[Paleopsych] TLS: (Grimms) Gabriel Josipovici: By a cool well

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Gabriel Josipovici: By a cool well
The TLS 	July 08, 2005

[This is a great review!]

Where to find the princesses and their frogs

SELECTED TALES. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Edited and translated by Joyce Crick. 
344pp. Oxford University Press. Paperback, Pounds 8.99. - 0 19 280479 0.

Why do we need another edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales? Are there not already 
several complete editions in English and any number of picture-book selections 
for children, with new ones appearing every Christmas? Instead of answering 
this question directly let us take another example of a "world's classic", the 
Bible. Though there are countless editions of the Bible around, and a large 
number of commentaries, OUP's World's Classics edition, published in 1997, 
filled a yawning gap. Edited by Robert Carroll, an Old Testament scholar with a 
real feeling for literature, and Stephen Prickett, a literary critic and 
scholar with a strong interest in the Bible and its afterlife in literature, 
this contained a long and extremely interesting introduction and copious 
footnotes. It did not try to summarize the many biblical commentaries, which 
tend to be theological and historical, but rather to raise questions about the 
Bible as a book and a great literary document, which of course it is, as well 
as being a cultural and religious one. In a similar way, Joyce Crick, a fine 
scholar of German literature who has always been adept at addressing a larger 
audience than simply her fellow Germanisten, has set out here to rescue Grimm's 
Tales both from children and from folklorists and to help us see it as a major 
literary work. Like Carroll and Prickett, she has done a magnificent job, and 
both she and OUP are to be congratulated.

For too long these haunting tales have been pulled out of context and subjected 
to mythological and psychological exegesis. Crick has done us an enormous 
service by returning them to their context in the Germanic lands of early 
modern Europe (Brueghel has always seemed to me a better key to their 
interpretation than Freud, Marx, or Mircea Eliade). Though she does not include 
some of my favourite stories (the wonderfully surreal "Herr Korbes" and 
"Lauschen und Flohchen", for example), and though she can do nothing about 
conveying the huge linguistic range of the collection, this is nevertheless a 
volume to treasure.

Carroll and Prickett had no problem selecting their master text: it had to be 
the 1611 King James Bible, which has been a "world classic" from the moment it 
was published. Where the Grimms are concerned the choice is a little more 

To understand why, one needs to understand the publishing history of the Tales.

The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born within a year of each other (in 
1785 and 1786) and, as law students at the University of Marburg, were drawn to 
the study of the past of the German people, as were many idealistic youths in 
the troubled period of the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon's armies 
were conquering Europe - simultaneously arousing nationalist opposition in the 
areas they occupied and spreading the creed of liberty in states still in the 
grip of petty princelings and feudal rule. Enlisted by the young Romantic 
writers Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, who were compiling their 
anthology of German folk songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, to put together an 
anthology of the earliest German prose narratives, by 1810 the two brothers had 
prepared a manuscript consisting of thirty tales and dispatched it to Brentano.

In 1812, Volume One of their Kinder-und Hausmarchen (Children's and Household 
Tales) appeared, followed by a second volume in 1815. These were so successful 
that they were thoroughly revised and enlarged for a second edition in 1819. A 
"little edition" appeared in 1825, consisting of most of what have become the 
best-known fairy tales, which was quickly translated into other European 
languages, and this was followed by further revised and enlarged editions in

1837, 1840, 1843, 1850 and 1857. These were mainly the work of Wilhelm, the 
more literary of the two, while Jacob pursued his philological and 
mythographical interests, becoming a leading figure in the German cultural 
renaissance of the nineteenth century. They died within four years of each 
other, Wilhelm in 1859, Jacob in 1863.

The question is, which edition does one choose as one's master text? As has 
been pointed out by Hans Rollecke, the leading scholar in the field -constantly 
acknowledged by Joyce Crick in her introduction and notes to the Selected Tales 
she has edited and translated -no two editions are identical, for even when no 
major changes were made between editions Wilhelm was constantly rewriting and 
"improving". Rollecke chose the 1837 edition as the master text for his edition 
of the Tales for the German equivalent of the Pleiade, the Deutsche Klassiker 

Most complete English editions choose to work from the last German edition, 
that of 1857, and this is what Joyce Crick has done. That makes sense, for it 
yields not only the last word of the Grimms on the subject, but provides us 
with a translation of a mid- nineteenth-century children's classic. I cannot 
help feeling, however, that an opportunity has been missed and that a selection 
from the first edition, of 1812/15, would have given us not just a classic of 
German tales for children, but one of the great books of world literature.

To understand why this should be so we need to look in a little more detail at 
the differences between the 1810 manuscript, the first publication, and 
subsequent editions. Crick is well aware of these differences, discussing the 
issue in her introduction, pinpointing changes in her notes to the Tales, and 
printing selections from earlier versions in Apppendix A, while in Appendix B 
she prints a selection of tales that were in the first edition but were 
subsequently removed. Yet I don't feel she has fully grasped what is at issue 

Though the brothers had been set to work by von Arnim and Brentano, they 
quickly realized that they were unhappy with the attitude of the two Romantic 
writers to their sources, which, they felt, was cavalier in the extreme.

Instead of using the ancient German poems and stories as launching pads for 
their own Romantic effusions, they were very clear that they wanted to present 
to the world what the ancient Germans had said in as unadulterated a form as 
possible. This is how they put it in the beautiful opening of their 
introduction to the first edition of 1812, repeated in 1819:

It is good, we find, when an entire harvest has been beaten down by storm or 
some other heaven-sent disaster, that beneath lowly hedges and wayside bushes 
some small corner has still managed to preserve a shelter, and single heads of 
corn have remained standing. Then, if the sun shines kindly again, they go on 
growing solitary and unnoticed . . . .

"That", they go on, "is how it seemed to us when we saw how, of so much that 
once flourished in times past, nothing has survived -even the memory of it has 
been almost entirely lost -except, among the common folk, their songs, a few 
books, legends, and these innocent household tales . . . ." "We were", they 
conclude, in words that were to be echoed by folklorists everywhere in the 
century to come, "perhaps only just in time to record these tales, for those 
who should be their keepers are becoming ever fewer."

They were, they felt, the keepers and preservers of an ancient seed, what they 
describe as "these innocent household tales". Yet, as all the great 
nineteenth-century collectors from Scott to Lonnrot demonstrate, this is easier 
said than done. Even today, with the help of aural and even visual recordings, 
it is not so easy to decide what is part of an authentic tradition, what is 
embellishment by the modern singer or narrator, and exactly how to transcribe 
what one is hearing. The Grimms, we must remember, were working long before 
folklore studies were established, though by the time of the last edition, and 
thanks in large part to them, the situation was very different.

Here, then, to demonstrate the problem, is the opening of the very first story 
in the collection, "The Frog Prince, or Iron Henry". In the 1810 manuscript it 
is called "The King's Daughter and the Enchanted Prince". As Joyce Crick points 
out, the drafts in the manuscript were "written down with little attention to 
style, often with abbreviated forms, insertions, and minimal punctuation", 
which she has normalized:

The king's youngest daughter went out into the forest and sat down by a cool 
well. Then she took a golden ball and was playing with it when it suddenly 
rolled down into the well. She watched it falling into the depths and stood at 
the well and was very sad. All at once a frog reached his head out of the water 
and said: "Why are you wailing so much?" "Oh! You nasty frog," she answered, 
"my golden ball has fallen into the well." Then the frog said: "If you will 
take me home with you and I can sit next to you, I'll fetch your golden ball 
for you." And when she had promised this, he dived down and soon came back up 
with the ball in his mouth, and threw it onto land.

And here is the 1812 version (because it is considerably longer I will only 
give the equivalent of the first version's first two sentences):

There was once a king's daughter who went out into the forest and sat down by a 
cool well. She had a golden ball which was her favourite toy; she would throw 
it up high and catch it again in the air, and enjoyed herself as she did this .

One day the ball had risen very high; she had already stretched out her hand 
and curled her fingers ready to catch it when it bounced past onto the ground 
quite close to her and rolled straight into the water .

Finally, the 1857 version (since this is considerably longer again, I will only 
give the equivalent of the first version's initial one and a half sentences):

In the old days, when wishing still helped, there lived a king whose daughters 
were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, 
which after all has seen so many things, marvelled whenever it shone upon her 
face. Not far from the king's palace there lay a big, dark forest, and in the 
forest, beneath an ancient linden tree, there was a well. Now if it was a very 
hot day the king's daughter would go out into the forest and sit at the edge of 
the cold well; and if she was bored she would take a golden ball, throw it up 
high and catch it again; and that was her favourite toy.

The first version is clearly very raw. It plunges straight in, a little too 
breathlessly perhaps, but it still has time for an adjective to convey the 
young girl's pleasure at being where she is: the well is "cool", inviting one 
to sit down beside it, and highlighting the contrast with what is to come, for 
water is an element alien to humans and which they cannot control. When her 
ball rolls into it she is "very sad", and when a frog pops up out of its 
depths, she is immediately repelled by him: "Oh! You nasty frog".

The second version provides the classic fairy-tale opening: "There was once .


.". Since in this story, unlike the majority of them, the fact of being the 
youngest child is irrelevant, for the tension develops between the girl and the 
frog and the girl and her father (who holds that once she has given the frog 
her promise she can't go back on it), not between siblings, it removes that bit 
of information. After that it is difficult to decide if its greater 
expansiveness weakens or strengthens it. What is important is that the girl is 
playing with a ball which falls into the well and is only given back to her by 
the frog in exchange for a promise to let him sit next to her. Do we need to be 
told that it was "her favourite toy" and that "she enjoyed herself" as she 
played with it? But perhaps the expansion creates the sense of her pleasure and 
self-absorption, as does the new phrase, "she had already stretched out her 
hand and curled her fingers ready to catch it", and so prepares us for her 
response to the frog and indeed to the rest of the story, which implies that we 
cannot live our lives simply taking pleasure in our own games but must somehow 
relate to others if we are to grow up. That, it seems to me, is reinforced by 
the splicing onto the story at this stage of the faithful servant of the Frog 
Prince, who, in a very German way, cannot utter his sorrow at what has happened 
to his master, but from whose chest the iron bands that have constricted him 
fall away one by one when his master regains his rightful shape.

The 1857 version carries the principle of expansion much further. Now, instead 
of the focus being on the narrative, it is on the (wise and kindly old) 
narrator, telling us that "In the old days, when wishing still helped . . .", 
and that the youngest was not just beautiful but "so beautiful that the sun 
itself, which after all has seen many things, marvelled whenever it shone upon 
her". Now the forest is no longer just a forest but "big and dark", and the 
well now lies "beneath an ancient linden tree". It is as though this narrator 
can no longer trust us to imagine for ourselves, but has to fill in every 
detail for us.

What the successive changes bring out, first of all, is that, despite the 
Grimms' Romantic claim (echoed by nearly all the early collectors of folk songs 
and tales) that they were preserving the precious seed of the Folk that was in 
imminent danger of disappearing, we can never get at a version that is 
absolutely authentic: every version will bear the imprint of the last speaker 
or compiler, no matter how neutral and scientific one tries to be. As Italo 
Calvino points out in his introduction to his collection of Italian tales, the 
task of the compiler is therefore to be as sensitive to the essential nature of 
his material as possible, and to try and "render" it as well as possible, using 
all the resources at his command. My own feeling is that the Grimms came as 
close to perfection as is possible in the first, 1812/15 edition of their 
tales, but strayed further and further from their original ideal with each 
subsequent edition.

Why should this have been? Crucially, in the wake of the success of the first 
edition and of the many letters it elicited, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began to 
think of their work not as a collection of early German narratives but as a 
book designed specifically for children. Thus propriety, or what was deemed 
acceptable to children, became a key issue. Some tales, such as the 
magnificent, brief "Wie Kinder Schlachtens miteinander gespielt haben" 
(translated by Crick in an appendix under the title "Playing Butchers"), two 
versions of which were offered in 1812, were removed for the second edition 
after parents had complained that they were too violent for their children 
(English readers have long been surprised at the violence and sadism that were 
left in or even increased in subsequent editions, but it seems that if 
punishment was deserved the Grimms did not mind including it). In the 1812 
version of "Rapunzel", the girl, shut up in the tower by the witch, but letting 
her long hair down to allow the prince to climb up to her, gives the game away 
by saying to the witch: "Tell me, Godmother, why are my clothes getting so 
tight they don't fit me any longer?". This becomes, in the later versions:

"Tell me, Dame Godmother, how is it that you are so much heavier to draw up 
than the young king's son, who only takes a moment to reach me?". In that 
mysterious tale "Allerlei-Rauh" ("Coat-o'-Skins"), a father falls in love with 
his daughter after the death of his wife and determines to marry her. She 
escapes and wanders, disguised, in a forest, where she is found by "the King, 
her betrothed" in the 1812 edition, "the king to whom that forest belonged" in

1819, no doubt in an effort to distinguish her rescuer from her pursuer.

But it is not just a question of propriety. As they thought of their collection 
more and more as tales for children rather than as ancient Germanic household 
tales, the Grimms inevitably altered them in the light of a particular image of 
the child as pure and innocent, an image which developed, especially in Germany 
and England, in the course of the nineteenth century, and which we, today, find 
deeply suspect. The changes were also dictated by more mysterious imperatives, 
of which the Grimms were certainly not conscious. Joyce Crick, in one of her 
excellent notes (to "The Goose-Girl"), remarks that the tales "are invitations 
to interpretation, but never yield a single meaning". This alerts us to the 
fact that what we are witnessing in the transformation of the tales is a 
phenomenon that has analogues in other times and places. Eric A. Havelock tried 
to explain the phenomenon in ancient Greece, in the transition from oral to 
written, in his marvellous Preface to Plato (1963). We see it in the Jewish 
tradition in the transformation of biblical narratives into Midrash. God calls 
Abraham. Why? The Bible does not say. But Jewish tradition finds it hard to 
live with the apparently arbitrary ("How odd of God to choose the Jews"), and 
so elaborates a series of stories about Abraham's childhood, about his belief 
in the one God, his hatred of idol-worship, and his consequent persecution by 
the idolatrous King Nimrod. That, then, is why God called Abraham and told him 
to leave his house and go where He, God, would tell him. We are at the point of 
transition, in all these cases, between two different attitudes to the world 
and to storytelling. Walter Benjamin struggles to explain this in his essay 
"The Storyteller", contrasting storyteller and novelist:

The storyteller takes what he tells from experience: his own or that reported 
by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to 
his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the 
solitary individual, who . . . is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel 

The novelist deals with information, the storyteller with wisdom. This wisdom 
is artisanal. It belongs to shared work, in the fields or the house. Moreover, 
"storytelling, in its sensory aspect, is by no means a job for the voice alone.

Rather, in genuine storytelling the hand plays a part which supports what is 
expressed in a hundred ways with its gestures trained by work".

Benjamin is not simply looking at differences between stories and novels, he 
grasps that to make sense of both sets of phenomena you need to have some 
understanding of what it is that drives storytelling on the one hand and novel 
writing on the other. More light is shed on this in a remarkable entry by 
Kierkegaard in his journal for 1837 (he was twenty-three). It is worth quoting 
in full:

There are two recommended ways of telling children stories, but there are also 
a multitude of false paths in between.

The first is the way unconsciously adopted by the nanny, and whoever can be 
included in that category. Here a whole fantasy world dawns for the child, and 
the nannies are themselves deeply convinced that the stories are true . . . 
which, however fantastic the content, can't help bestowing a beneficial calm on 
the child. Only when the child gets a hint of the fact that the person doesn't 
believe her own stories are there ill-effects -not from the content but because 
of the narrator's insincerity -from the lack of confidence and suspicion that 
gradually envelops the child.

The second way is possible only for someone who with full transparency 
reproduces the life of childhood, knows what it demands, what is good for it, 
and from his higher standpoint offers the children a spiritual sustenance that 
is good for them -who knows how to be a child, whereas the nannies themselves 
are basically children.

This suggests that what happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty 
years of "revision" was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers 
who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to 
the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not 
believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to 
make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a 
novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he 
was one who knew "how to be a child". However, it was perhaps Kleist alone 
among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His 
great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up 
the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as 
it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But 
Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and 
storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of 
readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite 
believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that 
they do.

The odd thing about the changes the brothers made to the Tales in the course of 
the different editions is that at some level they always seem to have 
understood the nature of the material they were dealing with better than anyone 
else. As Joyce Crick is at pains to point out, even though they kept adding new 
tales (and occasionally removing old ones), they had a very clear sense of the 
overall shape they wanted their collection to have. All the editions begin with 
the mysterious and powerful "Frog Prince" and all end with "The Golden Key", 
whose theme is identical to that of "The Fox and the Geese", with which the 
first, 1812, volume ended: a poor lad goes into the snow to find wood and comes 
across a golden key. "Now he thought that where there was a key there must be a 
lock to match, so he dug in the earth and found a little iron casket." 
Eventually he manages to fit the key into the tiny lock. "Then he turned it 
once -and now we must wait until he has unlocked it completely and lifted the 
lid, and then we shall find out what marvellous things were in the casket." 
Here, surely, is a tale about tales, to adapt Kafka, an injunction to be 
patient, to read and savour and not rush to interpret. For, as Kafka said 
elsewhere, "Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of 
impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return".

Despite my reservations about her choice of text, Joyce Crick nevertheless 
still gives us the best guidance possible to the world of the storyteller as 
exemplified by the Grimm Tales (her nearest rival in the field, The Annotated 
Brothers Grimm by Maria Tatar, published by Norton last year, stays resolutely 
within the world of the "fairytale" as traditionally understood). For one 
thing, she provides a generous selection of other writings by Jacob and Wilhelm 
Grimm -prefaces, essays and the like -to help us understand what it was they 
felt they were trying to do. Secondly, as I have said, she is alert to the 
overall shape of the collection, recognizing that the brothers put it together 
with all the care of a Yeats or Wallace Stevens bringing a new volume of poems 
before the public. Thirdly, instead of focusing exclusively on the tales of 
magic and transformation, as do most commentators, she gives us a large enough 
selection of tales to make us grasp the sheer variety of the collection, which 
is a crucial part of its meaning and significance: tales of foolish peasants, 
discharged soldiers and cunning craftsmen, animal tales, pious tales, riddles 
and counting rhymes. The first four tales in all the Grimm editions lay the 
main genres before us. The first is the "fairytale" of the frog prince. The 
second, "Cat and Mouse As Partners" is an animal fable, though "fable" is the 
wrong term for an imaginative if anthropomorphic representation of the animal 
world. The third, "Our Lady's Child", is a religious piece -the Tales are 
deeply imbued with the pietistic spirit so prevalent in German popular culture 
of the time, a spirit which is by and large repugnant to us in its mixture of 
morality, cruelty and smugness, but which is indubitably there. The fourth, 
"The Boy Who Set Out To Learn Fear", introduces us to a key figure in these 
German tales: the Dummling or simpleton. The title of the story doesn't 
accurately reflect its contents, for the boy doesn't want to learn fear but 
rather "what it means to make the flesh creep". The ending is as wonderfully 
ambiguous as anything in the Tales, for when his new bride's resourceful 
chambermaid pours a bucketful of little fishes over him as he sleeps he wakes 
up and cries: "Oh, my flesh is creeping! My flesh is creeping, wife dear! Yes, 
now I do know what flesh- creeping is".

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