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The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm Translated and edited by Maria Tatar

Last update - Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 14:34 By Metro Éireann

Book Review by Jeanette Rehnstrom

I’ve never really been a fan of fairy tales but I’ve always had an interest in mythology as well as the strange, which drew me to this book. I’d heard repeated references to the work of the German brothers Grimm not at all being as mild and meek as the Walt Disney fairy tales spun off from them. Supposedly there was a real sense of the macabre there – and for me, it’s that utter clash of the macabre and the ‘Disney’ that piqued my interest. It sounded so wrong that it might just work.
The first surprise for me was that the brothers (born in 1785 and 1786) were not writers as such; indeed, they did not even pen the stories most familiar to us, such as Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Briar Rose and Snow White. Rather, they were academics and the collectors of such stories.
Next, the reasoning behind their collection seemed to have been at least partly aimed at stirring nationalistic emotions, even to the point of anti-Semitism, which again surprised me a bit, given that it is given so little reference.
And then there’s the stories themselves, many of which did mingle the saccharine and the sinister through marrying childish innocence, princes and princesses with evil, murder, cannibalism and incest.
Nevertheless, beyond the initial surprises I ended up being more annoyed than beguiled.
I do see the magic that the stories can evoke, but the overwhelming taste they left was that of disappointment. I was disappointed that it was mainly boys who were the protagonists and instigators, and that even when girls were the adventurers it was usually for the purpose of the males.
It was nice that the stories always ended with the good person winning, but the fact that winning often meant heterosexual marital bliss (with the royal equivalent of a white picket fence) really did irk me. Surely if you were to fantasise the most outrageous stories, you would not settle for the most mundane and obvious of endings.
Even as a child, I think I would most likely have preferred the likes of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, where even the weird is a bit more real, to a bunch of tales such as those the brothers Grimm collected. That being said, this book served as an interesting reminder of all the hard-to-shift stereotypes that still prevail in much of the literature offered to our children.

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