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The Curious Legacies of the Brothers Grimm

By Richard Marshall.

Jack Zipes (ed) The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Princeton 2014

Jack Zipes, Grimm Legacies. The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales, Princeton 2014

Nabakov on Kafka (approximately):’Kafka’s private nightmare was that the central human character belongs to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around him. Kafka’s tragedy was his struggle to climb out of that world and into the world of humans. This is what killed him.’

The tales given to the world by the Grimms read as correlatives of that Kafkaesque struggle. Their ugly beauty is hasped to pity facing charmless, evil days. They are tales with uncanny insect voices living at their boundaries, each an impression of terror, misery, hatred, logic, cancellation, prohibition, fertility, growth, illness, potential, animals, children, cellars, schools, swarms, sex, death, revenge, possession and known via a sort of telepathy nuanced into reading but expanding from the inside-outside of an open mouth to dust. Why pity? Because beauty dies. These tales are of a stranger life than the one that needs respectable sanities.

If there is an erstwhile hope that all would be physics and art it’s a hope that is a force from out some other place, one where faith healers, witches, magic and engineers of body-hair, frogs’ eyes and blood droplets conjugate verbs and kill victims to materialize it. What the open mouth tells is in a supercharged vernacular of spatial patterns of wholeness and simultaneity. This works like a language of divorce, one that includes everything in the very process of division and severance. Everything is hyphenated and so simultaneously conjoined and separated, or like Manley Hopkins’ word ‘buckled’ from his ‘The Windhover’, just a single world both ‘joined up’ and ‘broken apart’ braced at a poem’s spine. These doubled selves rip up and shape-shift to fathom themselves, like sigils of a daemon. The unforgettable equation that Ted Hughes calculates to reveal the device of Shake-speare’s own name – ‘On the catastrophe and heel of pastime’ becoming ‘The point and impact of the tempered word’ to ‘The shock and spear of will’ enables Shakespeare, having ‘converted the parts of his name to active images, as in the ‘Sonnets’ and ‘As You Like It’,’ to develop this heraldic device ‘… as a structural means of expressing his antithetical selves as a dialectical ‘system’ in iconic form…’ which , as we hear in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ gifts us;
‘union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crowned with one crest.’

The Grimms have been appropriated by U.S. America because defying the inhuman is as urgent there as anywhere else and its unhinged power leaves behind the innocent and the beaten. What Zipes has done in these two books is remind us that there’s a need for the naked struggle of Kafka, where speech goes to extremes without strategy, without masks, without calculation. The tales of this first edition are as much a part of an old weird Americana as bluesman Howling Wolf singing ‘Going Down Slow’ where, as Greil Marcus notes; ‘… decent people they will have to conceal as much envy as delight…’:

‘Go dig a hole in the meadow, good people
Go dig a hole in the ground
Come around all you good people
And see this poor rounder go down.’

The Grimms have become as ancient a part of this old weird America as the other folk songs and tales that ship around, and though Zipes is right to decry their banalisation and Disneyfication they still remain underneath or behind, ready to be reeled in by alert souls. Pope in the Dunciad writes: ‘ Suck the thread in, then yield it out again’. Even the seemingly impossibly kitch conservative versions of the struggle brings with it the chord that drags with it all the terror and beauty of the original yield.

Princeton’s advertising blurb guides us:

‘When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, followed by a second volume in 1815, they had no idea that such stories as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Cinderella” would become the most celebrated in the world. Yet few people today are familiar with the majority of tales from the two early volumes, since in the next four decades the Grimms would publish six other editions, each extensively revised in content and style. For the very first time, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm makes available in English all 156 stories from the 1812 and 1815 editions. These narrative gems, newly translated and brought together in one beautiful book, are accompanied by sumptuous new illustrations from award-winning artist Andrea Dezsö.

From “The Frog King” to “The Golden Key,” wondrous worlds unfold—heroes and heroines are rewarded, weaker animals triumph over the strong, and simple bumpkins prove themselves not so simple after all. Esteemed fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes offers accessible translations that retain the spare description and engaging storytelling style of the originals. Indeed, this is what makes the tales from the 1812 and 1815 editions unique—they reflect diverse voices, rooted in oral traditions, that are absent from the Grimms’ later, more embellished collections of tales. Zipes’s introduction gives important historical context, and the book includes the Grimms’ prefaces and notes.’

The original edition of Grimms’ tales read like once-familiar weirds, crossing the avalanche of time like hallucinatory figures, abrupt as thorns, troubling as a black hawthorn that won’t stop bleeding. They move in and out between long disconnected synapses, stirring up logics and memories that fill us up with dread and unease. Readers are Macbeth listening to the stories of the three weird women. Everything is laid out for us but we are dazzled by their dark intensity. What is needed to read them? Courage and an imminent doomsday.

Of the legacy, Princeton again gives a quick summary:

‘In Grimm Legacies, esteemed literary scholar Jack Zipes explores the legacy of the Brothers Grimm in Europe and North America, from the nineteenth century to the present. Zipes reveals how the Grimms came to play a pivotal and unusual role in the evolution of Western folklore and in the history of the most significant cultural genre in the world—the fairy tale.

Folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought to discover and preserve a rich abundance of stories emanating from an oral tradition, and encouraged friends, colleagues, and strangers to gather and share these tales. As a result, hundreds of thousands of wonderful folk and fairy tales poured into books throughout Europe and have kept coming. Zipes looks at the transformation of the Grimms’ tales into children’s literature, the Americanization of the tales, the “Grimm” aspects of contemporary tales, and the tales’ utopian impulses. He shows that the Grimms were not the first scholars to turn their attention to folk tales, but were vital in expanding readership and setting the high standards for folk-tale collecting that continue through the current era. Zipes concludes with a look at contemporary adaptations of the tales and raises questions about authenticity, target audience, and consumerism.

With erudition and verve, Grimm Legacies examines the lasting universal influence of two brothers and their collected tales on today’s storytelling world.’

In December 1812 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published ‘Kinder und Hausmarchen’. A second volume was produced in 1815. Few people are aware of the tales in the original volume. Six more editions and immense changes were made as these editions were produced so the final 1857 version has little of the first edition in it. The Grimms deleted many of the first edition’s stories and replaced them with over fifty new ones. They withdrew footnotes and revised prefaces and introductions. Zipes argues that the first original volume is important because the tales retain what he calls the ‘pungent and naïve flavour of the oral tradition.’ They are stunning, blunt, unpretentious and not vaccinated with Christian or puritanical ideals. They are stranger and more baffling than the later editions. In this they are like the Gospel of Mark compared to the other synoptics. They impose a charter of weirdness that seems like they might be stories from the very heart of reality, were one to believe in such a thing. They are too distant from the refined and literary cultures that have prevailed then and since to be luminous. They amaze, baffle and disturb. Zipes sees the Grimms in this first edition as excavating fossil remains of a fundamental, almost-lost oral culture.

A change of editorial policy started with volume two. Wilhelm was the main editor from 1816 onwards so he was the main cuplrit. Both brilliant philologists, they did their work from their desks. They depended on different scholars to provide them with the oral tales. They sometimes did leave home to get tales from women in Kassel and Munster and the lower classes but most of the stories were handed in from middle class colleagues and friends. In the first edition many of the tales were unknown so perhaps they didn’t feel confident to change them, perhaps finding them too opaque and intimidating to fool around with.

The changes they did make after the first edition were drastic. They deleted their notes about beliefs about children. The Grimms’ had spent their childhoods in Hanau and Steinau in Hesse and were classically trained in Greek and Latin. When their father died suddenly he left them in a financial mess. Social disadvantage led the brothers to excel at the Lyzeum at Kassel to compensate. They studied law at Marburg. Between 1802 to 1806 Friederich Carl von Savigny inspired them to study the historical, philological and philosophical aspects of literature. Savigny’s historical approach to jurisprudence inspired the Grimm’s to take the same approach to literature. They developed a thesis about the organic connection between the volk and the historical development of volk. They worked on the thesis that the present was only grasped through acquaintance with the past. They saw culture as the property of everyone rather than just an educated elite. It followed that religion, law and literature etc all needed to be treated holistically through historical investigation. Contrary to Savigny’s approach, however, the brothers thought it was language not law that bound people together in a common culture.

They wanted to be librarians and began collecting old books, tracts, calanders and made a pact to work together for the rest of their lives. They wrote about old sagas and legends with a view to recover the true poesie of Germanic and Nordic literature. The Napoloeonic war caused issues. Jacob served in the Hessian War Commission of 1806. Wilhelm passed his law exams and became a civil servant and librarian in Kassel. Jacob lost his job in 1807 when the French occupied the city and became librarian for new King Jerome, Napoleon’s brother, who ruled Westphalia. When their mother died in 1808 they became responsible for their younger brother and sister.

Of enormous importance for them both were their meetings first with Clemens Brentano, the German Romantic poet, and then in 1806, Achim von Arnim the German Romantic novelist. Together they published ‘The Boy’s Wonder Horn’ in 1805 which was a collection of folk songs. The Grimms were asked to help further volumes. The Grimms collected for them all sorts of tales and not just fairy tales. Arnim had a ‘.. pronounced romantic urge to excavate and preserve German cultural contributions made by the common people before the stories became extinct’ and positioned this as ‘a gesture of protest against the French occupation and a gesture of solidarity with those people who wanted to forge a unified German nation.’ Of course they were tales from Hesse and Wetphalia not Germany. No German state existed at the time!

What ran through all this work was the belief that it was linguistic culture that held communities together. For the Grimms such a culture was an organic emanation of the people. They argued that ‘cultivated literature’ was parasitical on an oral folk tradition and that the cultivated literature had forced the oral and mythic to recede during the Renaissance. They wrote:

‘Wherever the tales still exist, they continue to live in such a way that nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude. People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way. And they take pleasure in them without having any reason. This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous, and it is just what this poetic art has in common with everything eternal: people are obliged to be disposed toward it despite the objections of others. Incidentally, it is easy to observe that the custom of storytelling has stuck only where poetry has enjoyed a lively reception and where the imagination has not yet been obliterated by the perversities of life. In that same regard we don’t want to praise the tales or even defend them against a contrary opinion: their mere existence suffices to defend them. That which has managed to provide so much pleasure time and again has moved people and taught them something carries its own necessity in itself and has certainly emanated from that eternal source that moistens all life, and even if it were only a single drop that a folded leaf embraces , it will nevertheless glitter in the early dawn.’

By 1809 they had collected 54 tales , legends and animal stories and sent them to Brentano who was working in the Olenberg Monastery. These were like Dylan’s Basement Tapes, being skeletons of stories, rough and fragmentary but finished as such, needing neither repair nor patchwork. They had two models that they kept in mind; ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ written down by the painter Philipp Otto Runge and published in dialect form in the first to last editions. These stories they’d collected for Brentano he wasn’t able to use. Arnim encouraged them to publish them themselves. What they recognized in these wonder tales was a ‘natural poetry’ and they understood the power they had:

‘We have tried to grasp and interpret these tales as purely as possibly. In many of them one will find the narrative is interrupted by rhymes and verses that even posses clear alliteration at times but are never sung during the telling of a tale, and these are precisely the oldest and best tales. No incident has been added or embellished and changed, for we would have shied away from expanding tales already so rich in and of themselves with their own analogies and similarities. They cannot be invented. In this regard no collection like this one has yet to appear in Germany.’

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 22nd, 2014.