Once upon a time, there was a prince/princess/tailor/three sons/twelve lazy servants/a frog/a horse/a frog, a horse, and a prince/an old man. They fell on hard times/their father died/they were driven out of the house/they decided to seek their fortune/they decided to pick berries in the woods/they were abandoned by their parents/they met an old (man/woman) by the side of the road. Because of their honesty/dishonesty they were rewarded/punished, and lived happily ever after/died a miserable death.
The moral of this story is be nice to people you met on the side of the road/always listen to your father/never be a braggart/there is no moral.
Confused yet? Welcome to the world of Grimms’ German Folk Tales, what we generally call “fairy tales.” Once upon a time, the oral storytelling tradition was alive and well, and these stories were passed down from person to person, differing with each telling, from region to region and from generation to generation. About all they have in common is that generally, something of a fantastical nature happens to someone, and the status quo is changed as a result.
Perhaps a tailor battles giants with his wits. Perhaps seven people possessed of supernatural powers decide to seek their fortune. Maybe an honest young man, armed with a magical talisman, goes to see the world. Maybe a soldier makes a deal with the Devil for fortune and success. Quite possibly, there’s a curse or three involved. Or a dragon. And there’s usually a talking animal, a fairy, or the Lord.
Numbers are important. Three, five, seven, twelve, and many. Three sons, twelve lazy servants, seven-headed dragons, three magical dogs, seven soldiers that leap from a knapsack…
Come to think of it, there’s almost no common thread running through the Grimms’ Tales, save for what I stated above. They don’t even all have the grace to begin with “Once upon a time….”
Now, everyone is more or less familiar with the Princess and the Frog, or any of the multiple Cinderella variants, or the assorted Rumplestiltskin tales, or the takes on Sleeping Beauty. However, all of those combined barely make up a fraction of the two hundred tales collected in this wonderful volume. For every tale that the general public is aware of, thanks to Disney’s efforts, there’s ten that have gone unknown and unheralded until now. Even a partial listing of the tales available would take up more space than we have to list them in.
So what’s so good about this particular volume, as opposed to the numerous other Grimms’ Fairy Tales out there on the market? Quite simply, accuracy. I have to admit a great deal of respect for anyone who can translate this many stories from German, and still manage to keep the authentic flavor of the text, and the colloquial language intact. And if some of the stories seem just a tad … surreal, you can thus blame it on the original text involved. Trust me, some of the originals -are- a bit on the surreal side. It’s a safe bet that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to publish the Grimms if they were alive and submitting manuscripts today. “Where’s the characterization? The plot? Where’d the goat come from?”
Sorry, folks. After several dozen folk tales in one sitting, I’m a tad unhinged. Vanishing fairies, talking goats, mysterious frogs, inexplicable curses, and the occasional lack of logic will do that to you.
A word of warning. These are NOT stories for children. Death is common, maiming frequent, bad people meet horrible, horrible ends, and even good people generally undergo severe trials and tribulations before finding their fortune. Incest isn’t unknown, nor is child abuse, spouse abuse, or troll abuse. And let’s not even talk about the apparent flourishing black market for children…
Let me get back to my original points.
A) These stories aren’t for children. Unless read properly, with the right voices and emphasis, and judicious editing as you see fit for juvenile sensibilities. Of course, in this day and age, it’s possible nothing will shock your children. Or you.
B) These stories are the real deal, translated from the original texts with a high rate of accuracy and quality.
C) This collection is something that no one should be without. If you like fairy tales, folklore, folk tales, mythology, or anything that -could- begin with “Once upon a time…” then you really do need a good copy of Grimms’. They live up to their name, after all. These aren’t the watered-down Victorian-era tales, or the Disney versions. These stories reflect life in all of its many shades of grey.
D) As an added bonus, this collection also includes 10 “Religious Tales For Children.” Again, read them to your children at your own risk.
E) Along with 200 stories of varying quality, popularity, and logic, and the 10 mentioned religious tales for children, this edition also comes with a nice little foreword to explain the whys and wheres, an alphabetical index of the stories as listed by their English titles, and an alphabetical index of the stories as listed by their German titles.
My opinion? If you need a collection of Grimms’ fairy tales, this one is as good as any, and better than most. Weighing in at 670 pages, with fairy small type, it’s not something to try and read all in one sitting. But it’s thorough, and entertaining.
Now, I have no idea if this edition is still out there on the shelves, especially as this one was published in 1969. But it’s definitely worth the effort to find. Just don’t expect every story to make sense. (Ask me some day about the Old Beggar-Woman, or the Star Dollars …) And even if you won’t live happily ever after, you’ll at least live happily.
(Southern Illinois University Press, 1960)