The Brothers Grimm
Second only to the Bible in publication sales at the beginning of the 20th century in the Western world, the influence of these original fairy tales is still remarkable despite their steady decline in actually being read, notably as they still live on in the public conscious and through re-interpreted means. In this short piece I wish to outline why the original tales became edited and published, their moral vision, as well as a brief glimpse at two of the more interesting themes in the stories: violence and in particular, patriarchy.
It was the fairy tales’ potential power to unite a German people, divided into principalities and kept as such through conservatively-minded local princes, which initially drove the rather more liberal (and constantly politically attacked for being so) Grimm brothers into their project during the early 19th Century: collecting and editing the tales, as told through a long oral tradition, into written form.
The tales were edited in two major ways: firstly, they were refined from their myriad sources — often convoluted in nature — into compact messages of the essential long-standing truths of the German people, as expressed etymologically; it was the sincere belief of the Grimm brothers that it was through the shared laws, customs and language that German character was formed and through which the national consciousness could be aroused. The second way in which the tales were edited was through the modifications intended to make the tales more appealing to the swelling Protestant middle classes, who were increasingly beginning to engage with print technology (and perhaps by extension, the nature of human morality itself).
The chief signs of this latter aspect are in the refinement of the coarse and sexual language used, a greater focus on the psychology or rather inner thoughts of the characters and their motives, and new traces of a biblical language and morality. (These are all of course popular features of the Victorian novel.) As time has passed and the original stories have faded from the bedtime hour — or indeed, softened down in film format by Disney’s own values-agenda — it is remarkable to note how violent the original stories are; indeed, at first, the Grimm brothers had no interest in reaching a young audience with these fantastical, cautionary tales.
It is perhaps easy to over-psychoanalyse the violence, reading more into the tales than what is actually there (Jung for example wrote a great deal on them); however, the reality is that the contemporary world in which the tales were being told was seen in such violent terms. Outside of the safety of the kingdom, those leaving or exiled must wait in dangerous forest (seen as where magic dwelt) before their return or indeed rescue into a new (utopian) kingdom. We cannot also escape how the rather gruesome endings dealt to accused witches in some of the tales may have had a trace of historical reality to them.
Although the tales are patriarchal in nature, again, this may only have reflected the society. The large majority of these tales were in fact sourced from old ‘wise’ women, as is common in oral traditions across the world. Women are largely appealed to as wise, and imbuing necessary structure into the everyday societal and familial life. Even when the “12 Brothers” run away, for example, it is the youngest — portrayed as the weakest and one who would not leave his mother’s side — who takes on the feminine role, by doing the domestic chores, and being the one who gains knowledge of the sister’s presence (and indeed, uses it to thus save her from being murdered by his other brothers on sight).
An interesting illustration of how the marriage (‘societal’) structure works, and the moral warnings that the fairy tales give in regards to this (potentially?) oppressive structure, can be found in the story, “The Rabbit’s Bride”. (Note the sexual metaphors!) In this story, a mother instructs the maiden to shoo a rabbit away from the cabbage garden, but the rabbit keeps enticing the maid to enjoy a ‘fun travel’ on his tail and to end up at his hutch, until she finally relents; however, then she is immediately trapped by him into his hutch and must do all the domestic chores for him, starting with their wedding ceremony; when the rabbit notices a lack of response(for the real maid has in fact created a dummy and fled), the rabbit immediately beats her to death. The interesting question here is: would it be better to see this story as a warning to young women, or as a mourning for married ones (or both)?
Ultimately though, the critics who point to the lack of ambiguity in the gender roles forget that the purpose of the tales is to retain simplicity and focus on delivering the key messages, which are: of how one can succeed despite adversity, of how social justice pertains, and how there can be more to life than just survival. These qualities, in a roundabout way, sum up the Grimm brothers themselves.