By Laura Silver
Teen pregnancy. Self-mutilation. Fratricide. These sound like themes from reality TV, but in fact they run throughout The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, the new, first-ever English translation of all 156 tales from the earliest edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Translated and notated by University of Minnesota professor emeritus of German and comparative literature Jack Zipes, this collection will be a fascinating, albeit grisly, revelation for those familiar with later versions of such Grimm classics as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, brilliant but impoverished scholars, loved literature and had a deep interest in preserving and celebrating German culture. They began collecting and recording folk tales and in 1812 and 1815 published Children’s and Household Tales, two volumes of stories that would make them famous. Yet, over the next 40-plus years, they radically revised and edited: Out went stories deemed too violent, too erotic, or not sufficiently Christian, resulting in a seventh and final edition that, according to Zipes, had relatively little in common with the first.
Zipes’s translation reveals a young girl impregnated by her secret lover (“Rapunzel”); a boy whose offhand killing of his little brother sets off a murderous frenzy (“How Some Children Played at Slaughtering”); and a mother so deranged by hunger she plans to kill and eat her own daughters (“The Children of Famine”).
The collection has become a surprise hit after a favorable review in the Guardian piqued readers’ interest in these lurid, funny, sometimes Kafkaesque tales. Zipes recently talked with Minnesota about all things Grimm.
The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm Translated by Jack Zipes, Princeton University Press, 2014
Why wasn’t the first edition translated into English sooner?
There’s a tendency among scholars to revise, and the final edition is always considered authoritative. My translation [The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Bantam, 1989] was the first American translation of the seventh edition, and I had no thought at the time that it would be a good idea to have a translation of the first edition. And then the bicentenary of the first edition happened in 2012, and I woke up! I realized that, really, in order to understand the Grimms’ intentions, in order to understand the tales that were closer to the oral tradition and the history of how they collected them, you had to know the first edition. So I said to myself, put your nose to the grindstone and get to work!
How did the tales come to be altered over time?
The first edition  was published in two volumes, with footnotes for scholars and adults and two scholarly prefaces—there were no illustrations—and it did not sell well. Even some of their closest friends said these are too blunt; they’re really not for children or families, and some of them are really not all that interesting. The Grimms were disappointed, but they kept collecting. In 1823, they received, to their surprise, a book called German Popular Stories, sent to them by Edgar Taylor, a British lawyer who, without their knowing about it, had adapted about 80 tales from the second edition of 1819. This book had illustrations by George Cruikshank, the most famous caricaturist in England at that time, and the tales were greatly changed, more comic and more acceptable for a middle-class audience. The book took off.
There was a difference between the Grimms. Jacob was more the scholar; Wilhelm was a better writer in some ways, and he really wanted to get these tales out. He basically said, “Let me take over. We’ll make the tales more popular, and we’ll get people interested in our heritage”—that’s what I think he was saying. And Jacob, who was off and running on many different projects, basically gave in. He probably said, “Just don’t do too much!”
You’ve said these tales were not meant to be bedtime stories. Should children read these early tales, given how gory and disturbing they are?
Yes. I think that parents are either hypocrites or ignorant [if they shield their children from them]. Children are exposed to these types of tales practically from the time they’re born, in some way or another. To think that we have to censor these tales, well, we don’t. To think that children—even babies—are dumb, well, they’re not. They can decide for themselves; they will discard or pick up things that appeal to them and work that through in their own way.
A book like this interests so many people because fairy tales are with us day in and day out and people don’t realize the extent to which they inform our lives. They’re in commercials practically every day: If you buy Nike sneakers you’ll fly through the air; or if you use the right shampoo it’s like a magic lotion, and men will drape themselves on your body. Then there are fairy tale films and operas. They’re around us all the time.
What can the tales offer us today?
Metaphorically speaking, these tales work through very common human problems that still exist in the world. They work them out so that, somehow, social justice occurs. Since there is no social justice in this world—that’s my interpretation—and since the world has become so perverse, we need hope; we need these tales because they give us a sense of hope.
Excerpts from The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm By the Brothers Grimm Translated by Jack Zipes
There once was a father who slaughtered a pig, and his children saw that. In the afternoon, when they began playing, one child said to the other, “You be the little pig, and I’ll be the butcher.” He then took a shiny knife and slit his little brother’s throat.
Their mother was upstairs in a room bathing another child, and when she heard the cries of her son, she immediately ran downstairs. Upon seeing what had happened, she took the knife out of her son’s throat and was so enraged that she stabbed the heart of the other boy, who had been playing the butcher. Then she quickly ran back to the room to tend to her child in the bathtub, but while she had been gone, he had drowned in the tub. Now the woman became so frightened and desperate that she wouldn’t allow the neighbors to comfort her and finally hung herself. When her husband came back from the fields and saw everything, he became so despondent that he died soon after.
From “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering”
So the eldest sister went into the chamber and tried on the slipper. Her toe slipped inside, but her heel was too large. So, she took the knife and cut off a part of her heel until she could force her foot into the slipper. Then she went out of the chamber to the prince, and when he saw that she had the slipper on her foot, he said that she was to be his bride. Then he led her to his carriage and wanted to drive off. However, when he came to the gate, the pigeons were above and called out: “Looky, look, look at the shoe that she took. There’s blood all over, the shoe’s too small. She’s not the bride you met at the ball.”
. . . so he brought the false bride back to the house. The mother said to her second daughter, “Take the slipper, and if it’s too short for you, then cut off one of your toes.”