Originally intended for adults, the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Stories) of the Brothers Grimm has become not only the world's most important collection of folk and fairy tales, but also the central work in the literary culture of childhood. Paradoxically, the tales have been criticized ever since they first appeared as inappropriate for childrentoo frank about sex, too violent, too dark. The Grimms themselves began censoring the sex as they brought out successive editions, and subsequent editors and translators have continued the process, modifying the violence as well. But the darkness remains.
These tales of enchantment and ordeal contain terrifying encounters with witches, giants, and devouring beasts. Even the more benign tales usually involve suffering or danger: persecution by a cruel stepmother or abusive father, a battle with a demon, at the very least marriage to a hedgehog or some other strange creature. There are confrontations with death itself, as in The Three Snake-Leaves" and The Godfather Death," and with the enchanted sleep that resembles it, as in The Glass Coffin" and Briar Rose," the Sleeping Beauty story. Yet in spite of these dark and deathly elements, or perhaps even because of them, the Grimms' tales have a compelling vitality. They are cruder, wilder, more violent, and more fun than the elegant and poignantly beautiful tales of the Grimms' Danish contemporary Hans Christian Andersen.
Unlike Andersen, the Grimms did not invent new tales but collected old ones, with the intention of preserving the oral tradition of the German peasantry. Whether in fact they fulfilled that intention has been questioned. Their tales do afford a glimpse of a world of castles and forests, nobles and peasants, superstitious beliefs and primitive practices that suggest origins at least as old as feudal Europe, and often much older. Some of the tales have been traced back through the centuries by way of earlier versions until they disappear into prehistoric times.
Residues of the social and material conditions of the societies from which they came can be found in the tales, but transformed, as in a dream, by wish, fear, and fantasy. Indeed, the tales often have the strange logic, the freedom from the constraints of time and space, and the abrupt and violent actions that characterize dreams and that Freud attributed to what he called primary process," the kind of thinking that prevails in the unconscious and in childhood. The boundary between reality and fantasy is porous and unstable; everything, including inanimate objects, is alive and responds magically to wishes and fears. There are mysteries and secrets everywhere, as in the lives of children, who are kept in the dark about fundamental realitiessex, death, money, and the whole complex mystery of their parents' desires and disappointments.
The sense of mystery and the belief in the magical powers of thought never go away entirely, but live on in the adult unconscious, accounting for the inexhaustible appeal of fairy tales. They reappear continually in new forms, not only for children but as sophisticated works for adults, such as Jean Cocteau's classic film La Belle et la Bête (1946), Donald Barthelme's ironic postmodern novelSnow White (1967), the unconventional feminist fictions of Angela Carter, the Stephen Sondheim musicalInto the Woods (1987), and so on. Most German writers who came after the Grimms tried sooner or later to write a fairy tale. Even the stories of Franz Kafka are like fairy tales gone wrong. The patterns of fantasy and the narrative structures of the tales apparently satisfy profound psychological and aesthetic needs, endlessly generating new versions.
Motifs from the Grimms' tales also appear in older classic works of fiction and drama, including some that could not possibly have been influenced by them, such as Shakespeare's plays. InThe Merchant of Venice (c. 1595), the riddle of the three caskets posed to the candidates for Portia's hand is like the wooer-tests" in many tales. InKing Lear (c. 1605), the old king demands from his daughter all her love, including that owed to a husband, like the incestuous king in the Grimms' tale Allerleirauh" (Many Furs"). Lear's good and loving daughter, Cordelia, is persecuted, like Cinderella, by two wicked elder sisters.
The Cinderella pattern is perhaps the most widespread of all: The transformation of a poor and insignificant girl into a belle is the theme of innumerable novels, plays, and films. In Jane Austen'sPersuasion (1818), for instance, Anne Elliot is treated like a servant by her hateful sisters, yet it is she who wins the love of the princely Captain Wentworth. Isabel Archer, in Henry James'sThe Portrait of a Lady (1881), even has a fairy godmotheras Charles Perrault's Cinderella does, although the Grimms' does nota male one who leaves her a fortune, enabling her, ironically, to choose the poorest but worst of her canonical three suitors. This figure of the mysterious benefactor, like the dwarf in The Singing Bone," recurs frequently in the tales, and also in novels, especially those of DickensMagwitch inGreat Expectations (18601861), for instance. Novels and plays differ from tales in many respects, notably in giving their characters rich inner lives, while in tales psychological conflicts are worked out in action. Nonetheless, the parallels at the level of plot between tales and the larger and more fully developed forms are striking and could make a very long list. It seems that theKinder- und Hausmärchen form a great repository of narrative motifs that have circulated throughout Europe in various forms for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. How they made their way into the tales is only one of the many unresolved questions associated with the Grimms and their work.