22 August 2007

Once Upon a Time ... #2

The clouds seemed even more omnious when the cart left Kirchwalden behind and approached one of the hills, covered not only in clouds and fog, but also with fir trees so dark they looked almost black. ... the grandmother, however, lived in the forest, half an hour from the village. As Little Red Riding Hood now entered the woods, she met the wolf. But Little Red Riding Hood didn't know what a bad animal he was, and was not afraid of him ...

Cissy frowned. She was not afraid of wolves either, and she would not be frightened by any heathenish young count who appeared to be determined to scare the poor villagers witless.

Her eyes narrowed. Indeed, the Castle of Wolfenbach now belonged to her, and having lived under one roof with her horrid sister-in-law, she was determined to keep hold of this property of hers. "But because Little Red Riding Hood was such a clever girl," she murmured, "and saw the evil glint in old wolfie's eyes, she grabbed a thick stick and hit him over the head. Quite, quite hard. And howling loudly with pain, he ran away and was never seen again."
The protagonists of my May release Castle of the Wolf and especially the protagonists' fathers are extremely fond of fairy tales and folk tales. The fathers are scholars of mythology and medieval literature, at a time when these topics became increasingly popular. The Romantic Movement in Germany is connected to the rediscovery of the Middle Ages as well as an appreciation of folk literature. In many ways, this can all be blamed on a Scot.

In 1760 James Macpherson published the first of his Ossian books, Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language. He pretended these "fragments" were poems by a blind, Gaelic bard who had lived in the 3rd century. Later the whole thing turned out to be a hoax: not only were the poems written much later, but Macpherson had also heavily edited them, or in some instances written them himself. Nevertheless, the Ossian books together with Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) became a huge success, especially on the continent.

These publications strongly influenced Johann Gottfried Herder in Germany, and apart from formulating a theory of "Volkspoesie" (folk literature), he also started collecting European folk ballads himself and had them published as Volkslieder (1778/79, later reissued as Stimmen der Völker in Liedern). He in turn influenced Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, who published a collection of heavily edited German folk songs as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805/08). Several of their friends helped them to find and collect these folk songs – and among these friends were two brothers named Grimm.

Folk literature was regarded as having been created "naturally" by the people; the people / folk being something that went beyond the individual. According to this theory, folk literature was an expression of the national spirit. It was thought to be found among the common people: among farmers, fishermen, in rural areas far away from the big cities. In their introduction to their collection of fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm introduced one of these ideal tellers of folk tales: Frau Viehmännin, a farmer's wife, who had well memorized the old tales. Thus it can come as no surprise that for many years it was thought Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm had wandered about Germany and had knocked at the doors of countless farm houses in pursuit of that elusive, endangered species, the folk tale.

But none of this ever happened: the Grimms got most of their fairy tales from female middle- or upper-class friends and acquaintances. And even the famous Viehmännin was not the wife of a lower class farmer, but the wife of a middle class tailor. Furthermore, she came from a Hugenot family, which had fled from France years before. Original German folk tales? Not really.

What's more, the Grimms, especially Wilhelm, heavily edited their tales, which becomes apparent when you compare their last edition of 1857 to the first edition (1812/15) or even to the ur-version of the tales (1810):* they made the tales more pleasing to read, smoothened awkward plots, got rid of sexual references,** and strengthened patriarchal power structures within the tales. They were the ones who invented the typical fairy-tale style which includes phrases like "once upon a time" or "they lived happily ever after". They were the ones who made collections of fairy tales so popular: in 1823-26 Edgar Taylor translated the Kinder- und Hausmärchen into English as German Popular Stories, which later inspired collections of British fairy tales.

The 1857 edition of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen contained more than 200 tales, among them such all-time favourites as "Cinderella", "The Frog King", "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel". Among my own favourites are some of the lesser known tales, for example, "The Seven Ravens", "The Two Brothers", "King Thrushbeard" and "The Young Man Who Went Out in Search of Fear."

Now let's hear it from you: which are you favourite fairy tales? Which fairy tale collections did you read as a child? And which fairy tale themes do you like to see reworked in romance?

*In 1810 Brentano wrote to the Grimms and asked them whether they had found any fairy tales they could send them for his collection of fairy tales. Wilhelm sent a letter to Jakob, telling him about Brentano's request; Jakob answered something along the lines, "Send him our tales, but make copies first!!! You know that things which enter Brentano's library remain there forevermore." Thus Brentano got his tales, promptly forgot about them, never published a collection of fairy tales, and when he died those copies of the early version of some of Grimms' tales were still in his library. They were rediscovered in the 20th century.

** In an early version of the Frog King, the princess throws the frog against the wall, he changes and falls into her bed as a handsome young man. Jolly good, thinks the princess and climbs in with him. In the 1857 version, the princess throws the frog against the wall, he changes and falls onto the floor as a handsome young man. In comes the king, gives the couple his blessing, and they spent the night together.