At last she carefully wrote the words, “Once upon a time…” and thought that the looping line the pen made was a world line, like the one left behind by the tide, and that lines left on beaches and pages everywhere must wind up by going all around the world if one could only follow them.
– Margaret Mahy, The Tricksters
Every beginning is arbitrary and endings are even more so. All stories must start somewhere, theoretically, but finding the end of the thread is something like trying to untangle a spider’s web, and I don’t believe any story will ever really end until the world does. But a book is as good a place as any to start. In 1812 a collection of stories was published by a pair of young German scholars under the title Kinder-und Hausmärchen, translating in English to Children’s and Household Tales. Two hundred years later, the stories are instead synonymous with their compilers, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
These stories have reshaped the way not only Germany, but the entire Western world, sees its own traditions, becoming an integral part of the genre of speculative fiction and indeed the wider world of all literature. Most importantly of all, they are an integral part of childhood for generations past, present and future.
2012 has been the unofficial year of the fairy tale. An extraordinary number of retellings have been released in every possible format, from plays and films to short stories and novels, the ABC’s online project Re-enchantment – there is even a television series, currently airing in Australia, that has the Grimms as a secret police force defending humanity through the centuries from the creatures of their stories. I wonder what the real men would have made of that.
They were actually librarians. The brothers began their systematic collection of fairy stories in 1806 when Clemens Brentano, a friend and fellow writer, asked for their help in assembling a book of folk songs. Their method was not particularly adventurous; instead of going out to find wise old women or little grey men, they invited their storytellers home, and in fact most of their sources were middle class or aristocratic young women, who in turn had heard the stories from nursemaids and servants. Brentano never ended up using their work, but this research would become the driving force behind the rest of both brothers’ lives.
Their work was taking place at a time when the country of Germany was splintered in smaller principalities, and the Napoleonic wars were bringing much of Europe under the rule of the French. For the Grimms, passionate supporters of German unification, collecting the folk lore of their homeland must have been like a small rebellion, a way of reminding themselves and their readers who they really were. Their first intention was to keep the fairy tales as close to the original tellings as possible, but all writers find it hard to resist a little tampering and over the course of their lifetimes they published three editions of Kinder-und Hausmärchen, each one revised to fit better with their morality – removing sexual subtext, inserting references to Christianity, airbrushing the protagonists to better fit the traditional gender mould. The book had become a kind of educational manual for children aimed squarely at the middle-class market. Dedicated scholars they might be, but the Grimms had sound business sense.
This annoys me. Of course it does. No man, alive or long dead, is allowed to tell me what my gender ought to be, especially when he’s scrubbing out the words of real women in order to do it. I have never forgiven the Grimms for ‘King Thrushbeard’, which is essentially The Taming of the Shrew with Kate and Petruchio as royals. I resent the way they changed Rapunzel into a babbling idiot who couldn’t keep a secret, and turned Snow White from a political refugee into a tame housekeeper. I don’t like the moralism. I don’t like what they were trying to teach.
But here’s the thing. Fairy tales have transcended. They are an ancient thing, a powerful thing, stories retold so many times that they have soaked into the collective dreams of humanity and rooted there. They are a path of white pebbles in the dark forest, the howl of the wolf, the gleam of golden hair at a tower window. They are a glimpse of something else – something other – something yonder.
The revisions didn’t stop with the Grimms. In the decades after their deaths the stories were translated into other languages, brought to other countries, polished by ever more exacting standards of morality. Some became famous. Others were forgotten. Scholars and psychologists have studied them, dissecting them for hidden meanings and symbolism, trying to force them into making sense. And this annoys me even more, because it misses the point altogether. Stories speak for themselves. They don’t need to be translated into nice clean little boxes. They are what they are, and that means they are something different for each person who finds them.
But the Grimms did more than find them. They kept them safe. They wrote them down and gave them back to the world when they might have been forgotten about altogether. They changed them, yes, all storytellers do that. The stories are changing still. That can’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be anyway.
Jacob and Wilhelm didn’t realise what they were starting. They couldn’t have imagined that two hundred years after they first published their book of household tales there would be a cyborg Cinderella, a werewolf Red Riding Hood, a tyrant Rapunzel. They didn’t know that they would be made into a legend themselves. They were simply trying to hold on to their history.
They may not be where the story begins, but they are the reason it’s still here.