book cover imageThe Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition

by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm,
translated and edited by Jack Zipes.
Princeton University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 568 pages, $35.

Jack Zipes, retired professor of German at the University of Minnesota, is a monster scholar of fairy and folk tales. He has published twelve scholarly studies and twenty editions, either about fairy tales or of fairy tales themselves. Although he is self-described as a Frankfurt School critic and cultural materialist, he has a refreshing skepticism about our ability to know everything about fairytales, especially their origins, and an appreciation for their ultimate mysteriousness that J. R. R. Tolkien would have appreciated. Zipes is truly a representative of that virtually extinct species, the philologist, and what is unusual for a Marxist theoretician, he is modest about how far his method can be pushed. His translation of the Grimm Brothers’ first edition offers the opportunity to connect with the most disturbing elements of fairy and folktales, in which, for instance, children are repeatedly on the menu, not only of witches and stepmothers, but of their parents as well, and usually their mothers. If cannibalism (a concern certainly influenced by historical conditions of famine and infanticide) is the most horrific human act, then a mother’s eating of her children is the most horrific of the horrific, and one which often requires a miraculous intervention to counter.

Tolkien said that fairytales lead us into a world of enchantment where wonder could be experienced. Fairytales provided three great goods: recovery, escape, and consolation. “Recovery,” the regaining of a clear view of the world; “escape,” the not-to-be-scorned flight from much of modernity; and “consolation,” the joy of the happy ending, especially the joy of “eucatastrophe,” the awe-producing happy ending that comes as a miracle and produces deep joy. In a 2002 interview for Biting Dog Press with Kenn Bannerman, Zipes gives a description of the genre that Tolkien would have appreciated, containing all of his elements in different words:

Wonder causes astonishment. . . . It gives rise to admiration, fear, awe, and reverence. In the oral wonder tale, we are to marvel about the workings of the universe where anything can happen at any time, and these fortunate and unfortunate events are never to be explained. Nor do the characters demand an explanation—they are opportunistic and hopeful. They are encouraged to be so, and if they do not take advantage of the opportunity that will benefit them in their relations with others, they are either dumb or mean-spirited. The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life and to evoke profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process. . . . Lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction motivate people to look for signs of fulfillment and emancipation. In the wonder tales, those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they . . . have retainedtheir belief in the miraculous condition of nature. . . . They have not been spoiled by conventionalism, power, or rationalism. In contrast to the humble characters, the villains are those who use words and power intentionally to exploit, control, transfix, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit. They have no respect or consideration for nature and other human beings, and they . . . seek to abuse magic by preventing change and causing everything to be transfixed according to their interests.

Folktales are simply those stories told and passed orally. Every tale told before or outside of print, is a folktale. Fairytales are folktales that have an element of the magical or supernatural. Contemporary scholars have renamed these as “wonder tales.” The Brothers Grimm had no compunctions about throwing fairytales together with other folklore, and both appear in their first edition in seemingly random order. Most of the familiar favorites are there: “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife,” “Little Red Riding Hood”—clearly fairy tales—along with the more domestic stories of a mouse, bird, and sausage setting up housekeeping, or a carnivorous blood sausage inviting his friend, the liver sausage, over for dinner. Talking beasts or sausages, however strange, are generally just human stand-ins—allegorical stick figures with no element of magic. Aside from the fairytales, the other tales in the Grimm collection have the quality of extended proverbs and homely wisdom.

The original collections of fairytales mark a boundary between oral and print culture of particular interest to scholars of a materialist bent because they also mark the impact of bourgeois culture on folk-culture. Zipes is interested in the mechanics of the process. How, for instance, does “Little Red Riding Hood” go through change after change to end up in a 1943 cartoon by Tex Avery, “Red Hot Riding Hood,” or Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? How do we get from “Cinderella” to the Disney cartoon and the brief shot of Jennifer Lawrence losing her shoe near the end of Silver Linings Playbook? In presenting the first edition of the Grimm Brothers’ tales, Zipes takes us as close to that older oral culture as he can.

In later editions, largely because Wilhelm prevailed over Jacob’s objections, the Grimms’ stories were edited to eliminate some of the more disturbing elements, so that, for example, evil mothers were turned into stepmothers, Rapunzel did not get pregnant after the prince climbed up her hair, and the frog the princess had to kiss wasn’t quite so obviously a phallic symbol. The first edition is a much grittier, barebones presentation of the Grimm collection, a fine contribution for scholars but a pleasure, as well, for more casual readers. As Zipes says, the heroes and heroines are hopeful opportunists, struggling to survive under the worst circumstances, but never losing faith. They are object lessons in loss and perseverance. One motif which occurs again and again has three brothers setting off on a quest. The first two brothers inevitably fail in their quest, but the third succeeds, and in some cases (the several versions of “The Simpleton”) rescues the other two. In short, these tales both recommend and portray the virtue of innocence and the toughness of the human race. There are no victims here and the beauty and mystery of the world are affirmed. We need these tales as much as ever.  

Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno. His books are The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare, and Perfection in Bad Axe, a collection of short stories.