On Grimms’ Bicentennial, Reading Fairy Tales Demands Creativity

By Amy Wickner — December 20, 2012 6 min read
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Although fairy tales did not appear in Scholastic’s forecast of children’s publishing trends for the coming year, they certainly blanketed the arts media in 2012, the bicentennial of the Brothers Grimm’s first published compilation of tales. A wealth of articles—and three recent book releases—reflect the current interest in how fairy tales fit into learning, teaching, writing, and literature today.

Recent stories on NPR and in Smithsonian Magazine have highlighted a newly discovered early work by Hans Christian Andersen and obscure variations on well-known tales.

Fairy tales retold for a young adult audience are increasingly popular, and the LA Review of Books has published interesting reviews of titles like Ella Enchanted, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, and Beast (another retelling of you-know-what and the you-know-who). Reel Culture, the film blog, took a look back at film adaptations of Snow White, in light of the recent releases “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Mirror, Mirror”.

Maria Popova, who blogs at Brain Pickings and writes often and at length about fairy tales, posited a direct line of descent from Grimm to comic books. Coursera, the MOOC operator, offered a course on Fantasy & Science Fiction that includes fairy tales and fables in its introductory units.

Our contemporary interest in fairy tales is oddly reflected in the publication this year of The Fairy Ring; or, Elsie and Frances Fool the World (Candlewick), an account of the Cottingley Fairies hoax to which none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fell victim. Booklist named The Fairy Ring the top youth nonfiction title of 2012.

A trio of recent releases—The Annotated Brothers Grimm edited by Maria Tatar (W.W. Norton); Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm : A New English Version by Phillip Pullman (Penguin); and Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland (Granta Books)—celebrate the Grimms’ bicentennial with new translations and reinterpretations of the tales. Each work examines the canonical and iconic tales through a different lens, recreating them for modern readers using a variety of storytelling techniques.

Tatar’s annotated tales encourage one to read with a sense of history and context. Her notes tie elements within the tales to each other through shared themes and motifs. She doesn’t appear to promote one set or theory of fairy tale archetypes over another, but does refer to Charles Perrault and other major interpreters of the tales wherever they have strayed significantly or in interesting ways from the originals. Many of these variations have been passed down into common knowledge; acknowledging the evolution of a text is one way to make it accessible to a wide range of readers.

Bookmarks readers may be familiar with Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, one of my longtime favorites. Perhaps it was Lewis Carroll’s inventive language that made for margin notes as solemnly silly as the original text, but I found the intertwining narratives irresistible. How to comment upon a story itself composed of twists, turns, and self-reflexive comments? Annotating fairy tales offers a similar challenge, especially considering the depth of meaning associated with the Grimms’ tales over the centuries. Tatar is never commenting on the tales alone, but writing in conversation with generations of readers, writers, and theorists. Her book offers a reminder that social reading has a long history.

Pullman’s explicit intent in rewriting the Grimms’ tales was to achieve improved readability and an economy of storytelling. Marjorie Ingall, writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, praised the humor and wit he brings to the telling and the dialogue, too. As in His Dark Materials, Pullman’s Paradise Lost-inspired science fiction trilogy, how people talk is inseparable from what they have to say.

Clean storytelling of this kind is as much a writing tool as a boon for readers. The New English Version seems meant to be memorized and recited out loud—performed, even. It offers a framework: a clean text from which to improvise and spin off fanciful variations, asides, pathos, bathos, and physical comedy.

As Pullman told Mother Jones, “I like the psychological flatness of [the characters], the fact that they’re more like masks than individuals.” Anyone can put on a mask; similarly, anyone can aspire to inhabit the tales. In the same interview, Pullman credited storytelling before a class of middle school students with inspiration for the project: “Children aren’t interested in the least about your appalling self-consciousness. They want to know what happens next. They force you to tell a story.” The challenge of reciting tales, poems, and myths of all kinds provided motivation.

Tatar adds layers of meaning, unearthing and putting them in order; she’s produced a starter library in a single volume. Pullman, on the other hand, strips away as much as he can without denuding the tales and the telling of narrative power. While Tatar’s annotations offer a way into the tales through reading, Pullman makes them accessible through writing and reciting. Reading the volumes together may therefore be as important as reading them one at a time.

Gossip From the Forest, Sara Maitland’s memoir of sorts reflecting on Britain’s ancient woodlands—and not to be confused with a 1975 Thomas Kenneally novel of the same name—offers a well-received example of how fairy tales may provide the jumping-off point for writers to explore myth and nature in their own lives. Jack Zipes, writing in the LA Review of Books, paired reviews of Maitland’s and Pullman’s books. Maitland, Zipes suggests, emphasizes the resilience of children evident throughout the traditional tales, and her rewritings tend to emphasize this quality, especially as manifest in young female characters.

Interestingly, Maitland appears to link forests—an everpresent setting and motif in the Grimms’ tales—with “nourishment,” says Zipes, and play. Given the dangerous, bloody-minded, and utterly conscience-free creatures described lurking in the woods, I wonder at this characterization. It is one thing to declare, as Maitland does, that “everyone knows that forests are magical.” It’s quite another to bend this meaning to suggest that “magic,” in fairy tales, is unequivocally and universally a force for good.

According to Brian Palmer, writing in Slate, the “invention of children’s literature” through publication by the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen represented a major shift from the kind of literary material children once read. Fables, epics, psalms, and Bible stories, all organized around moral teachings of one kind or another, previously made up the bulk of this material. The reinvention of fairy tales and folk tales as literature for children introduced elements of play, mischief, and chaos into what had previously been a canon of straightforward character education.

It’s hard to say whether Grimms’ tales have explicit moral lessons to offer, though they impart the value of courage and cleverness. They differ quite a bit from fables in this regard, despite common trappings like animal characters and sylvan settings. Often the resilience characteristic of the Grimms’ young heroes and heroines is manifest in their ability to distinguish between clever and foolish decisions, not necessarily between good and evil.

The very plainness and oddness of fairy tales offers a great deal of room for philosophical interpretation, as Tatar notes both in her annotations and in her own review of Pullman’s translations: “As with nonsense poetry, narrated dreams, and surreal fictions, we have to interpret and backfill as well as absorb when we listen or read.” In this fashion, fairy tales give back to the reader as much as he or she is willing to put into them: the perfect vehicle for creativity, curiosity, and wonder.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.