unsettling wonder

A Read Through of Grimm’s Household Talesillus-107


certain novelist set off with a certain poet and the Press to discover other stories. His authorized biographer has assured us that they did. What those stories were remains to be seen. But that shouldn’t stop us from discovering other stories of our own.

A recent rummage through The Fairy Tale Cupboard intrigued me with relics of lesser known tales from the Grimms. The relic there intrigued me enough in itself—as well as the nicely spoiler-free, go-read-it-for-yourself-why-don’t-you interaction with the tale—but not so much as the thought that, well, here’s a nice woods full of stories to discover.

So, why don’t we?

In honor of that certain novelist and the stories he discovered, Mondays at Paradoxes will be devoted to another discover, a read through of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Child and Household Tales] (1857). Since the German is, alas, inaccessible to me, I will rely on Margaret Hunt’s 1884/1892 English translation, reputedly the most slavishly literal to the German, and for this we thank her. And thanks to FTC for the recommendation.

I have a few vague aspirations for this series, as one always does when starting something. The primary emphasis of the read through is creative and imaginative.  I am not a Grimm scholar, and my academic research will, of necessity, be focused in other areas. So this won’t( by design) be an in depth, gap-filling interaction with critical literature. Some critics may appear occasionally. But criticism will not overtake our quest for wonder.

I don’t want to spoil your own discovery, so this may work best if you read the tales yourself alongside. Please do this at your own pace and after your own fashion. (For currently available of e-texts, see below). There are two hundred märchen in the volume—that is, pure fairy-tales—and ten roughly hagiographic ‘Children’s Legends’.

We might be here for a while.

Let’s all hope Monday doesn’t go anywhere. Or at least that Cthulu doesn’t wake up very soon.


The book begins, as many books do, with an introduction. More specifically, with a ‘Preface’ by Margaret Hunt, and and and ‘Introduction’ by Andrew Lang. I once, for several years, had a bad habit of reading introductions and then neglecting to read the rest of the book. The habit is gone—I read the books now—but I still read introductions.

In ‘Preface’, Hunt summarizes briefly the Grimms’ own introductory material. They spent over thirteen years selecting the stories, Hunt explains, writing stories verbatim from sources throughout Germany. Of particularly importance was ‘was the wife of a cow-herd living in the village of’ Niederzwehrn, near Cassel, a woman of about fifty, with intelligent and agreeable but somewhat resolute features, large, bright penetrating eyes, and a perfect genius for story-telling.’

She had, according to the Grimms, a near exhaustive memory of the folktale and saga tradition, and was a willing source, repeating the stories more than once for the Grimms to write down. Apparently, also, unlike other storytelling traditions, her tradition was one of exact reproduction of what had been told. In telling a story, Hunt translates Grimm, ‘she never altered any part, and if she made a mistake always corrected it herself immediately.’

The purity of these transliterations of an oral tradition are several degrees removed from the English text on my screen, however. The Grimms translated their sources’ Low German into High German, from the language of the peasantry who told the stories to that of the scholars who studied them. The Grimms insisted that they altered none of the plot or pacing of the story, but admitted that much of the colloquial idiom would not translate.

Hunt, however, has maintained as close a literalness to the Grimms’ High German as she could, even, she explains with a touch of pride, leaving in the gory bits. She admits that “I have slightly softened one or two passages”, but that could mean anything.

illus-037t his post, lamentably, is not the proper venue to fully engage Andrew Lang’s introduction. He provides a thorough academic treatise on the nature, history, and characteristics of märchen, written in the finest tradition of late-Victorian Wissenschaft. He engages in  detailed, acerbic exchanges (for an English Victorian) with other märchen scholars—who are now (mercifully, it seems) largely forgotten.

Lang’s chief interest in the first part of the essay is to rebut the theory that traces fairy tales as reductions of high mythology. The symbolism of fairytale is too inconsistent, to subtle and ridiculous, he argues, to be merely theories about the weather, made concrete about the gods, blurred by folk heroes. ‘To opinions like those which Sir George Cox has advanced with so much earnestness,’ he says, ‘and in such a captivating style of eloquence, it has always been objected that there is an improbable monotony in the theory which resolves most of old romance into a series of remarks about the weather.’

Lang advances instead a theory in keeping with the contemporary evolutionary theories of his day. The märchen, he says, are the original stories, birthed from a ‘savage imagination’. The most interest part of the essay to a modern reader might be his extensive comparison of the fairytale archetypes with folklore throughout the world.

From these ‘primitive’ origins, the advancement of society ‘refined’ them into mythologies and sagas and eventually modern literature. So, Lang argues, mythology has descended from märchen and not märchen from mythology. C. S. Lewis would later advance much the same theory, but while Lang saw this as a positive development, Lewis saw it as degradation and loss.

In many ways, Lang’s essay is stimulating and refreshing. He has none of the postmodern perspectives and theories that colour much literary criticism today.  He is interested in redaction, not deconstruction. He sees nothing subversive about fairy tales, or if he does, he doesn’t address it in this essay.

By the time I reached the end of this essay, I could not help thinking of Yeats’s sneer against ‘lecturers with their black coats and tumblers of water’, who together with ‘the hum of wheels and clatter of printing presses’ have worked to silence the voices and the music of the Perilous Realm (‘An Irish Story-teller’, 1891). Lang is truly one of the great lovers of fairy tales, yet he is distant, clinical and objective. It seems that for Lang—at least publically, in this introduction—the märchen is the newest field for scientific research, rather than a gateway for wonder.

There is a certain amount of irony at finding this ‘black coats and tumblers’ mentality forwarding a collection of the Grimms’ tales. These, after all, are the stories of the wife of the cowherd, who schooled the Grimms in the lore entrusted to her. They are like the stories of Biddy Hart, who told Yeats of the Irish fairies, which she and Yeats both believed. These stories, in all their unsettling harshness and strangeness, are not ‘girl’s stuff’ the way we give fairy tales to girls today—fru-fru to undergird a culture of lookism and oppression. They are the true lore of womanhood, and so of humanity, the words of the world remembered.

To employ a conventional dichotomy, the lecturer and the scientific dissection of the fairytale is masculine, analytical. But the stories themselves are feminine. That much, I think, is clear from Hunt’s preface. The Grimms’ stories, not withstanding filter of male editors and High German translation, are from a tradition of story, conversation, remembrance—the nurturing, preserving strength of femininity to create, to restore, to heal.

Parker Palmer wrote “that knowledge contains its own morality, that it begins not in a neutrality but in a place of passion within the human soul.”* The preservation of these stories, then, transcends the voraciousness a scientific quest for data and analysis. The lecturers and the redactors may speak louder, and may swagger and boast.

But it is the woman’s voice that sings the story. They arise from a deep-seated place of being, of a desire for love and identity, that seeks for beauty and wonder amid the strangeness and the absurdity of the world. The art of the märchen is the art of creation, the birthing of knowledge that desires not just to know but to be known.

So we are left with the unsettling wonder of these stories. In the end, after we have subjected them to our translations and our analyses, our theories and our lectures, we find that we have not simply learned them, but they have learned us. We do not know the stories. The stories know us. They speak to us with the voice of a mother, and grandmother, even (as MacDonald hints endlessly through his stories) a great-great-grandmother—words that comfort us where we are weeping and rebuke us where we are wandering, words that heal, words that give life to the world.

*Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 7

Next Week: The Frog King, or Iron Henry

Note on Texts:
The text used for this read through is the e-transcription of Margaret Hunt’s 1884/1892 translation, prepared by students at Memorial University of Newfoundland, available in pdf through Project Gutenberg.

This e-text, however, does not include the introductory material or notes. For those, I have relied on SurLaLune’s excellent e-text, with thanks to Fairy Tale Cupboard for the link.

Secondary sources will be cited within each essay, MHRA format.

3 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Looking forward to this. Carrie just got me a complete edition of Grimm with Rackham’s illustrations. There are lots of miscellania I’d never seen before.

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