In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a new translation of the classic fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm
Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin: these names are among those we meet during our earliest years, with the stories they summon never leaving our psyches. Others are better-known under other titles now, at least in the English-speaking world: Little Red-Cap as Little Red Riding-Hood, Ashypet as Cinderella, Briar-Rose as Sleeping Beauty. But the stories are as familiar.
With such a roll-call of classic characters and tales, you might expect to open up a collection of the Tales of the Brothers Grimm and find story after story that sets you off on a trip down childhood-memory lane. So it’s surprising, in some ways, to find that the vast majority of the tales of the Brothers Grimm are completely unknown, outside of these few stalwarts. Many are obscure and have not seeped into the collective consciousness of the West. This makes a new edition of the Tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm perfect reading-matter for this Secret Library column, which revels in the overlooked and underappreciated. It also makes Snow White and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), a new translation of the Grimms’ fairy stories, fascinating reading.
As the translator of this new edition, Joyce Crick, makes clear in her fascinating introduction, her aim is ‘to give the tales back to the Grimms, as if that were possible’ and ‘to place their work in the literary and historical context of German Romanticism, where they had their beginnings’. Crick notes that to call the Grimms’ stories ‘fairy tales’ is to play fast and loose with that term, since ‘there is not a single fairy in any of them’. We get goblins and witches aplenty, and these stories are often touched by the supernatural, but what we never get is actual fairies or anything similar. There were ‘201 plus ten’ stories in the Grimms’ complete collection, and this edition has, perforce, to be a selection rather than a complete collected works. What Crick has done is to select a cross-section of the various kinds of ‘tale’ the Grimms wrote down: not just the ‘fairy’ tales but also animal fables, comic peasant tales, religious tales or Legenden, and others.
The Grimms’ project was an attempt to save an authentically German folklore for posterity. When they were given a version of the ‘Puss in Boots’ story, they printed it in their first edition but subsequently removed it because it was clearly derived from the French folklorist, Charles Perrault; the tale was not truly German in origin. But it’s a mistake to see the project as exclusively driven by the two brothers: like all academic projects, it was one of collaboration and debt to other scholars, to say nothing of the many ‘grandmother’ storytellers, the women whom the Grimms had known while growing up, and who contributed a number of stories to their collection.
So although we may immediately connect the Brothers Grimm with Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Hansel and Gretel, fans of these tales should invest in Snow White and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection) for a chance to acquaint themselves with some of the numerous other stories the Grimms put into print. ‘Cat and Mouse as Partners’ is a short animal fable that might almost have come out of Aesop or Phaedrus, were it not for the presence of a church (a cat and mouse decide to live together and stow away a pot of lard in the church, promising not to touch it until winter; the cat, however, invents a scheme whereby she can sneak off to church and eat the lard, bit by bit).
Others, I’ll admit, are slight and rather weak things, plot-wise, when placed next to Snow White or Rapunzel. ‘Jorinda and Joringel’, about a young couple who wander too close to a sorceress’ castle, whereupon the young girl is turned into a nightingale and put in a cage, begins well but is let down by too speedy and simplistic a resolution. But there are plenty of lesser-known tales here which do deserve to be better-known. ‘The Stolen Farthing’ is a short ghost story about a lost child, which is barely longer than half a page, but manages to contain a tender sentiment about loss and kindness in its single paragraph. Crick offers a lucid and very readable translation of the original stories, and her introduction provides a very interesting history of the genesis of the brothers’ project.
Such tales are suitable for children, although the readership likely to derive the most pleasure from this handsome hardcover edition is adults who grew up with the more famous Grimm tales and now want to learn more about their work.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.