Friday, May 29, 2009

Tales of Fairy Tales

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales is an engaging book. It's mainly a literary biography of the brothers Grimm, their siblings and parents, and the women who collected the tales. It describes the social and political life of their early years in detail.

In the published tales, the brothers rarely credited the numerous women who provided their source material. The book tries to set this right, and to document the role of these women -- some of them who were intelligent collectors of tales, some who seem to have been natural-born story tellers. In particular, the book denies the myth that the sources were ignorant peasant women -- most of them were just as sophisticated as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm!

The author, Valerie Paradiz, is particularly careful to communicate the influence of current events and social conditions at the time that Wilhelm and Jacob were editing their two famous volumes of fairy tales. She retells many of the tales with a feminist approach, showing how the helpless girls in the stories reflected the helpless legal and social position of women in that era, and how the frequent triumph of younger brothers in the tales is a kind of antidote towards the inheritance of elder sons. The author also interprets some tales as a subtle reflection of the Grimms' distaste for the occupation of German lands by Napoleon's troops.

Her interpretations take the form of sentences like these, which expand the meaning of the tale "Frau Holle" --
"The truth that a woman's domestic abilities were one of her only means of securing a decent living was relevant even to a young middle class girl such as Dortchen Wild [one of the tale collectors, later Wilhelm's wife]. Earning one's keep, and with luck, earning it in wedlock in a home of her own, was the most she might hope for in life, particularly with the great war raging and killing off hundreds of thousands of marriageable men." (p. 112)
Long ago, in college, I took a course in the German Romantics, so I knew about the intellectual circle of the Grimm brothers. The names of their more famous colleagues -- Brentano, Arnim, and even Goethe -- are now much less recognizable than the name Grimm. At the time I took the course, I had little grasp of either political or social history, so in reading now that I know more history, I found the author's explanation of these influences was very interesting.

Also of great interest is the author's report of readers' reactions to the tales when published, in the second decade of the 19th century. People found the plots too bloody and violent and the details too sexual, as in the symbolic rape of Red Riding Hood and other heroines. Though they seemed juvenile, they were deemed unfit for children. So this isn't a new 20th or 21st century reaction!

No comments: