Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales
The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales
Grimms’ Tales started as the work of scholars. The brothers Jakob and Wilhelm, with their interest in language and folklore, aimed to preserve in print stories hitherto only known in oral versions—told by traveling pedlars, market women, spinners at their wheels, parents to children. Deeply patriotic, the Grimms saw their Kinder- und Hausmärchen—Nursery and Household Tales—as a vital part of the national heritage, now saved for future generations. Ever since then other scholars have found Grimmland a splendid terrain where, wandering in the dark forests of the tales, anthropologists, philologists, sociologists, psychologists, and now feminists may discover a gingerbread house of delicious significance, and quarrel among themselves as to whom it belongs.
The bibliographies of the two books reviewed here—which both come from scholarly presses—and the authorities they cite, demonstrate the range and assiduity of Grimm studies. Here are some examples of works in English (there are many more in German): “A Second Gaze at Little Red Riding Hood’s Trials and Tribulations,” “Cinderella: a Folklore Casebook,” “Grimm’s Household Tales and Its Place in the Household: The Social Relevance of a Controversial Classic,” “The Philosophy of Rumpelstiltskin.” (This last item is not by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, though I lately learned that he used to read “Rumpelstiltskin” “with awe in his voice,” and murmur “profound, profound” when the little man revealed his name.) And all the time that scholars have been spinning away as diligently as any downtrodden stepdaughter in a fairy tale, children have been absorbing them in an unscholarly way—some with relish, some frightened, some bored; some listening to mother, grandmother, or teacher, some to the voice from the tape that keeps the kids quiet at the back of the automobile.
Nursery and Household Tales first appeared in two volumes, in 1812 and 1815, with “the look of a scholarly tome, rather than of a book for a wide audience.” Because they saw it as a patriotic work of preservation, the Grimm brothers agreed to forego royalties until a certain number of copies had been bought. When the volumes sold well, and the publisher lagged behind with the payments now due, their thoughts turned to a second edition, on better terms. For this, published in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm revised many of the tales, to meet criticisms of the coarse language in the original version, which would never do for children. Jakob stood firm on the ground that the tales were never meant specially for them, but Wilhelm was very ready to shape the stories to suit the growing market in children’s books. He was abetted by a third brother, Ferdinand, “who was all for eliminating anything that might offend the sensibilities of the reading public.” Out went the tale “How Children Played Butcher with Each Other,” never to appear again—though two versions had been given in the first edition, and though Wilhelm, who had heard it in childhood, thought “it had taught him an important lesson about caution and restraint.”
In his preface to the second edition (1819) Wilhelm announced that “we are not aiming at the kind of innocence achieved by timidly excising whatever refers to certain situations and relations that take place every day and that simply cannot be kept hidden”—yet he discreetly played down Rapunzel’s pregnancy by the prince who climbed up her hair, and did not allow the Frog Prince to get into bed with the girl until wedding vows had been exchanged with full parental approval. Though he could not suppress the king’s love for his daughter in “Thousandfurs,” for that is the main point of the story, he could make his disapproval plain in his telling of it. “Incest,” Maria Tatar comments, “was just not one of those perfectly natural matters extolled in their preface to the tales.” And she observes that with each new edition—seventeen in Grimm’s lifetime—“the tales veered more sharply away from the rough-hewn simplicity of their first versions to a sanitised and stylised literary form that proved attractive to both parents and children.” Violence seems to have bothered Wilhelm little; it was in the areas of sex and gender that he made his biggest mark.
Dr. Ruth Bottigheimer surveys Grimms’ Tales with a cold feminist eye. She analyzes their elements with a view to defining their moral and social vision, and examines the successive editions to show how the tales were “gender-skewed” to fit prevalent notions of male and female roles and characters. She has no difficulty in proving that it was far worse to be the heroine of a fairy tale than to be the hero. Chapter by chapter she details the silencing, the humiliation, the unfairness that the females have to endure. They are dumped in a tower, or left to wander in a forest, while the heroes are riding off to adventure. They have to keep mum: in the Grimms’ tellings males speak most and longest, and often tell females to shut up (“Quiet, Gretel” are Hansel’s first words). Real mothers don’t speak—they’re dead; but stepmothers and witches are ready with their tongues. Many more girls than boys are struck dumb by a spell (Bottigheimer notes that none are thus struck in Perrault’s fairy tales, perhaps pointing out the different value the French and Germans set on female conversation). The only time a Grimm heroine retains her voice and her initiative is in a tale from Denmark, “Maid Maleen”: Scandinavian heroines are more spunky and less downtrodden than the German.
When it comes to “Prohibitions, Transgressions, and Punishments,” males get away with murder. When Hansel and Gretel are turned loose in the forest, when Snow White is to be slaughtered, it’s the stepmother who’s blamed, and not the father who’s done little to prevent her. It’s the stepsisters who have their eyes pecked out for being horrible to Cinderella, while the girl’s own father, who has done nothing to stop them, just drops out of the tale. If a girl is disobedient, punishment quickly follows; if a boy, he may be given a second chance. Worse still, when it’s a wicked person whom they disobey (in itself a good thing) “girls and women merely escape, boys and men gain rich rewards.” When it comes to the summary punishments that round off the tales, Bottigheimer has reckoned that wicked males are as likely to be sewn up in a sack, or cut up in pieces. But whereas Grimm relates such masculine fates dryly, it’s often with gloating that he tells of the stepmother shoved in the oven or sent to sea in a ship full of holes.
With her chapter “Spinning and Discontent,” Bottigheimer’s quarrel with Grimm takes a sharper turn. Many tales in their original form spoke of the drudgery of spinning; in later versions, any dodging of this drudgery was castigated as laziness. Even after the lazy girl in “The Three Spinners” has triumphed, thanks to three aunts who performed her task for her, Grimm has to label them “odious,” for they have protected and confirmed idleness. The spinning tales, says Bottigheimer,
send a double message. In plot the tales generally convey the conventional morality of hard work rewarded, while on the lexical and narrative level the subjects of these tales themselves communicate the grim reality of generations of spinning girls’ and women’s lives.
Heroes too can have their labor exploited, and feel that only supernatural powers can change their luck and make them rich. Once they are rich, nothing endangers their wealth as surely as a woman, as the fisherman who caught a prince in his net found to his cost. Heroines may have gold coins pouring from their mouths, but we don’t hear much about their enjoyment of such windfalls—apart from their now being qualified to marry the hero. Neither are Jews to be trusted with money. Each revision of “The Jew among Thorns” blackened his character further (in similar tales two centuries earlier the villain was a monk, who got off more lightly than the Grimms’ Jew). When the Allied military government banned Grimm from some German schools after 1945—within a few months of the opening of Belsen and Buchenwald—the vilification of the Jew in this tale may well have been one of their reasons.
Wilhelm Grimm’s notions of sexual roles and characteristics go back, in Bottigheimer’s view, to Adam and Eve. The girl in “Our Lady’s Child” who is struck dumb because she opened a forbidden door, witches who consort with the devil—are they not kin to Eve, who was too inquisitive, too ready to speak with the serpent?
Everywoman as Eve and Everyman as Adam, the sinner and the sinned against, she who must be punished and he who must be exculpated—these images are also central to the view of woman in Grimms’ Tales…a volume that became the nation’s primer. Thus was a weighty and consequential element of modern German culture forged.
Illustrators too have played a part in the shaping of the tales and the way they are read. The earliest was George Cruikshank, whose pictures enlivened the first English edition in 1823, and gave the tales immediate popularity. He had his own notions of fairyland—a place for comedy as well as enchantment. The first German illustrator, Ludwig Emil Grimm, was firmly kept in line by his older brother. His first sketch for “Hansel and Gretel” (for the Small Edition of 1925) showed the happy moment when Gretel had released Hansel from his cage and was dancing with delight; the final, approved version showed an earlier moment, with Gretel isolated and helpless. Many of the later German illustrators relished violence and gore; others emphasized the erotic content of a tale (“Exploring eroticism is not without its problems for the scholar,” warns Dr. Bottigheimer). Where Ludwig Emil Grimm’s Briar-Rose was discovered chastely resting on her side as she awaited the prince’s kiss, several illustrators of the 1890s showed her in positively abandoned attitudes. Snow White appeared in an 1893 edition “bosomy and décolleté” as she served the dwarfs at table—though she was but seven years old! Modern German illustrators are more prudish; in a 1958 edition Briar-Rose awaits her prince while seated demurely in an armchair.
On the jacket of Dr. Bottigheimer’s book her publishers claim that it “radically alters the uses to which Grimms’ Tales can be put in the future by historians, psychologists, feminists, and educators.” It’s their uses for children than concern Maria Tatar, who is sure that “growing up without fairy tales implies spiritual impoverishment, as one writer after another has warned.” The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales—related in language that is sharp, lively, and free of jargon, as some of the authorities quoted are not—is delightful evidence that Grimm scholarship can give pleasure to the general reader. Tatar travels over much of the same ground as Bottigheimer, though her vision is wider and she takes in more aspects than the other’s more specialized study. She too is concerned with the different attitudes toward males and females (though she sometimes puts a different emphasis—“fairy-tale heroines have no monopoly on victimisation”), with the complex structure of the spinning tales, with the social import of Wilhelm’s revisions and his preconceived ideas of sex, class, and character.
Both writers warn of the pitfalls awaiting those who look at fairy tales with eyes blinkered by the practices and assumptions of their own disciplines. Bottigheimer derides the premise of many scholars that
fairy tales exist independently of the variables introduced by individual narrators, the narrative situation, the recorder of the tales, the relationship between narrator and recorder, and/or the participatory effect of the audience.
Tatar has sport with the many interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood. For British mythologists, Red Riding Hood was the sun; in the Third Reich she was the German people victimized by the Jewish wolf. Psychologists spoke of pregnancy envy (on the wolf’s part—he wanted a live creature in his belly); Erich Fromm insisted that the bottle carried by the girl was a symbol of her virginity. But there are many variations of the tale with no bottle! For nearly every tale, says Tatar,
there are at least a dozen versions…. Much as fairy tales invite interpretation, the facts of their origin and diffusion imply the impossibility of textually grounded interpretation.
She issues a robust warning to those embarked on the study of such slippery material:
Those who make it their business to study fairy tales must see to it that they tell us more about the tales than about their particular school of thought.
“No fairy tale was ever meant to be written in granite”—and tampering with the text does not harm them as it does the text of an author like Beatrix Potter, whose books have lately been retold in little words, with nothing difficult—though her carefully contrived language is as essential as are her pictures to the pleasure of her stories.
Tatar’s main concern is with the enduring hold of the tales on children’s imaginations. Why should they enjoy stories about other children sent out to die in a wood, or being victimized by cruel stepmothers, or given impossible tasks to perform, and (if female) forced to marry frogs or bears? Her answer, grounded in the study of plots, is that
fairy tales translate (however roughly) psychic realities into concrete images, characters, and events…. That is not to say that folktales and folklore function as repositories of a sort of Jungian collective unconscious. Rather, they capture psychic realities so persistent and widespread that they have held the attention of a community over a long time
—and can indeed hold the attention of an individual throughout his lifetime. Auden too observed that a fairy tale “can travel from one country to another, one culture to another culture, whenever what it has to say holds good for human nature in both, despite their differences.”
In lively chapters, Tatar spells out these realities as they are manifest in the tales. The labors, humiliations, and horrors suffered by fairy-tale children—from sweeping up the ashes like Cinderella to being chopped and cooked in a stew like the hero of “The Juniper Tree”—reflect the child’s feelings of powerlessness, and his fury with those who abuse him. The even more horrible things done to stepmothers, witches, and other tyrants satisfy the helpless child’s dreams of revenge: the more horrible the fate—drowned in boiling oil, forced to put on red-hot shoes—the more it can gratify fantasies of getting even. (Andrew Lang, through whose Blue, Pink, and other colored Fairy Books many children first met Grimms’ Tales, was much more squeamish when he came to write his own fairy stories about Prince Prigio: “I never put a wicked stepmother in a barrel and send her tobogganing down a hill…. The wicked witches, stepmothers, tutors, and governesses are never cruelly punished but retire to the country on ample pensions.”) The many abandoned infants of the tales fit “childhood daydreams and fantasies about grudges and reprisals against parents.” Radical reversals of fortune, with heroes and heroines of humble birth marrying into royal families, “undeniably correspond to childhood fantasies of past ages and of our own day.” Stories about forbidden chambers, like “The Twelve Brothers,” magnify and dramatize anxieties about the forbidden subjects of death and sex.
As for that enduring villain, the wicked stepmother, she is the anti-mother who represents “the obverse of all the positive qualities associated with mothers.” In some earlier versions of “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White,” the real mother was the wicked one. But as Wilhelm Grimm began to slant his work toward children he “recognized that most children (along with those who read to them) find the idea of wicked stepmothers easier to tolerate than that of cruel mothers”; and enshrining the stepmother as villain “brings with it the added advantage of exonerating both biological parents from blame for the miserable conditions at home.” Mothers-in-law too were made to shoulder the burden of children’s bad feelings about their real mothers; it is a relief to find Dr. Bottigheimer, after her immersion in Grimm, handsomely acknowledging the support of her mother-in-law when she was writing her book.
“Few people look to fairy tales for models of humane, civilized behavior,” Tatar concludes:
The stories have taken hold for a far more important reason: the hard facts of fairy-tale life offer exaggerated visions of the grimmer realities and fantasies that touch and shape the lives of every child and adult.
Though the Grimms, particularly Wilhelm, come in for some hard knocks, in the end she lets them off with a caution, because fairy tales are tough and can take much rough handling:
Perrault, the Grimms, and others may have tampered with the tales they heard and failed to capture the authentic voice of the folk, but they only occasionally so distorted the plot of a tale that it was wholly deprived of its original meaning. Unintentionally perhaps, they preserved the deeper implications of the stories they recorded while making them suitable bedtime fare for children.
The really wicked characters of Maria Tatar’s tale are those who have removed such deeper implications from their versions, by disguising or eliminating sex, violence, and family conflicts. (“Things Walt Disney Never Told Us” is an article cited by Bottigheimer.) Out of too much concern for the supposed susceptibilities of children, and those who choose books for them, many modern tellers of the Grimms’ tales have produced a sugary, sterilized pap that offers children’s imaginations no real nourishment. It is Disney and even more so some librarians and child psychologists who deserve to be put in a barrel and sent tobogganing down the hill.