[Paleopsych] NYTBR 'The Annotated Brothers Grimm': Grimmer Than You Thought

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'The Annotated Brothers Grimm': Grimmer Than You Thought
New York Times, 4.12.5

By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Translated and edited by Maria Tatar.

JACOB and Wilhelm Grimm did not set out to entertain
children, not at first. They were primarily collectors and
philologists, who almost two centuries ago assembled German
fairy tales as part of a life's work that included, Maria
Tatar points out, ''massive volumes with such titles as
'German Legends,' 'German Grammar,' 'Ancient German Law'
and 'German Heroic Legends.' '' (''Jacob Grimm's 'German
Grammar' alone,'' we are told helpfully, ''took up 3,854
pages.'') They published their first collection of Märchen,
''Children's Stories and Household Tales,'' in 1812, with a
second volume in 1815 and an expanded and revised edition
in 1819; folklorists who became, of necessity,
storytellers, they reworked the tales for years, smoothing
them while removing material they considered unsuitable for

The Grimms' fairy tales are inescapably, well, grimmer than
the courtly, sparkling 17th-century ''Cinderella'' and
''Tales of Mother Goose'' of Charles Perrault. The Brothers
Grimm toned down bawdier content -- in their first edition,
Rapunzel's question to the enchantress was why, after the
Prince's visits, her belly had begun to swell -- but not
much of the violence and bloodshed. Occasionally they were
even heightened. ''The Juniper Tree'' is a treatment of
death and rebirth, just deserts and restoration, that feels
almost sacred, but the child murder and cannibalism make it
untellable today as children's fiction.

''The Annotated Brothers Grimm'' gives us a sample of the
210 tales in the authoritative version of the seventh and
final edition of 1857. Tatar, dean of humanities and
professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard
University, has newly translated 37 of the 210, as well as
nine tales for adults, and annotated them, drawing on the
commentary of the Grimms themselves and of writers who have
reused the Grimms' material, from Jane Yolen and Peter
Straub to Terry Pratchett.

Annotating fairy tales must be different in kind from the
task of annotating, say, a Sherlock Holmes story or Lewis
Carroll's ''Hunting of the Snark.'' Sherlock Holmes stories
don't have a multiplicity of variants from different
cultures and times; Red Riding Hood exists in versions in
which, before she clambers into bed with the wolf, she
first eats her grandmother's flesh and drinks her blood; in
which she strips for the wolf; in which, naked, she excuses
herself to use the privy and escapes; in which she is first
devoured, then cut from the wolf's stomach by a huntsman;
in which. . . .

Tatar's book, with its annotations, explanations, front
matter and end matter, illustrations and biographical essay
and further-reading section, is difficult to overpraise. A
volume for parents, for scholars, for readers, it never
overloads the stories or, worse, reduces them to
curiosities. And as an object, it's a chocolate-box feast
of multicolored inks and design.

The annotations are fascinating. Tatar points out things so
plain that commentators sometimes miss them (for example,
that ''Hansel and Gretel'' is a tale driven by food and
hunger from a time when, for the peasantry, eating until
you were full was a pipe dream). In the introduction to
''Snow White,'' we learn that ''the Grimms, in an effort to
preserve the sanctity of motherhood, were forever turning
biological mothers into stepmothers,'' while an annotation
tells us that in the 1810 manuscript version ''there is
only one queen, and she is both biological mother and

Only rarely does Tatar note the blindingly obvious. When
the heroine of ''The Singing Soaring Lark'' (the Grimms'
''Beauty and the Beast'') sits down and cries, we're told
that characters often cry when things are going badly:
''The weeping is emblematic of the grief and sadness they
feel, and it gives the character an opportunity to pause
before moving on to a new phase of action.'' Well, quite.

The assemblage of stories -- Germanic tales that have
become part of world culture -- parades an array of
nameless youngest sons and intelligent and noble girls. As
both A. S. Byatt (who wrote the introduction) and Tatar
point out, the heroes and heroines triumph not because they
have good hearts or are purer or nobler than others
(indeed, most of the young men are foolish, and some are
downright lazy) but because they are the central
characters, and the story will take care of them, as
stories do.

The ''adult'' section contains several murderous cautionary
tales, along with the nightmare of ''The Jew in the
Brambles,'' a story not much reprinted since 1945, in which
the hero tortures a Jewish peddler using a magic fiddle,
making him dance in brambles; at the end the peddler is
hanged. Three of the Grimms' tales contain Jewish figures;
''the two that feature anti-Semitism in its most virulent
form were included in the Compact Edition designed for
young readers'' (1825), Tatar tells us. ''The Jew in the
Brambles'' casts a long shadow back through the book,
leaving one wondering whether the ashes Cinderella slept in
would one day become the ashes of Auschwitz.

AND yet most of the stories, no matter how murderous, exude
comfort. Rereading them feels like coming home. Tatar's
translation is comfortable and familiar (the occasional
verse translations are slightly less felicitous); several
times I found myself reading right through an unfamiliar or
forgotten tale to find out what happened next, ignoring the
annotations completely.

Illustrations are an important ingredient of fairy tales.
The variety and choice here are beyond reproach: among
them, Arthur Rackham, with his polled trees that gesture
and bend like old men and his adults all gnarled and
twisted like trees; the elegance of Kay Nielsen; the lush
draperies and delicate fancies of Warwick Goble.

''The Annotated Brothers Grimm'' treats the stories as
something important -- not, in the end, because of what
they tell us of the buried roots of Germanic myth, or
because of the often contradictory and intermittently
fashionable psychoanalytic interpretations, or for any
other reason than that they are part of the way we see the
world, because they should be told. That's what I took from
it, anyway. But fairy tales are magic mirrors: they show
you what you wish to see.

Neil Gaiman is the creator of the graphic novel series


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