November 13, 2014

Play, death, and mayhem: a new translation of the Grimms Fairy Tales


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, from an 1852 icelandic translation. Image via Wikipedia.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, from an 1852 Icelandic translation. Image via Wikipedia.

It isn’t news that fairy tales are full of blood and gore and other materials usually considered not fit for children. Whole movie franchises and TV series and Broadway musicals have been based on pointing out to adults how very twisted the stories they heard as children were.

Which is a bit of a cheap gambit—as my colleague Zeljka Marosevic wrote recently, children love darkness and ambiguity, and their response to the extremes of fairy tales suggests that they grasp all the essentials. The adult understanding of these stories is just another stage, not necessarily a more enlightened one.

But it turns out that the Grimm Brothers’ tales were originally even nastier than we were aware of. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm oversaw multiple editions of their Children’s and Household Tales (the German title)  during their lifetimes, and, amazingly, the first edition—published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815—has never been translated before. Princeton University Press has just published German scholar Jack Zipes’ translation of that edition, which contains all of the explicit, strange, NSFW 156 tales that the Grimms edited or sometimes just cut out of later editions.

In the Guardian, Alison Flood describes some of the revelations in the new translation, including a pregnant Rapunzel, a series of really evil biological mothers (instead of stepmothers), and some Gorey-esque tales of play, death, and mayhem. For instance:

“How the Children Played at Slaughtering,” for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbors, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter.”

It should be noted that this is not the only recent new volume of the tales: scholar Maria Tatar compiled and translated The Grimm Reader in 2010, and 2012 saw Philip Pullman‘s re-tellings in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version.

Each of these books takes a particular approach to the original text, but also—and this is key to Zipes’ book as well—to the oral traditions that the stories came out of (as well as return to). After becoming interested in folklore during their university years, the Grimms began collecting the tales from storytellers and friends, with the larger aim of preserving a specifically German popular culture in the face of industrialization. Zipes claims that the stories in this book “retain the pungent and naive flavor of the oral tradition” through their narrative sparseness and their unvarnished accounts of sex and death.

This is one way to see it, but I’m congenitally skeptical of all claims that oral traditions are more stripped down or more explicit than written ones.  For one thing, the search for authenticity may warp the collector’s impulse towards the extremes. And also, the Grimms’ sources were a mix of written and oral cultures. As Zipes wrote for the Public Domain Review:

It is important to note that the tales in the first edition were collected mainly from literate people whom the Grimms came to know quite well. For instance they were well acquainted the members of the Wild and Hassenpflug families in Kassel and the von Haxthausen family in Münster; Wilhelm knew the minister’s daughter Friederike Mannel in a nearby town. Dorothea Viehmann, a tailor’s wife, provided many tales, and in some instances, the Grimms took tales from books or received tales in letters.

All to say that though this new translation may bring us closer to a certain bawdy, lugubrious darkness, the instability of these tales seems more to the point: Dorothea Viehmann filtered through the Grimms filtered through Disney filtered through your mother, and reinvented once more in your own telling. Pullmann seems to have it right in the end. Interviewed by Mother Jones about his “new English version”, he said: “Because the great thing about fairy tales and folk tales is that there is no authentic text. It’s not like the text of Paradise Lost or James Joyce’s Ulysses, and you have to adhere to that exact text. I thought there were things maybe I could play around with.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.