Lucky monster kids grew up reading collected stories from the Brothers Grimm—their notoriously weird and sometimes horrific morality tales quieted many a yearning voice—and even tricked some of us into behaving. However, most of us were never able to read the original text, as it hasn’t been available in English—until now. Fairy tale, folklore, and Grimm scholar Frank Zipes decided to make the original version of the first (1812) and second (1815) volumes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s tales accessible to a much wider audience.
Andrea Dezsö’s odd but endearing ink illustrations—which are designed to look like intricate, laser cut paper—capture the absolutely insane happenings of the stories: drowned babies, decapitated unicorns, bird-men in cages. The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition is a hefty tome made all that much more comprehensive by the acknowledgements (a pre-introduction), actual introduction, notes on the text and translation work, and an enormous list (with notes) on the storytellers and informants who provided the tales to the Grimms.
The 519-page book includes stories that were cut from several editions of the Grimms’ collection, including “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering,” which is a yarn that tells of a murderous brother…who in turn is stabbed in the heart by his mother in retaliation… whose baby drowned while the boy was killed… and when she saw the dead baby, she hung herself. The husband and dad of family came home to this scene and—appropriately depressed—wastes away in desolation. You’ll also read far different versions of stories that were radically changed over the course of seven editions, such as Rapunzel’s pregnancy. Yes, folks, these are the stories that Disney took, deleted the nasty bits, whitewashed, and combed through for safe, mass consumption. But if you’re a fan of the darker side of life, you’ll be entranced—and even delighted—by these terrible little tales. I spoke Grimm scholar and translator Jack Zipes on this fascinating collection.
Jack Zipes: I tumbled and bumbled into it by chance. The best experiences in life happen through chance, and you have to sense this and grab the opportunity and never let go. Once I began studying the German romantics in graduate school, I took an interest in folk and fairy tales but it was never my intention to study folklore. My dissertation at Columbia University dealt with the literary fairy tales of Tieck, Novalis, Eichendorff, and Hoffmann in comparison with tales by Hawthorne, Melville, Irving, and Poe. I taught courses on fairy tales at NYU during the Vietnam War and I also began studying the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. Then I began studying folklore and philosophy. Since very few scholars examined folk and fairy tales from the perspective of critical theory, I decided to use that approach to counter the misleading and ignorant theories of Jungians, Freudians, and Structuralists. I caused some controversy with my first book, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, and I followed it with another controversial book The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. I took a strong interest in the socialization of children through fairy tales in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, and I also began working in public schools with elementary school children to test my theories. In addition, I founded my own children’s theater in Milwaukee. One could say that I have zigzagged through different fields to grasp the historical and social and cultural relevance of fairy tales in our daily lives.
Diabolique: What is it about the Brothers Grimm and their collected tales that piqued your interest?
Zipes: They were diligent pioneers and most of their work in the field of folklore has been neglected in the States and UK. We owe them a great debt because they began a movement in Europe to take popular culture more seriously.
Diabolique: Your book is the very first, fully English translation of the first edition of collected Grimm tales: Children’s and Household Tales. Why do you think that is? What made you decide to take on this task?
Zipes: Most translators (including myself) have focused on the final seventh edition, which is the so-called definitive edition. It is, in itself, a wonderful collection, but in order to grasp the intentions and accomplishments of this edition, one should also be familiar with the first edition. So, when the bicentenary of the first edition arrived in 2012, I decided to translate the first edition.
Zipes: About a year.
Diabolique: What are the biggest challenges in translating an enormous text, such as this one?
Zipes: Finding styles that adequately captured the different voices and imaginations of the different storytellers.
Diabolique: One piece of the book I found particularly interesting was the comparison of “Rapunzel” and “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” in your introduction. Why do you think the Brothers Grimm (and their stories) have been so popular throughout several centuries?
Zipes: We are faced with many of the same social and political struggles that people in Europe encountered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since we have not resolved all the different conflicts and perhaps have even contributed to the exacerbation of the problems, then the tales enable us to recall that there are magical alternatives that might help us in our modern world of dilemmas.
Diabolique: Do you think that they published seven different editions of their book due to editorial pressure or for financial gain?
Zipes: The Grimms were never interested in financial gain! They would be horrified by our present-day consumerist culture. Look, education today in America has become a commodity. Universities are gigantic corporations driven by the profit motive. One does not study out of curiosity but because one hopes, after four years of sports, parties, and a bit of studying, to land a job so that one can lead a comfortable life. In contrast, education in the nineteenth century was linked more to principles of enlightenment. Of course, it was the domain of the upper classes, and yet, it was generally free if you could obtain some money to study. The Grimms were brilliant students and were motivated by their love for the law, literature, and history. They did not act out of a desire to earn tons of money. For them, education was a means to grasp the meaning of life and to understand how they might benefit other people to cope with social and political changes during the nineteenth century. They wrote books to strengthen a sense of community among German people; they did not write for profit and self-aggrandizement.
Zipes: I have several; there are just too many to name. I am generally drawn to tales in which underdogs manage to outwit stupid tyrants, such as “How Six Made Their Way in the World,” “The Clever Farmer’s Daughter,” “Bearskin,” “Faithful Animals,” “The Dragonslayer,” etc.
Diabolique: What would you like readers who are thinking about purchasing your book to know?
Zipes: Fairy Tales are not escapist stories; rather, they are brutal engagements with the real world, and, despite the fact that the struggles in the tales may be harsh, the eye of the reader is constantly being led to a world and feeling that we call utopia.