On the Wings of Fairies Essay
“Once upon a time..
.” or, “It has been said…” or maybe, “In a galaxy far, far away..
.” but more likely, a long time ago, some ancient and unknowable people were sitting around a fire telling tales to entertain one another and with each new story someone fire was inspired to tell another so that each story was funnier, or scarier, or more dramatic than the last story. Of course in those days, children were dosing at the edges of the group, or snoozing in the warm laps of their mothers, and although they too heard the stories, they were not really told to them specifically. No, these children heard the same stories and took in the same lessons as the adults to whom the stories were directed.
Perhaps the most appropriate phrase to begin this part of our journey through children’s literature is “in the beginning”, because folktales begin with the telling, and not, the writing, and they begin with adults and not children.So, how did folk and fairy tales go from stories around the hearth fire to the fancy illustrated books that they are today? Are the stories we read the same or even similar to stories of the same title told or read a hundred or two hundred years ago? If not, what has changed and why?Sometime in the mid-seventeenth century, Europeans with a lot of time on their hands, decided that certain folk tales were worth writing down. We can never really know what motivated this; perhaps it was merely a sense of holding on to the past. It could have been that some people wanted to preserve something of their culture, or maybe it was just a way to impress their friends. Perhaps the most famous were a pair of brothers who began their collecting early in the nineteenth century.Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began their collecting at the behest of a fellow author, Clemens Bratano.
The brothers both served as royal librarians and had a deserved reputation for careful scholarship. Bretano asked if they would write a few tales down and send them to him as an example of “the typical German folk story”.Both men had become interested in the connection between history and the current culture whilst in college. They lived through the French occupation of parts of southern Germany and they became convinced that a unified Germany was the only way to prosperity and peace. Unfortunately Germany was governed by a dozen petty princes who were not disposed to more centralized rule. The brothers had developed some rather novel political ideas in college.
They came to believe that all of the princedoms were bound together culturally by a common language and traditions. They were intrigued by the notion that folk tales were a vehicle for passing German culture down from one generation to the next. Read when is the only time to not use complete sentences in an essayThe brothers were, first and foremost, scholars and it was their reputation for scholarship that led Bratano to make his request. He received a manuscript from them of 47 of the tales some time in 1810.
Since Bretano was a poet and author who had already completed two books of children’s tales, the Grimms expected that he would take a great deal of poetic license with the tales, so for the sake of scholarship, they made a second copy. As it turned out, Bretano never did anything with the stories except to deposit them in the Olenberg Monastery in Alsace. There the original hand written manuscripts stayed until they were rediscovered in 1920. They were subsequently published in different additions in 1924, 1927 and 1974.
But what is most interesting about the monastery manuscripts is that they complete a cycle of revisions that begin with them and continue through the 1812 and 1857 published editions. For example, compare the following excerpts translated by Jack Zipes:”Snow White”- Olenberg ManuscriptWhen Snow White awoke the next morning, they asked her how she happened to get there. And she told them everything, how her mother, the queen, had left her alone in the woods and gone away. The dwarves took pity on her and persuaded her to remain with them and do the cooking for them when they went to the mines. However, she was to beware of the queen and not to let anyone in the house.”Snow White” – 1812 EditionWhen Snow White awoke, they asked her who she was and how she happened to get into the house.
Then she told them how her mother had wanted to put her to death, but the hunter had spared her life, and how she had run the entire day and finally arrived at their house. So the dwarves took pity on her and said, “If you keep house for us and cook sew, make the beds wash and knit and keep everything tidy and clean, you may stay with and you will have everything you want. In the evening, when we come home, dinner must be ready. During the day we are in the mines and dig for gold, so you will be alone. Beware of the queen and let no one into the house.
Rapunzel – 1812 EditionAt First Rapunzel was afraid, but soon she took such a liking to the young king that she made an agreement with him: he was to come every day and be pulled up. Thus they lived merrily and joyfully for a certain time, and the fairy did not discover anything until one day when Rapunzel began talking to her and said,”Tell me Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become too tight for me and no longer fit?”Rapunzel – 1857 EditionWhen he entered the tower, Rapunzel was at first terribly afraid, for she had never laid eyes on a man before. However, the prince began to talk to her in a friendly way and told her that her song had touched his heart so deeply that he had not been able to rest until he had seen her. Rapunzel then lost her fear, and when he asked her whether she would have him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, He’ll certainly love me better than old Mother Gothel. So she said yes and placed her hand in his.”I want to go with you very much,”she said, ” but I don’t know how I can get down.
Every time you come, you must bring a skein of silk with you, and I’ll weave it into a ladder. When its finished, then I’ll climb down and you can take me away on your horse.”They agreed that until then he would come to her every evening, for the old woman came during the day. Meanwhile, the sorceress did not notice anything, until one day Rapunzel blurted out, “Mother Gothel, how is it that you’re much heavier than the Prince? When I pull him up he is here in a second.”(Zipes. xxvi-xxvii)The most obvious changes in the stories are the transformation from a clipped and somewhat choppy style to tales that have smoother transitions and more readable details.
However the changes in Rupunzel are notable for what can be described as moral correction. Upon some reflection it occurred to me that the distance in time from 1812 to 1857 was more than just a span of some forty years. It is also the distance from a time when at least one German monarch namely Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, was head of a court so renowned for its decadence that newspapers at the time depicted him as a banty rooster to the time when his son, Albert, would marry Victoria of England. Albert brought with him a distaste for what he described as moral degradation. It was Albert who impressed his particular views of “family values” upon the impressionable young Queen.By 1857, the British royal family was considered the first family of the world.
Albert infused the early Victorian society with some very German customs and manners. (It was Victoria’s household that had the first Christmas tree in England.) Albert’s prudishness may have found its genesis in the suffering his mother endured because of his father’s infidelities. This example was copied by the rising middle class of the empire and inspired a change in the whole moral climate of Europe. It may also have inspired many revisions in literature that might be read by, or to children.(James 54)But Albert’s values traveled the other way too.
By 1857, the old permissive attitudes of his father and other German princes had given way to a tide of social, political and moral conservatism that demanded that literature that would be read by children had to be edited to the tastes of the changing times. This may be one reason that the brothers changed the stories (Wientraub 144)Here is where the magic journey from the hearth fire tales to the nursery really begins. The monastery manuscripts are assumed to be the closest to the original source material, namely the spoken story. But it is not good to assume anything in fairyland because things are often not as they seem, so it would be wise to examine any preconceptions we might have about the Grimm’s sources.When I think of collecting folk tales, I am usually drawn to the image of the early twentieth century ethnologists who traveled about collecting stories directly from gypsies and peasants of the countryside, but the reality was rather different with Jacob and Wilhelm.
It seems that most of their material was told to them by middle class housewives who came to them to tell their stories.This is not to say that they invented literary fairy tales, rather, these two brothers collected German folk tales and revised them specifically for children. While others of their time and later did the same thing, it is the Grimm’s tales that became and remain the most popular collections in the Western World. Jack Zipes, in the introduction to his excellent translation of the Grimm’s tales, tells us that a great many interesting people could be found relating tales in Jacob and Wilhelm’s parlor.
When they lived in Kessel there appeared to be a storytelling group of about ten that met regularly. The group consisted of women from the Wilde family and from the Hassenflug family. Later, they collected tales from such varied sources as a tailor’s wife and an old soldier who was paid in cast off clothing. In addition some of the tales were gathered from a minor noble, Werner von Haxthausen, and his highborn acquaintances that related tales told to them by nurses and governesses as they were growing up. The Grimms also retold stories collected from books and magazines edited to their taste.
(xxiv) Since the brother’s Grimm were such meticulous and prolific scholars I can see how their tales transformed from folktales to fairy tales. Though the tales were not immediately popular in Germany, they remain the most popular and republished fairytales in the world. It might be gratifying for them to know that their work in children’s literature has endured intact for more than a hundred and fifty years, despite the criticism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and political correctness that the stories have garnered in that time. Although the tales have been criticized in recent years for their heavy doses of Christian morality, protestant work ethic, and violence they also depict social injustices and some possibilities for self-determination as in Puss In Boots and Sweetheart Roland.These stories reflect the concerns and contradictions of their time.
While the stories have been rewritten and retold to suit twentieth century tastes, the Grimm’s version of the stories remain to show us how things were and how at least one set of folktales traveled through time from tales told around the fire to the gloriously illuminated Disney feature film of Snow White.