Modernized versions of traditional fairy tales have become popular in recent years, with television series such as ABC’s Once Upon a Time and graphic novels such as Bill Willingham’s Fables providing creative and original narratives utilizing characters and concepts from old folk tales. Although popular, these newer variations on older fairy tales have created controversy for altering the traditional characterizations and stories that many people grew up with. This exposes a major flaw in many people’s understanding of fairy tales and traditional folk culture—which versions are the “most correct” version of the story, and why? Maria Tatar’s The Grimm Reader is a collection of many of the traditional fairy tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, providing an English translation of some of the oldest written versions of these stories. Notable for being far more violent than the “traditional” versions of the fairy tales popularized in the Victorian period (and later, by Disney films), the typical Grimm story is a combination of children in jeopardy, adults that range from neglectful to destructive, and flat narrative that is driven by plot rather than by characterization.
The Grimm Reader begins with two brilliantly written prefaces, the first by A.S. Byatt and the second by Tatar herself, that explore the cultural role of fairy tales and what makes the Grimm variants special. Byatt discusses how the Grimm fairy tales form a series of escapist fantasies, in which evil is always vanquished by good, malevolence and cruelty are always punished, and a child’s belief in wonder is inevitably rewarded. She distinguishes them from religious/mythic cycles, which she argues function as a system of transmitting moral beliefs rather than as a secular entertainment. Following Byatt’s explanation of what defines a traditional fairy tale, Tatar explains the elements that made the Grimms’ versions of the tales unique. She explains how the Grimm brothers edited the raunchy, vulgar peasant tales into versions specifically for children as a means to make more money publishing the books. Books for children sold better than the original scholarly records of peasant tales that were vanishing as Germany became increasingly literate and urbanized. Although the bawdy humor of the original versions was excised from the Grimm tales, the sense of danger in the “dark woods” and use of violence as punishment (and entertainment) remained, creating the unique style that typifies the Grimm tales.
Some of the Grimm tales are more shocking and distinct from the modern versions than others. “The Frog King” stands out as a particularly unique version of the story, in which the frog does not regain his humanity by a kiss, but by being flung against a wall! The version of “Cinderella” in this collection features a far more satisfying punishment than Cinderella forgiving her sisters (the Disney ending). Perhaps the concept of forgiveness was more rewarding to a society that values compassion, as Tatar claims, but the ending of the Grimm version seems more satisfying in our time. The Grimm version of “Snow White” features a wicked queen who tries to murder Snow White with far more than a simple poison apple, and a punishment for the wicked queen that seems shocking even by modern literary standards. In contrast, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” appear in the forms that most modern audiences are familiar with, with little in the way of unique variations to distinguish the Grimm tale from the version in the popular imagination.
Tatar’s English translation of the tales is excellent, with a light, breezy narrative style and simple but clean grammar that make for a wonderful reading experience. The typical tale in the collection is only 5 pages long, which can make the collection enjoyable to read in short, concentrated periods. With 37 of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales included, along with nine of the Grimms’ “Tales for Adults”, there are many tales to choose from for your reading pleasure. For anyone interested in the origins of fairy tales in the popular imagination, The Grimm Reader is an excellent choice.