Mirror, mirror

I've never really been a fan of Grimms' fairy tales. As a child it was the Arabian Nights that captivated me - I spent ages trying to convince my great-uncle's Persian rug that it was a flying carpet. I was entranced by their exoticism and the adventures of the heroes of the tales. Princesses in towers awaiting the kiss of that special Prince just didn't do it for me. Even today the Arabian Nights still call to me - my list of places that I would like to see before I die, are virtually all from the Arabian Nights - Damascus, Samarkand, the Silk Road. However...

....some time ago a friend, astonished by my lack of interest in the Brothers Grimm, bought me their complete fairy stories; and I've finally got around to reading them. And they are quite astonishing. There are 210 tales altogether in the volume, none is more than 6 pages long, some are only a few short paragraphs.

What I found most surprising is the diversity of the tales; the complete opposite of this - the similarity of the tales; and which tales are missing. Many of the tales are clearly closely inter-related with just minor differences between them, and this can lead to some tedium when reading as a group. However what is also interesting are the different kinds of tales that are represented. There is everything from traditional fairy stories featuring princes, princesses, giants, fairies and dragons to Struwelpeter type tales (children beware, you might just drop dead if you're rude to your parents. Yes it is truly as appalling as that). There are fables of the Aesop variety - the hare and the tortoise become the hare and the hedgehog, you'll be pleased to know that not only does the hedgehog win the race, he and Mrs. Hedgehog prove to be a lot brainier than the hare. Then there are stories that could be apocryphal biblical stories. And indeed many of the fairy stories themselves evidently have some biblical links.

Most of your favourites are here: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood (my particular bete-noir as a child - I always wanted the wolf to win. I re-wrote the story when I was 5, the wolf ate the obnoxious child much to Grandmother's delight, who lived happily ever after with the wolf, who proved to be an ace shopper). Although all three of these tales have some substantial changes from the versions that most of us will know. There are some surprising omissions though - there's no Jack and the Beanstalk (is this perhaps a tale of the British Isles?) or Pied Piper of Hamelin (which I had assumed Robert Browning had taken from Grimm), most surprisingly to me there's no Goldilocks - although there are elements of the story in other tales.

A fascinating epilogue looks at the lives of the Brothers Grimm - my admiration for them shot up after reading about their life and work - and the origins of the tales. In fact there are many different strands that contribute to the tales. There are tales influenced by stories from the East. Interestingly although I didn't know which tales were influenced until after I'd read them, the Eastern tales generally proved to be my favourites; there were stories from the Medieval Romance tradition which often had their origins in Celtic tales of faerie (how interesting to think that even the tales of the Nibelung might actually owe something perhaps to Welsh tales of gold in the River Avon), then there are tales that are distortions of primitive religions or the hero sagas, and finally more modern tales - those connected with town life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

What struck me most about these tales was their power, and the power that they continue to exert. They have been hugely influential in art, literature, film making; and they're part of world consciousness, not least because not all the tales are European in origin. That they remain popular today is inevitable for at their heart their subject matter is what remains eternal. The very human fears of the four horsemen of the apocalypse of war, famine, disease and death, the dread of loneliness and old age. Set against these are human aspirations - a nice place to live, food to eat, friends and family, and the pursuit of love.

Whether the stories were first told at the dawn of mankind or in a small German town in the middle of the Thirty Years War, they remain as relevant today as they ever were. By moving the story from solely the human plane to a fanciful other these stories have ensured their place in the eternal consciousness of mankind. If you haven't read the originals please do so, and prepare to be surprised.


Popular Posts