Not So Grimm

Dear Mili: An Old Tale

by Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Ralph Manheim, pictures by Maurice Sendak
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Michael di Capua Books, 34 pp., $16.95

Maurice Sendak is a great illustrator, rightly honored by the current exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library. It is showing the watercolors and preliminary drawings for his latest book, the recently discovered tale by Wilhelm Grimm now published as Dear Mili. But there may be some mixed feelings even among his staunchest admirers about this latest meeting of Sendak and Grimm.

For his earlier encounter, when he illustrated the collection of tales that was published as The Juniper Tree (1973), Sendak prepared himself thoroughly. He was by this time dissatisfied with his work on Seven Tales by Hans Andersen (1959), feeling that his visual sense of Europe had derived too much from picture books. So in 1971 he set off to visit each of the regions from which the Grimm brothers had gathered their tales. He visited the Grimm Museum in Kassel, spent the night in a Sleeping Beauty castle. walked in the Reinhardswold woods, bought postcards for their views of architecture and costume, looked at Dürer, Altdorfer, Grünewald. (These, and many other facts about Sendak, I have learned from Selma G. Lanes’s excellent and comprehensive Art of Maurice Sendak, published in 1980.)

Sendak undertook his journey in a spirit as serious as that of the Grimm brothers’ original enterprise of scholarship and salvage. They wished to preserve in print the tales told by peasants and peddlers, and make them part of the national German heritage—it was only with later, illustrated editions that Grimm’s Tales became classic children’s books. Sendak’s purpose was to preserve them as part of all children’s heritage, because they told the truth about human nature. “This is the way life is sometimes, these tales say in the most matter-of-fact way,” he told a questioner, “and this is what I believe children appreciate.” They are smarter than their elders at spotting the truth of a tale, however disguised: “They know that stepmother probably means mother, that the word step is there to avoid frightening a lot of older people. Children know there are mothers who abandon their children, emotionally if not literally.” In her Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, reviewed here last year, Maria Tatar reached a similar conclusion:

Fairy tales translate (however roughly) psychic realities into concrete images, characters, and events,…psychic realities so persistent and widespread that they have held the attention of a community over a long time.

Many readers were in for a shock when The Juniper Tree was published. No pretty colored pictures or decorations as in the Andersen stories; no enticing double-page spreads as in Where the Wild Things Are. Indeed the two squat volumes were sparingly illustrated: just one picture to each of the twenty-seven tales, austere black-and-white, with cross-hatched backgrounds, the size of the Dürer etchings for the Little Passion. The figures that fill the picture space (4 1/2” * 3 5/8”) loom larger because of their narrow limits, as if they were bursting out of their borders. In the “Snow White” picture there are no dwarfs: a gleeful Queen takes up half the space, pushing Snow White to the background, because to Sendak the heart of that story was the older generation’s wish to do the young down. For “The Fisherman and His Wife” there is no flounder-prince, the granter of wishes: the Wife herself, arrayed as Emperor and Pope, grabs nearly all the picture space, for she is bloated with greed. The King in the picture for “Many-Fur” strips his daughter-bride of her animal disguise, and they look at each other with a painful intensity. Sendak had no doubts what that tale was all about.

The illustrations stamp out forcibly his view of the inner meaning of each text; they also contain various hommages to the authors and illustrators he admires. In “The Three Feathers” the cap on the great fat toad’s head is taken from Dürer’s Pontius Pilate; the Fisherman’s Wife wears a headdress after Fuseli; the composition for “Hansel and Gretel” echoes Ludwig Grimm’s for the same tale in the first illustrated German edition. Like all Sendaks, they are pictures to explore, with details that can’t all be grasped at a first looking. They do not dwell on horrors, like some German illustrators with their relish for violence and gore; but they are utterly uncharming. It’s a long way from the jollity of naked Mickey falling through the Night Kitchen to the affrighted baby being carried off by goblins that is the frontispiece to The Juniper Tree.

So we come fifteen years later to Dear Mili. This tale, which only came to light in 1983, was sent by Wilhelm Grimm to a little girl in 1816: it is not clear, from his covering letter, whether it came from the same folk sources as those in the published collection; with its strong religious element, and goody-goody tone, it sounds more like a story told in Sunday school. Grimm’s letter is rather sugary and whimsical.* Flowers tossed into separate streams will come together and kiss, he tells Mili; birds flying over different mountains will meet in the last ray of sunshine. People may be stuck in their places, yet “one human heart goes out to another, undeterred by what lies between. Thus does my heart go out to you.”

There was once a widow,” the tale itself begins: a widow who had a little house and one little daughter, “a dear, good little girl, who was always obedient and said her prayers before going to bed and in the morning.” War threatens: the widow sends her child into the forest for safety. She wanders, frightened (but a guardian angel is ever watchful); she comes to the house of a friendly old man who turns out to be Saint Joseph. He gives her tasks to prove her unselfishness and obedience, and because “he didn’t want her to be idle” (idleness in women is a deadly sin in the Grimms’ tales). She meets another little girl, her double, who leads her back home, carrying a rosebud given by the saint. There she finds her mother, an old woman now, for it is thirty years and not three days that the child has been in the forest escaping the war. “They went to bed calmly and cheerfully, and next morning the neighbors found them dead. They had fallen happily asleep, and between them lay Saint Joseph’s rose in full bloom.”

This Sendak-Grimm combination will not shock or startle, like The Juniper Tree. There are twelve full-page pictures in color (9” * 8 1/2”) and three doublepage spreads: charm and prettiness have returned. In making his picture-story the artist has gone far beyond the text. There, the child’s guardian angel is often mentioned but said to be invisible; Sendak (who has apparently a fondness for angels, for they always came into the stories his father, Philip, told him) shows the angel as a little boy perched up a tree, or crouched under a bush, curly-haired, winged, Cupid-like. Sendak puts in dogs to guard the widow in her cottage, others at Saint Joseph’s feet—these German shepherds are the latest of his own dogs to figure in his pages. (His Sealyham Jennie starred in Higglety Pigglety Pop, his golden retriever Io sat on the Fisherman’s Wife’s lap in The Juniper Tree.)

He shows people unmentioned in the text: a sinister crew with sticks and staves crossing a bridge in the forest where the little girl strays—peasants, also escaping from the Thirty Years’ War? And as the child sets off home, behind Saint Joseph lies a periwigged figure, score beside him and baton raised, conducting a choir of children—Sendak’s beloved Mozart? He had already appeared in Outside Over There glimpsed through an open door, composing at the keyboard. Though much of the detail—the forest, the widow’s cottage, the towers in the distance—is northern, the child meets her angelic double by a stone monument that’s more like Angkor Vat; and the giant tropical blooms that sprout from the ground as Saint Joseph plucks a rose impart something exotic and slightly sinister to the simple-seeming tale.

I don’t think that the difference between Dear Mili and The Juniper Tree means that Sendak has changed his mind about Grimm, or about the importance of finding the underlying psychic reality. In the earlier book, he was trying to dig out the reality and present it in one strong image. In Dear Mili, he seems more concerned with the child as he reads and looks, and his awareness of this underlying reality, which here may have to do with the horrors of war. (None of Sendak’s relations in Poland survived 1939–1945.) He has said, apropos Where the Wild Things Are, that it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. Outside Over There (1981) was another variation on the theme of how children can master feelings of frustration, anger, fear. So perhaps his Dear Mili picture-story is intended to help children to come to terms with their helplessness in a world of adult violence and war. Or it may be that Sendak didn’t find in Dear Mili, as Wilhelm Grimm told it to the little girl, quite the strong subtext of the other tales, and so filled out his picture-story with his own fantasies and favorites, playing games to entertain himself. It is a pretty book that will please many; but it has nothing of the impact of The Juniper Tree.

A final word of reassurance for those librarians and guardians of children’s innocence who were outraged by the fully frontal picture of Mickey in In the Night Kitchen, some even painting a diaper on him in the library copies. The only naked child in Dear Mili is the guardian angel, who is always shown crouching or curled. As Sendak’s editor Ursula Nordstrom (who died this October) once remarked, “It is always the adults we have to contend with.”

  1. *

    The letter itself is on exhibition at the current show of the drawings for Dear Mili at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.