Into the Woods Again and Again: The Profound Legacy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales

By Jack ZipesNovember 12, 2012

Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman

PERHAPS THE GREATEST IRONY concerning the profound legacy of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's and Household Tales (1812), celebrating its bicentenary worldwide this year, is that the fame of the tales is due in great part to Edgar Taylor, a British lawyer, who produced the first English translation, German Popular Stories, in 1823. Actually, Taylor adapted the Grimms' tales, and thus transformed them into unusual jocose stories for children and middle-class families. He also included 22 hilarious illustrations by the great caricaturist George Cruikshank. Surprisingly, the serious Grimms, who never took care to have their tales enlivened with illustrations, were so impressed by Taylor's highly successful book that they followed his example in all the editions they published after 1823 and until 1857. The Grimms remained true to their original scholarly intention of salvaging the great oral tradition of storytelling, while artfully editing the tales according to the tastes and values of their contemporary reading public. Meanwhile, Taylor, who published another translation called Gammer Grethel in 1839, continued to influence the reception and legacy of the Grimms in Great Britain and also in North America up through the twentieth century. Thanks to Taylor and other British translators, the Grimms became known as delightful writers for children whose books also had an appeal for adults, even though the original works were never intended for children.

The English success of the Grimms' tales led to all sorts of adaptations for adults and children in the twentieth century — parodies, melodramatic films, vaudeville shows, opera, ballet, comic books, postcards, plays for children and adults, musicals, paintings, photographs, and so on. The Grimms stories became Anglicized and, of course, Americanized through the Disney films and merchandise. Two extremes became noticeable in Great Britain and North America: a trivialization of the Grimms' tales that transformed them into amusing products for profit; and a critical exploration and interpretation of the tales that endowed them with great cultural significance. Indeed, these so-called "German" tales collected by the Grimms and appropriated by Anglo-Americans become very much part of the British and American cultural heritage.

Two new books testify to the extraordinary legacy of the Grimms' tales in England, North America, and other English-speaking countries: Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest: The Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales (2012) and Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (2012). Both writers have previously published numerous fairy tales, but with these new books, they acknowledge an even greater cultural debt to the Grimms' stories and make a significant contribution to their ongoing heritage in England, as well as in other English-speaking countries.    

Maitland is especially dedicated to maintaining the English cultural allegiance to the Grimms' tales through adaptation. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gossip from the Forest, a highly original and poetical rendition of 12 Grimms tales interwoven with stunning essays about their relationship to British forests. The subtitle says it all: Maitland wants to honor "the roots of our forests and fairy tale." Rewritten to highlight their contemporary relevance, Maitland subtly embeds these tales in her book with observations of places, plants, trees, and animals while offering a political critique of deforestation and other inhumane environmental practices. There is also a strong feminist current in her essays and tales. On the page that follows the dedication of her book, she strikes a challenge to the mindless somewhat sexist definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, which equates gossip with women's idle talk: "This is one of my favorite examples of how the trivialising of women's concerns distorts language. The Gossip of my title is the encouraging, private spiritual talk that we all want in times of trouble. Stories that are not idle; tales that are not trifling."

In her chapter about Epping Forest and "Hansel and Gretel" she links her observations about forest preservation with the resilience of children. Her marvel at the public spaces in this serene environment leads her to think about free spaces in which children can play and find themselves. As she meditates about children, she comments that we are failing to nourish the quality of resilience in children that enables them to cope even when horrible and dangerous things happen. Maitland maintains that forests and fairy stories are antidotes to the lack of nourishment in contemporary society:

Forests offer infinite possibilities for creative play — especially I think because they often provide a choice of physical levels; climbing up a tree is different from hiding inside one. A long view through or over woodland is radically other from hiding behind or within a thicket. And, where stores are still told, everyone knows that forests are magical. The fairy stores themselves are also training grounds for resilience. Terrible, terrible dangers threaten the children in fairy stories — from cruel and abusive parents to giants, wolves and witches. But in every single case, not through special skills or miraculous interventions but through the application of good sense (and interestingly, good manners) the children do not merely survive they return home wiser, richer and happier.

Maitland's ruminations lead her to retell "Hansel and Gretel," but it is the post-history of the brother and sister, when they have become older and prosperous. Hansel is head forester to the king and married to a miller's daughter — they have five children. Gretel lives alone in the forest by choice, a woman of the woods who cultivates herbs, flowers, and vegetables. Her sturdy home resembles a bright Gingerbread house. Occasionally, Hansel visits her as he tours the forest. They live two miles away from each other. One time, when he visits her in her idyllic spot, they talk about what happened many years ago, and Gretel bursts into tears and confesses that she feels terribly guilty for having pushed the witch into the oven. She wonders whether what they tell themselves is a true story. Then Hansel responds: "Sometimes they are true […] Here is a true story. Once upon a time there was a brave little girl; she had a foolish brother, a weak and pathetic father, and an evil cruel stepmother who certainly wanted to kill her. But in terrible fear, in the raging danger and sadness and terror, she kept her head. She rescued them both. That is a true story."

In this revised "Hansel and Gretel" tale, Maitland probes the true trauma more deeply than the Brothers Grimm. Gone is the father who profits from their children's abuse, and gone is the silly duck. What is left is a learning experience transformed into a tale that grown-ups tell to one another because, as Maitland stresses, the tale has allowed them to come back into sunshine. Throughout her adaptations she nourishes the quality of resilience that children, and adults as well, need to confront the changing conditions in a world that has gone awry. There is still something utopian in the Grimms' fairy tales and in the impulse to re-write and retell them. In Maitland's stories, resilience means more than survival and escaping death — it means to live well, free of regret and shame.


In his excellent introduction to Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Pullman also comments about our impulse to rewrite Grimms' tales with "utopian" vigor and how to nourish the resilience in the tales when he claims: "The substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can. Like jazz, storytelling is an art of performance, and writing is performance too."

Pullman's project is just as pertinent as Maitland's, but he has taken a different approach. Instead of revising and rewriting the Grimms' tales, he selected and translated 50 stories from the final 1857 German edition. In addition, his footnotes feature personal interpretations, background information on the tales, and comments about his artwork as translator. Most important is his introduction, which reveals his theoretical approach to storytelling. As he states, "my main interest has always been in how the tales worked best as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn't want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been; 'How would I tell this story myself, if I'd heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?' And changes I've made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my own voice.”

Pullman's intentions echo the essence of the Grimms' original purpose to salvage ancient tales so that they could be shared and retold by "the folk," that is, by all people from all social classes. Pullman shows how completely he understands the Grimms when he writes: "The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage […] A fairy tale is not a text.” In this book of Grimms' tales, we learn not only about fairy tales themselves, but about Pullman, the writer as storyteller. Like Maitland, he appropriates the Grimms' tales in a positive sense, but he does not re-write them. Instead, he immerses himself in the aesthetic structure, spirit, and history of the tales in order to hone them as serene and lucid stores that can be carried on by anyone who has an urge to retell the tales. Pullman imbues the tales with his particular voice and at the same time brings out their anonymous universal character. He places great emphasis on bluntness, action, superstition, and clarity. His beginnings are like invitations that cannot be refused. For instance, "The Fisherman and his Wife" starts like this: "Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived in a shack that was so filthy it might have been a pisspot. Every day the fisherman went out to fish, and he fished and he fished." Pullman’s sentences are crystal-clear lenses that allow readers to glimpse hope in otherwise difficult situations. His written words evoke a sense of wonderment.

Both Pullman and Maitland are like poets of old, telling tales that must be heard, for they still have a bearing on our future. Their rewording of the Grimms' tales pays homage to the Brothers' pioneer work and simultaneously breathes new life into a great, venerable tradition of magical storytelling.


LARB Contributor

Jack Zipes is Professor Emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. In addition to his scholarly work, he is an active storyteller in public schools. Some of his recent publications include: The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World (rev. 2002), Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller (2005), Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (rev. 2006), Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (2006), Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling (2008), The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (2010), and The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre (2012). He has also edited The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000) and The Great Fairy Tale Tradition (2001).


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