Saturday, January 4, 2020

Quote of the Day (The Brothers Grimm, With Rapunzel in an Unexpected Light)

"At first Rapunzel was afraid, but soon she took such a liking to the young king that she made an agreement with him: he was to come every day and be pulled up. Thus they lived merrily and joyfully for a certain time, and the fairy did not discover anything until one day when Rapunzel began talking to her and said, ‘Tell me, Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become too tight for me and no longer fit?’"—Rapunzel” (1812 edition), in the preface to The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes (1987)

The birthday of Jakob Grimm—which took place on this day in 1785 in Hanau, Germany—gives me an excuse to write about what has fascinated me for some years now: the evolution of Grimm’s Fairy Tales into the form we recognize today.

The stories told to or read by children over the past two centuries, I was surprised to discover, appeared in rather different form when they were first published in 1812, based on the systematic collection of folk tales by Jakob and younger brother William. As the quote above clearly implies, for instance, beautiful young Rapunzel becomes pregnant out of wedlock. 

By the time of the last edition published in the brothers’ lifetime, in 1857, the tale had been bowdlerized, but with an unintended effect. This time, the smitten royal had wooed and won Rapunzel’s hand in marriage, legitimizing their relationship. But she revealed her secret by asking “Mother Gothel” (now a sorceress rather than just a fairy), “How is it that you’re much heavier than the prince? When I pull him up, here’s here in a second.”

In other words: Now we have a young girl who, instead of being simply naive, is positively stupid enough not only to disclose the existence of her cherished visitor without prompting but also to insult a malignant being who can do nasty stuff to her and her beloved.

This was just one of many changes introduced in these tales over the years by Jakob and Wilhelm. After the first edition of 156 tales, the Grimms began to hear not only about more tales but also alternate details of their original pieces. At the same time, while they added psychological motivation, they tried to make their stories palatable enough for children in an increasingly bourgeois society. (Thus, the dwarves in later editions permit Snow White to stay with them—but she’ll have to learn to “keep house for us and cook, sew, make the beds, wash and knit, and keep everything tidy.”)

The Brothers Grimm had close to an ideal partnership: affectionate, hardworking, with each supplying a quality the other lacked. (Jakob, a lifelong bachelor, had more time and energy than the married, asthmatic Wilhelm; Jakob might have been a somewhat more distinguished scholar than his brother, while the more outgoing Wilhelm took a firmer hand in later editions in supplying the tales’ charm and humor).

Oh, yes, there’s another reason why I like the Brothers Grimm: they were librarians—not the term so many in the profession have unfortunately adopted: “information scientists.”

(The image accompanying this post shows its subject in a much happier setting than the tower of the fable—at the Rapunzel Royal Table aboard the Disney Magic ship.)

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