Fairytales are interwoven into many of our happiest childhood memories. Curled up with a well worn book such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty, I would read the stories until I knew them by heart.
Or at least I thought I knew them, until I heard an interview with Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, who has just translated the original first edition of The Brothers Grimm Folk & Fairy Tales. Never before have the original tales been available in English and it would seem that down through the years, we have only been permitted to read the more ‘watered down’ versions of these much loved stories.
Originally intended for adults as well as children, the Brothers Grimm first published their collection of German folk tales in 1812. It might surprise you to know that the evil step-mother in Hansel and Gretel was actually the children’s biological mother – same goes for Snow White. Rapunzel was pregnant, “Why are my clothes becoming too tight?” she laments, and there’s a jolly little story entitled “How The Children Played At Slaughtering” that I don’t suppose contains a ‘happy ever after’.
But why have our fairytales become more sanitised or ‘Disneyfied’ for today’s audience? Well, over the years, the tales became so popular with children that their parents began to complain about all of the violence and adult themes in the stories. Religion began to creep in and it became more popular to include messages of morality in these time-honoured tales. But according to Jack Zipes:
“It is time for parents and publishers to stop dumbing down the Grimms’ tales for children,” he said. “If there is anything offensive, readers can decide what to read for themselves.”
The origin of fairytales lies in the oral tradition since language was developed and many cultures from Russian to Norse mythology have contributed to the collection of fairytales. They were a primitive means of communicating messages of warning and of hope to the masses. Created in a time of hardship, suffering and violence, I think fairytales were supposed to be frightening and arresting. They teach us something of the arbitrary suffering that befalls the individual, the evil lurking in the shadows and the triumph and courage of the human spirit. It’s unfortunate the fairytales have been turned into saccharine moral tales for children and taken out of the realm of the adult. However, there are many fine writers bringing the fairytale back to adult readers (yes you Neil Gaimin, or try these books for size Among Others, The Book Of Lost Things) and lets face it, we could all do with a little magic in our lives!
Here is Kate Bush’s eery interpretation of The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen.
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