – that was approximately 99 percent white. And the reason they are Eurocentric is that these are European tales.
Now I do understand the desire to see a fairy tale like story with protagonists of colour. In fact, many of Grimm’s tales aren’t even all that friendly to a dark-haired white person like myself, because dark-haired women tend to be evil stepsisters or wicked witches, while all the good girls are blond. Snow White is one of the few exceptions, since she has “hair as black as ebony”. And I’d probably be thrilled at a good non-European-set fairy tale adaption. However, it bothers me to see folktales which come from an overwhelmingly European and white background dismissed as racist and Eurocentric by Americans. Not that there is no racism in Grimm’s Fairy Tales – there are a few grossly Anti-Semitic tales for examples, which are mostly omitted from modern reprints for very good reasons. But demanding that two hundred year old folk tales from a different continent conform to current US standards of political correctness is ridiculous.
The discussions about cultural appropriation in the SFF community in the past couple of years have had the positive effect that very few writers these days simply borrow ideas and motifs from other people’s culture and mythology without knowledge of or respect for the culture they borrow from. And this is a very good thing. However, European culture and mythology often is excepted from this respect accorded to non-European culture and tends to be borrowed and adapted willy-nilly. However, Europeans are no more thrilled to have their culture appropriated by clueless writers and filmmakers than Native Americans, Asians, Africans and Australian Aborigines are. As a German, I feel somewhat protective of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and of Norse mythology. Just as Celts feel protective of Celtic mythology, Greeks feel protective of Greek mythology, Brits feel protective of the Arthurian legends and so on. See Kari Sperring’s rant about Eurocentric Fantasy, which mostly happens to be written by Non-Europeans. Nobody likes other people to trample all over their heritage with zero respect for it.
When I was in Scotland this October, I was stunned that touristy gift shops carried merchandise from the Disney-Pixar film Brave, which is apparently set in Scotland. Because you certainly won’t see Disney princess merchandise in tourist gift shops along the German fairy tale route. For while you may not be able to prevent Disney from appropriating your culture, you certainly don’t have to promote their appropriation of someone else’s culture either.
So what to do about the understandable desire to have fairy tales with protagonists of colour for a change? Well, Europe is not the only continent to generate folk tales. Asia, Africa, the Americas have plenty of folk tales of their own which reflect the culture and demographics of the respective region. Of course, in adapting those tales you run into the cultural appropriation issue again. So the better approach is probably to do what Hans Christian Andersen and Wilhelm Hauff did and write your own fairy tales. And talking of which, I’m always stunned how few Americans realize that there is a fundamental difference between the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and those of Hans Christian Andersen (Hauff is little known outside Germany), namely that the Grimm (and Charles Perrault) tales are folk tales that were collected and recorded (“Volksmärchen” – folk fairy tales – in German), while Andersen’s tales are new stories written in the style of fairy tales (“Kunstmärchen – art fairy tales – in German).
As for Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm and their children’s and household tales, after two hundred years and countless adaptions and retellings it’s probably worthwhile to reread and remember them the way they were before Disney and J.J. Abrams and Czech filmmakers and a dozen YA authors got their hands on them.