Cleaning Up Snow White

Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales

by Ruth B. Bottigheimer
Yale University Press, 211 pp., $22.50

The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales

by Maria Tatar
Princeton University Press, 266 pp., $19.95

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)…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.