Celebrating 200 years of the Brothers Grimm

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (23/12/12)

In 1812, two obscure German intellectuals, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, published a book called Children's Stories and Household Tales, which they intended as a scholarly work. They had no idea that the folk tales they had collected from people in small towns in the countryside, tales of Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and others, would go on to become some of the most famous children's stories of all time.


This year saw the publication of a new volume of these timeless stories. The Annotated Brothers Grimm: The Bicentennial Edition was edited and translated by Maria Tatar, a professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard University. In a recent interview on The Sunday Edition, she said she first encountered the tales at the age of three or four. "It was a story read to me by my sister, and she was reading from a collection of German fairy tales," Tatar told host Michael Enright. Though her sister didn't actually know German, she was familiar with the story, "and there were some wonderful pictures in the book that, I think, inspired her to tell these stories in a vivid, dramatic way that I will never forget."

Tatar's interest in the stories was renewed in adulthood, when her children were young. She started to read the fairy tales to them, and was shocked by their violence. In Cinderella, Tatar pointed out, "the stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by doves" and Snow White's stepmother is depicted "dancing to death in red-hot iron shoes." Tatar wanted to go back and figure out where the stories came from. She wanted to know "why are they so violent and why do we read them to children?"

The Grimm brothers started collecting these tales, which were part of an oral tradition, "as part of a scholarly mission," Tatar explained. At the time, there was a strong interest in keeping German culture alive. "They also had a sense that times were changing, and that the activities that had sustained these stories -- spinning, repairing chores, sewing, all the kinds of things you did on long winter evenings -- were disappearing, and [that] the stories would pretty much go by the wayside."

Though the collection was intended for a scholarly audience, it got attention in the popular press. "Reviewers were appalled by the coarse tone of the stories, the vulgar moments in the tales," Tatar said. "So the Grimms at that point, as they discovered that the collection was beginning to sell well, they began editing, and they took out some of the ribald moments that were part of the attraction for adults."


According to Tatar, there are about 200 stories in the standard collections, and 50 or 60 other tales that never made it into the official collection, but exist in manuscript. "And we have in addition these wonderful annotations, which haven't been translated into English," she said. "They didn't just write down what they had heard. Instead, they sometimes collected three, four, five different versions of a story... In the notes they tell us why they prefer one version to another, why one might be more authentic, or so called authentic, than another. So it's a rich source of information about how the tales were collected and put together and then written down and turned into a kind of literary form."

Although we think of the Grimm fairy tales as intended for children, there are elements of racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism in the collection. "This is one reason why I believe we shouldn't think of these as sacred stories in any way," Tatar said. "That is, we should rewrite them, we should make them our own." She went on to say, "my volume is intended really as a guide more for parents. You can take these stories, you can improvise, you can find different versions of them. As a child gets older, you can even read these stories with a child and engage in a dialogue about them."

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