Do not go into the woods. Inside are strange little men, ancient hairy women with edible houses, talking dead men swinging from gallows, wolves and robbers, ogres and murderers, cursed wells, talking frogs, hungry animals, cannibals, devils, and death himself. It is so dangerous there, but you shall have to go if you are ever to come out with a happy ending.
The fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm 200 years ago this year will never lose their immediacy; those deep woods are inside our skulls; they cannot be uprooted. How many millions of nightmares have the Grimms inspired, how many pleasant daydreams?
These stories existed before Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set them down; they are not peculiar to Germany but global — so many versions of Cinderella, for example, have been recorded; the earliest, traced to the year A.D. 850, is Chinese. There were many collections of fairy tales before the Grimms’, most notably in enlightenment France, but the tales of Charles Perrault, the most popular of them, though brilliant and amusing, are caught up in the ego and humor of their narrator.
A.S. Byatt has wisely observed that “[c]haracter feels wrong in folk tales.” Fairy tales have no room for character depth, for detailed descriptions; they are filled with action; they rush from one “and then’’ to the next; they are all about movement, not detail, and certainly not personality.
During the Grimms’ lifetime, however, new fairy tales were written filled with personality, Hans Christian Andersen’s wonderful and cruel tales do contain character, a very detailed, extraordinarily rich character: They are all about Andersen, who found the topic of Andersen absolutely fascinating and never tired of it. But the Grimms were academics; their aim, at least at first, was preservation. They wanted to capture these tales before they were lost, before Napoleon, the greatest ogre that Europe had then known, wiped their culture out.
There is no denying that the German character is present in these tales, but what is essential about the Grimms’ work is their lack of authorial ego. They embarked on this mission to record not to take over, to leave their own fingerprints off the text.
Jacob, two years older, was the more energetic and strict of the two; Wilhelm, plagued by illness of the heart, was softer and quieter. Wilhelm married and had children, but even so the brothers were never to be separated. Jacob lived with Wilhelm and his family; it was difficult for outsiders to judge which was the father and husband, which the eternal bachelor. They were lost without pen and paper; they were lost without each other.
Two books are marking the Grimms’ anniversary, Maria Tatar’s “The Annotated Brothers Grimm’’ and Philip Pullman’s “Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm.’’ Tatar is, with Jack Zipes and Marina Warner, among the most celebrated authorities on fairy tales; Pullman’s “His Dark Materials’’ trilogy is among the great works of our times; it would be hard to think of two better people to fit this occasion.
Pullman set out to provide a version of 50 tales that would read in his own words “as clear as water.’’ Reading Pullman’s version it is impossible not to hear Pullman’s own gentle voice; he is present on every page. At times Pullman freely rewrites, for example in “Hansel and Gretel” where Tatar’s translation reads: “Help us, help us, little duck/ Swim to us, then we’re in luck/ Nary a bridge here, far or wide,/ Help us give us both a ride.’’ Pullman gives it a good shake: “Little duckling, little duck,/ Be kind enough to bring us luck!/ The water’s deep and cold and wide,/ And we must reach the other side.’’
Pullman superbly completes the tale of “The Three Snake Leaves’’ and adds inspired continuity to “Little Brother and Little Sister,’’ and his versions of these tales are undoubtedly stronger than the Grimms’. Mostly Pullman’s interventions work brilliantly, but there are also little twitches of additions that read peculiarly. When Pullman writes “McMustardplaster’’ or “cosmetic product’’ or “special diets’’ or “weapon of mass destruction,’’ these words feel alien and intrusive.
On occasion in his incisive notes after a tale, Pullman muses on what he might have done to change a tale, to make it feel more complete. Wilhelm Grimm himself continued to work on the tales after his brother concerned himself with writing the first German dictionary, removing from the tales any mention of sex, adding Christian references, and, at times, shifting the mothers to stepmothers; much of the violence, however, remained or increased. I almost wish that Pullman, who with clear authority reinstates Rapunzel’s pregnant belly, might have returned to some of the earlier versions of the Grimms’ tellings, and so reveal to us quite how much meddling Wilhelm got up to.
Pullman’s selections are full of the wit and energy you would expect from him, and when his writing sparkles, “In the olden days, when wishing still worked . . . ,” you know you’re in a master’s great hands.
While Pullman can play around, gleefully adding images and dialogue, extra scenes, a rhinoceros here, for example, or the corpse of a dog there, Tatar cannot. In this expanded edition of her annotated Grimm, Tatar gives us 52 tales; many are the same choices as Pullman, though it should be noted that the Grimms handed down more than 200 in all, so neither new collection is complete.
Tatar provides a very handsome volume, richly illustrated, full of wonderful facts, quotations, history, and with a very clear and extremely readable translation. Tatar’s annotated Grimm is the perfect volume for someone seeking to learn more about the tales. She does not fill this volume with her own opinions and judgments; she carefully amasses information then steps back.
Both books send you into the dark and cruel world where children are eaten by their own fathers, where mocked simpletons turn out heroes, where dead children refuse to lay still in their graves, where horror and delight sit side by side. It is such a pleasure to read these tales again, to experience their strangeness and richness, their violence and beauty, their sheer nonsense. Albert Einstein once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” The weather’s getting colder, the days shorter. Dim the lamps; light the fire; and go back into the woods.
THE ANNOTATED BROTHERS GRIMM: The Bicentennial Edition
Edited by Maria Tatar
Norton, 496 pp., illustrated, $35
FAIRY TALES FROM THE BROTHERS GRIMM: A New English Version
By Philip Pullman
Viking, 406 pp., $27.95Edward Carey is a novelist and illustrator. The first volume in his Iremonger Trilogy will be published in September. He can be reached at email@example.com.