Of course we can argue which fairy tales are the most famous. With contenders such as Aesop, Andersen and Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm may not be the winners for everyone. But there is a category in fairy tale Oscars in which they will always get a prize – the most bloody of them all.
If you haven’t read them, you may consider doing it on your own first rather than with your kids at bedtime. If you have you know what I’m talking about. You may also know that Grimm’s collected the stories from the middle class German families, so they are not necessarily all folk tales. Another interesting, even if well-known, fact is that they not only specialized in the gory tales, but also created the first German dictionary, effectively codifying the version of the language that could connect the people, above their regional dialects. If language is a feature of a nations, then they certainly had a hand in creating the German national identity.
But back to the book. Philip Pullman gives us a selection of the best of the Grimm tales in his opinion. Sometimes slightly refining them, but more importantly accompanying each with a brief but fascinating note. In some he considers other versions of the plot, in others wonders about the improbabilities or the language. Each to them adds to our lecture and clears our palate for the next tale. Like pickled ginger and sushi.
We have all the classics here, but also a fair share of the lesser known but no less fascinating stories. Reading them in bulk also allowed me to make some observations on the common tropes. Things always come in threes or dozens. Good women are generally beautiful, equalizing beauty with morality, which is always rewarded with social progression. The relations between parents and children are weird if not outright toxic. In a marriage it is generally the woman who is the evil one. Good people can talk to animals. Rapunzel is a story about pregnancy and abortion, Pullman had to enlighten me about this one.
My favorite one by far was the Gambling Hans. Probably because it is so different and irreverent. You may also find a close reference to another of Grimm tales, Hans My Hedgehog, in The Witcher, if you saw or read it you’ll know which part.
One other thing I noticed is how my sensitivity diminished. I remember that when I read the tales the first time, being around nine, I found them shockingly gory, cruel and brutal. Now after years of exposure to endless cruelty of the news cycle they felt almost mild in comparison.
Much like our hearing and taste buds our sensitivity to cruelty and suffering seems to diminish with age, as experience gives us new reference points and our mind is no longer the impressionable clean slate it once was.
Here are a few quotes from the introduction by Pullman, on general nature of fairy tales:
There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad.
The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc. – is present. And that, of course, is part of the explanation for the flatness of the characters. The tale is far more interested in what happens to them, or in what they make happen, than their individuality.
The fairy tale is in perpetual state of becoming and alteration.