Fairy tales: shocking stories for all ages
The editor of a new edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales stresses that the stories used to be more shocking and violent
Posted on: 23rd October 2012
This year is the bicentennial anniversary of the first collection of ‘Children’s Stories and Household Tales’ by the Brothers Grimm. As a result, we have recently seen the publication of many folk tale-related books. One of these is a new edition of the Grimm’s tales by Maria Tatar (a professor at Harvard University who specialises in folklore).
In an interview with the Washington Post, Tatar stresses that the tales were meant to be heard by all generations. And modern readers will surely find many of the oldest versions of the tales more shocking and violent than the ones they are familiar with. As the article says:
‘Mother and Daddy dear — not an evil stepmom — take Hansel and Gretel out in the woods and leave them to starve. Little Red Riding Hood does a striptease for the Big Bad Wolf. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to force the mangled stumps into the glass slipper.’
Over time, these tales were made ‘nicer’, after the Grimm brothers realised that the tales were popular with children. The gorier and less palatable details were removed or softened. Stepparents were substituted for actual parents, for example.
While the vitality of this storytelling tradition has come from the freedom of each generation to adapt the tales to their own taste, I think that the ‘softening’ process has gone too far in many modern retellings. The power of tales comes in part from their ability to shock. After all, life does not simply consist of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ and it is no bad thing for children to learn that.
I’m glad to see that others agree. For example, the author Adam Gidwitz (who writes retellings of folk tales) has said that when he introduces children to the Grimm Tales he encounters a reaction of ‘enthusiasm that borders on ecstasy’. As Gidwitz writes:
‘The children I meet literally cannot believe that Cinderella’s step-sisters dismember themselves to get the slipper to fit. And they really cannot believe that adults have been peddling the sweet, anodyne version of the story all this time, when there was another version that was so much cooler.’
This is an insight into the power of folk tales. I think that these stories preserve a link to literature’s beginnings as oral tales passed down for generations within families and communities. This tradition, which we find across the world, represents the power of storytelling at its purest. I like to think that the feeling of being ‘gripped’ by a story which the best books can create is similar to the experience our predecessors would have had when listening to these tales around the fireside.
The book also includes classic illustrations – including those by one of my favourites, Arthur Rackham. It sounds like a fascinating, fantastic read.