Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
by jacob and wilhelm grimm
translated and edited by jack zipes
princeton, 568 pages, $35


or two hundred years, the Grimms’ fairy tales have charmed the world. Yet their wide circulation has gone hand in hand with a systematic dilution. Translated, ­rewritten, retold, the stories have often changed their character, and while some—Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, for example—have become classics of children’s literature and Hollywood films, many of the stories originally collected have fallen into obscurity.

Fortunately, the two volumes of the Grimms’ initial, unexpurgated publication are now available in an engaging English translation by Jack Zipes, an international leader in the study of fairy tales who ­masterfully captures the tone and ambience of the first version. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is a gift to any lover of ­fantastic tales.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began to collect Märchen, short popular tales with magical elements (the term has a broader reach than the English “fairy tale,” which could be taken to involve only a particular sort of supernatural creature), in 1806, the year in which Prussia was defeated by Napoleon and Hegel completed his The Phenomenology of Spirit. The disparate German territories suffered under French occupation, which contributed to a gradual emergence of a national awareness, amplified by the Romantic movement among writers and intellectuals. One of the leading poets, Clemens von Brentano, encouraged the Grimms to collect popular narratives, and they did so in the belief that it was only in the people, the Volk, that genuine culture and authentic traditions resided. This was a strange brew of patriotism, populism, and ethnography, a document of the era of the “War of Liberation,” the German uprising against France. The Grimms’ two volumes—here collected in one—appeared in 1812, the year the tide began to turn against Napoleon, and 1814 (postdated to 1815), the year of his defeat.

The first versions of the tales have a raw and direct character that would gradually disappear in subsequent editions, in which the initial populist element was smoothed over and replaced by a more polite sensibility. Zipes provides the English-language reader with a unique opportunity to ­experience this blunt world from which the violence has not yet been expurgated. In “The Hand with the Knife,” a ­beleaguered sister, mistreated by mother and brothers, has to dig peat in the dry heath. An elf lends her a magical knife to ease her labor, but the brothers discover this and “when the good elf stretched out his hand, they cut it off with his very own knife.” The story offers no redemption. On the contrary, because the elf believes that the sister, whom he had loved, had betrayed him, “he was never seen ­after that.”

Violence can also mark a victory over evil, as in “The Twelve ­Brothers,” where the villainess lands in “a barrel full of boiling oil and poisonous snakes.” In the same ­gruesome vein, the sisters in “­Cinderella” struggle to squeeze their feet into the golden (not glass) slipper. One tries to make her foot fit by cutting off her heel, the other by cutting off her toes. The proliferation of bloody episodes might recall the line from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” when the officer describes the blueprint of the ­killing machine: “It’s no calligraphy for school children. It needs to be ­studied closely.”

It is a violent world because—this seems to be the lesson of the Grimms—evil is an objective presence in the world. The Grimms collected tales of a brutish world that could be unqualifiedly terrifying. Parents die or abandon their children, like Hansel and Gretel. Witches cast their spells or, even more often, unforgiving hunger threatens. Sometimes these hard stories teach right and wrong, as when “the Ungrateful Son” is condemned to wander “aimlessly all over the world” because he refused to share his meal with his hungry father. ­Alternatively, the tales can celebrate the power of love, as in “The Clever Farmer’s Daughter,” whose irate husband, the king, about to banish her, grants her a last wish to “take the dearest and best thing that she could think of with her.” She chooses to take him, her cherished partner.


n the Grimms’ own later editions, however, and even more in their popular adaptations through the twentieth century, the tone grows more moderate, as the fairy tales become sweetly charming and eventually trite. It is an unfortunate diminution, one that reflects the ­watered-down Enlightenment thought that came to define middle-class liberalism. Happy endings come to mean less because the forces of evil have grown less ominous. The appeal of this volume is that this process of moral relativization has not yet set in.

The Grimms’ original world is one ruled not by squeamish liberalism but by divine justice and grace. In “The Bright Sun Will Bring It to Light,” the morning sunlight clears up a long-forgotten murder, and the culprit is convicted, while “The ­Virgin Mary’s Child” concludes with heavenly redemption, when “heaven opened up right then and there, and the Virgin Mary descended with the [penitent sinner’s] two little sons at either side and the daughter in her arms” in order to save her from flames at the stake. Such explicit Christianity is not frequent in the tales. Indeed, the characteristically magical and nearly pagan tropes of Märchen may be subtly at odds with Christian teaching. Yet there is something very Christian in the tales’ assumption that authentic goodness goes hand in hand with a simple folk piety.

In the Grimms’ world, evil may rule, but there is also the utopian promise that with a sense of right and wrong, plus some magic, one might be able to live happily ever after. That redemptive aspiration, certainly of the Grimms and often of Romanticism writ large, could burgeon into a millenarianism that would eventually fan the flames of a thousand-year Reich. Some have claimed that the Romantic legacy led inexorably to Germany’s ­twentieth-century political catastrophes. After 1945, the occupying powers briefly viewed the Grimms’ tales as part of the ideological roots of the defeated enemy. Phrased so directly, that argument is no longer tenable. Yet the vision of a world of suffering that can transform magically into a realm of happiness has, at least in the German tradition, an instability that can tilt either toward ­brutalizing violence or toward a miracle of grace.

Russell A. Berman is Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.

 Image by Store Norske Leksikon licensed via Creative Commons