December 21, 2012

Happy Birthday, Fairy Tales!

        Yesterday, December 20, was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm's Kinder und Hausmärchen, Children's and Household Tales.  This volume included most of the most famous Grimm tales, although not all in their current forms.  The original edition of the Grimms' collection was criticized as being inappropriate for children, both because of the content, and because of the scholarly notes the brothers included.  Later editions were adjusted to remove some sexuality and violence, and in some cases, to increase the violence of the villains' punishments!
        Whatever their flaws, either as literature or as moral models, the fairy tales indisputably hold an immensely powerful and influential place in our culture - and tales with many similar tropes exist in cultures around the world, too.  The ideas they embody - of virtue triumphant and evil punished; of patience, bravery, and loyalty saving the day; of kindness to strangers and  willingness to take people (and animals) as they come - these ideas are some of the most basic building blocks of human culture, necessary to forge community.  That people like the Nazis have manipulated them to teach racist and xenophobic lessons just goes to show the power of these deceptively simple stories; a power that can be abused, as power so often is.
        More recently there has been a veritable explosion of fairy tale expansions, in which the stock players are made into three-dimensional characters and the often random and bizarre actions are given more sophisticated motive and rationale.  These new fairy tale retellings range from fairly traditional takes, such as Robin McKinley's Beauty, to use for serious moral explorations of their own, such as Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, to fractured versions or those played for laughs, such as The Princess Tales series by Gail Carson Levine.  There's also been a recent spate of stories based on the idea of classic fairy tale characters being real people, as in Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm series and the television series "Once Upon a Time."  The fact that we keep reusing and reinventing these stories reflects not only their initial power, but the additional power that they gain by being so universally known as to be common cultural property.
        I'll conclude by mentioning the woman who asked Albert Einstein what she should be giving her son to read in order to prepare him for a future career as a brilliant scientist.  Einstein allegedly replied, "Fairy tales and more fairy tales," explaining that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist.  (The snappier version frequently attributed to Einstein, "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," is, alas, nowhere attested.)

        And on a final, unrelated note, if you're wondering about the End of the World today, you can read up on it in my post from the last time the world was predicted to end, back in May.

[Picture: Portrait of Dorothea Viehmann, a primary source of many of the tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, pen and ink by Emil Ludwig Grimm, the third Grimm brother, before 1815.  (Image from Wikimedia commons)]
(Einstein quotation from wikiquote.)

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