It’s tempting to look at the glut of fairy tale material that’s washed up on our pop-cultural shores of late and conclude that the genre is having “a moment.” Adaptations, like waves, are coming in sets: two TV shows, two films based on “Little Red Riding Hood,” two on “Snow White” (a third was canceled in production), two on “Beauty and the Beast,” not to mention upcoming projects like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Tim Burton’s Pinocchio, Jack the Giant Killer, and the “Sleeping Beauty” riff Malificent, in which, in a magical bit of casting, Angelina Jolie will star as an evil queen.
But really these stories have never gone away, nor, despite parental grousing—“Cinderella” has too much housecleaning; “Jack and the Beanstalk” is unrealistic; and do they have to call them “dwarves”?—were they ever in danger of doing so. There have been who-knows-how-many retellings of the classic tales over the past two centuries, many of them by heavy hitters in the artistico-literary sphere. One such, the novelist Philip Pullman—whose own His Dark Materials trilogy is as unwilling to condescend to the young reader’s supposed delicacy as any Grimm story—has written a timely book of 50 fairy tale retellings, titled simply Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Grimm collection, those stories through which most of us—certainly those of us who grew up with Disney—first encountered the genre. Though it seems at this point like a mythical unity, “The Brothers Grimm” comprised two actual, distinct siblings: Jacob Ludwig Carl, born in 1785, and Wilhelm Carl, born a year later, the second- and third-eldest of Philipp and Dorthea Grimm’s nine children. They tended to do things in tandem: Both studied law at the University of Marburg before both becoming librarians to support the family after their mother’s death, and they never lived apart. It was at Marburg that, interested in what they thought of as indigenous German literature and inspired by a compendium of folk songs, the brothers began to collect folktales of their own. But the Grimms did not, as might be expected, wander the countryside searching for stories at the hearths of the German Volk. Their sources—one of whom, Dortchen Wild, Wilhelm later married—actually came from acquaintances among Germany’s aristocracy and middle class. Some of the stories, far from being German, were borrowed from the Frenchman Charles Perrault.
Narrative in the Grimm stories moves swiftly—this happens, then this, then that—and the thread of the story is often so strong that it’s hard to imagine events taking a different course than they do. Many of the tales begin with the banishment from home of a protagonist. She (for the most part) goes out in the world and acquires skills, tools, or magical properties, comes into conflict with antagonists, occasionally rescues some persecuted person, and is finally saved. There are certain bizarre commonalities: The mother is usually absent or dead (the stepmother, her replacement, serving as the outlet for some kind of repressed Freudian thing), fathers are invariably invisible or weak, and younger siblings are, generally speaking, the good ones.
The brothers’ project, which culminated in 1812 and 1815 with the release of the two-volume Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), was undertaken in a spirit of folkloric patriotism that was widespread in Germany at the time, partially as an effect of Romanticism’s fetishization of pastoral culture, and partly in the interests of solidifying a national identity after the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. The Grimms weren’t the only ones who sought to document what Johann Herder called the “natural” [as opposed to artistic] poetry of the land: Their contemporary Franz Xavier von Schönwerth collected tales as well, 500 of which were rediscovered in the Regensburg municipal archive last spring by curator Erika Eichenseer. The “lost” Schönwerth stories include versions of “Cinderella,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” among others, but Schönwerth didn’t bother to polish them the way the Grimms did. His stories drive forward relentlessly, leaving no room for literary detail or narrative gloss. As a result they’re less effective on the page, which might help explain how they came to be misplaced for so long.
Kinder- und Hausmärchen, on the other hand, went through seven editions in the Grimm brothers’ lifetime, eventually totaling 200 stories and 10 “children’s legends” in the edition of 1857, which is the basis of most translations published in English today. In later editions of their book the Grimms repolished the tales, fleshing the stories out with dialogue, scenic detail, and overtly Christian referents. Where in 1812 Rapunzel liked the prince she’d “pulled up” so well that they “lived in joy and pleasure” in her tower, in 1857 he “climbs up” and marries her first. Not only that: Rapunzel no longer gives away his visits by complaining that her clothes are too tight (because, of course, all that “joy” has made her pregnant), but by stupidly commenting how much heavier the witch is than the prince.
Rapunzel’s transformation from sex-positive slattern to pious wife actually reveals one of the greatest virtues of the fairy tale: The form is so radically open that it can absorb new traditions and values quite easily. This essential porousness makes the fairy tale amenable to multiple versions, ornamentations, analyses, and theories. (Pullman, in the introduction to his book, lists the varieties of fairy tale criticism he came across: “Jungian, Freudian, Christian, Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, post-modernist …” Sara Maitland’s charming new book, From the Forest, which pairs fairy-tale retellings with essays on ecological history and “the anthropology of woodland,” is something else again.) Fairy tales can be imitated, innovated, and “fractured” without losing that thing that makes them what they are.
Some of this, maybe, is because this kind of story emerged from the intersection of oral storytelling and literature. The repetitive structure—which would have been a boon to storytellers—allows, in writing, for a great deal of elaboration. Pullman, for instance, can have some fun with Rumpelstiltskin’s names, and even throw in an extended ending without its bothering anyone much. It’s easy to impose over the simple structure of the story a layer of art, as the Grimm brothers began to do in subsequent editions of their book. The story “The Goose Girl at the Spring,” for one, layers literary technique—differing points of view, delayed resolution, the slow reveal, and so on—over a simple narrative base—as in King Lear, a girl is punished for telling her father the truth, is lost until he repents, and comes to inherit his kingdom.
Pullman’s comfy retellings aren’t a far cry from the Grimms’ originals. In fact, he writes in his introduction, he wanted them to be as clear and clean as possible, the way he would tell them himself having heard them before. While Pullman’s name may well reinvigorate the genre, his additions, where there are any, are minimal and unobtrusive. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s Pullman who’s written them. Of course, a fairy tale is by nature a shared thing—when someone retells it, it doesn’t become a picture of their mind but rather a vessel for that mind to fill. “Just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician,” Pullman writes, “our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.” But Pullman isn’t going for John Coltrane here; he’s Stan Getz, mostly playing the changes. That the result might be called “classic” is as much a testament to the power of the material at hand as to his (nontrivial) skill as a storyteller. The ultimate lesson for would be retellers is that fairy tales, as the sociologist Arthur Frank put it, “are not theirs but there, as realities.”
The Irresistible Fairy Tale, the latest book by fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, traces the history of the genre through this dialog with social reality. Zipes describes fairy tales as “memes,” a term that’s overused and near meaningless in our cat-video-addled age but which was actually coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. The meme, to Dawkins, is a unit of cultural transmission as basic as a gene. Like a gene, the meme is passed on, mutates, and recombines, becoming the basis of an evolving culture. And so fairy tales, as memes, are “to be told because they were told” much the same as cat videos are to be watched because they were seen. Thinking of them in this way helps explain their openness to addition and change, as well as their agnosticism to national differences or literary trends. It also goes some way toward describing their magnetic appeal: There is always something relevant to be found in them.
Ginnifer Goodwin for one, star of the series Once Upon a Time, contended that the resurgent appeal of fairy tales is due, in part, to the economy. It’s true that, beyond the promise of escapism, many of these stories do confront real, regrettably apropos social ills—rural poverty, for one—along with more eternal concerns like death, puberty, abandonment, and the dark. Fairy tales begin “once upon a time,” in a troubled past that stands in for the present, and provide an imagined path to an “ever after” where problems are solved by luck, magic, morality, or skill. At base, they’re a description of the conditions in which one might be happy. Of course there are rules: You have to be good, charitable, home by midnight. All 12 fairy godmothers must be invited to the party; you mustn’t renege on your deal with Godfather Death. There’s a very fine line, the fairy tale teaches, between happiness and doom.
Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman. Viking.