The tales we tell each other and our children not only reflect our own lived experiences and our psychic realities, they also shape our lives.
— Maria Tatar
As the year ends, we might appreciate a bicentennial that, unlike some wars, has been neglected in public circles. This modest event in 1812 was the publication of a book, titled "Children's and Household Tales." We know it as "Grimms' Fairy Tales."
Assembled by two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the book was a collection of short stories and tantalizing vignettes told and retold by generations of Germans. Though the brothers' original task was modest and scholarly — to study and preserve the richness of their own language — the tales have expectedly and continually fascinated generations of audiences. Even today they inspire commentaries, television programs and movies.
The reception of the Grimms' project has not been entirely positive. Feminists bemoan the denigration of the young lass passively waiting for her Prince Charming. Psychologists treat the tales as variants on children dealing with the stages of sexual development. Moralists view the tales as brief glimpses into social history where the characters embrace the social conventions, or transgress them at their own risk.
These and related perspectives offer a myopic approach to fairy tales. They overlook how the tales depict an extraordinary range of actions and emotions — from true love, courage and family devotion to cannibalism, harsh punishments and wanton cruelty to children. Their graphic portrayals of human triumph, tragedy and transformation make today's video games and reality television seem relatively tame and predictable.
Indeed, the Grimms' tales have universal appeal. With an uncanny ability to entertain while illuminating some tough realities, the tales magically interweave human experiences and imagination. For instance, stories of a pretty girl struggling against domestic and outside forces, as embodied in "Snow White," can be found throughout the world. The Grimms' version has the stepmother, jealous of her daughter's beauty, ordering the huntsman to kill the girl and bring back her lungs and liver — not just for proof of the deed but as part of the evening's dinner. A recent gothic film starring Sigourney Weaver shows the Queen gloating and salivating in her cannibalistic endeavors.
"Cinderella" (literally, the "girl among ashes") is a perennial rags-to-riches story found in many cultures. Audiences familiar only with the Disney movie, a feel-good tale where everyone eventually makes up, might be surprised to learn that in the Grimms' version, the envious sisters and the future bride of the prince do not cheerfully make amends and live in the castle. Instead, two pigeons who befriended Cinderella during her travails peck out the sisters' eyes, blinding them for life.
Before the advent of modern media, these tales were the material for everyday amusement and harsh lessons in life. According to eminent folklorists such as Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes, the stories rarely stayed exactly the same. Depending on the audience and milieu, the plot and characters would be constantly modified or embellished. For bedtime reading, parents might dramatize the consequences of a child who disobeys or wanders off the path (often into the unknown forest) and talks to strangers (usually portrayed by the big bad wolf). If regaled among drunken men in a local pub, though, the story would draw guffaws with more tawdry twists and turns. Imagine the possible renditions of Little Red Riding Hood — from naïve youngster and caring grandchild to lascivious temptress or femme fatale.
Simply put, Grimms' fairy tales have become a classic. The stock phrases that frame the tales — "Once upon a time" and "happily ever after" — are more than rhetorical devices. They emphasize that these stories could happen anywhere and any time.
In this light, we can appreciate W. H. Auden's declaration that "these tales rank next to the Bible in importance." So long as the tales are told and retold, people will interpret and relive them in their own set of circumstances. Thus, the work of the Brothers Grimm carries its own sense of timelessness.
Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.