Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 9, 2010

Grimm and Grimmer

The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, tr. Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell, illus. Maurice Sendak (1823), The Bodley Head, 332 pp. (in 2 vols.).

According to the jacket flap, the Grimms wrote 210 stories, and this volume includes 27 of them, but only five were familiar to me from my youth. The characters and plots are standard fare: kings, princesses, youngest sons, evil stepmothers, jealous witches and kids in jeopardy. But Jakob and Wilhelm’s originals include a level of brutality you won’t see in the Disney versions: incest, cannibalism, dismemberment, and resurrection — not the usual fare for children. In several of the tales, the devil makes an appearance, and the details of the most famous tales have changed quite a bit from the original. For instance, Snow White isn’t awoken by a kiss, but instead by some clumsy footmen dropping her glass coffin as they carry her over rough ground. And “Hansel and Gretel” ends with this adorable prose rhyme:

My tale is done, there is no more, but there’s a mouse upon the floor — the first of you that catches her can make a great big cap from her fur.

Wait a minute! Incest in the Brothers Grimm? You bet. It’s in a strange story called “Many-Fur” (aka “All-Kinds-of-Fur”). A fascinating discussion of this tale — and of the Italian tales that inspired it — can be found at D. L. Ashliman’s site.

The basic story is this: When a man’s beautiful wife dies, she makes him promise to marry a woman as beautiful as she is. Unfortunately, the only person who matches his dead wife’s beauty is their daughter, and he eventually proposes to her. She runs away, but returns to spend some time suffering as a scullery maid. Then, three balls later, her identity is discovered, and her father (now referred to as “the King”) claims his long-lost bride and “they celebrated their wedding and lived happily until they died.”

“Many-Fur is a mash-up of Cinderella and Children’s Protective Services, and it left me wondering what happened to father and daughter/husband and wife after they died.

A truly marvelous tale, “Bearskin” brings in everyone’s favorite villain, the Devil, who promises a poor out-of-work soldier a lifetime of riches, if he can survive seven years of no washing, no combing, no shaving, no nail trimming while wearing a bearskin. If the soldier dies during that time, his soul goes to the devil; if not, his soul is his own. The story ends happily for the soldier, but two evil people end up dead, and the Devil has the last word, appearing to the soldier on his wedding night to say, “You see, now I’ve got two souls, instead of your one.”

Bettelheim and Tolkien both argue in favor of the violent original versions of Grimms’ tales. Tolkien says, better no stories at all than the sweetened versions; kids generally can take it. These days, the stories are probably easier on the imagination than most X-Box games and scary movies. It may be that Terry Gilliam’s terrifying (to me) The Brothers Grimm is closer to Jakob and Wilhelm’s original vision than anyone thought.


  1. The Brothers Grimm were part of my childhood. Frist read to me in Russian, they were part of the furnishings of my world, with shadowy images of long words I didn’t understand. When I started to read English at the age of 6, I turned to these stories of enchantment and those of Andrew Lang in the many-coloured Fairy Books. I relished the ‘otherness’ of the principal characters as well as the horrors they encountered. As a child of postwar immigrants growing up among the plastic perfection of bourgeois America, these stories both tied me to the European origins of my family and to the war which had changed their lives.

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