(I Also Write Children's Books!)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

When Old Books Get Too Weird

Okay, so, I just recently read Children's and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.  This would have been the perfect place for a review anyway, but it didn't occur to me until now.  Now, I have no choice but to review it, because something is so weird it sticks in my craw.

To begin, I love fairy tales, and I've read a lot of old versions, especially of the famous ones.  What I had never actually done was read the book by the Brothers Grimm itself.  I picked one up off Project Gutenberg, and got about a tenth of the way through when I found out this version was heavily censored.  See, the first release of the book was in 1812.  With every release after that, Wilhelm cleaned up the stories, both to remove objectionable material like Rapunzel's adventures in fornication, and to make clunky or fragmented older stories more fun and readable.  The versions everyone knows are from the very last version, in 1857.  There have been very, very few translations of the 1812 into English, all of them recent.  I couldn't stand reading an adulterated version, so I went and bought a copy of the first edition.

Man, is that book weird.  The 1857 is already pretty weird, with gold-farting donkeys, the Virgin Mary kidnapping children, and chickens repeatedly building carriages.  The 1812 is weirder.  It contains a lot of story fragments, where the Brothers Grimm just had the start of a story and that's it.  It also contains a lot of very short, depressing stories where everyone dies, which Wilhelm removed later because he didn't like the moral lesson involved.  And it includes some truly surreal stuff like the 'story' - there really isn't any plot - where a blood sausage tries to murder a liver sausage.

Some of the most famous stories are very much like the famous modern versions.  Red Riding Hood and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) are almost identical, down to the love's first kiss in Briar Rose's case.  I thought the Grimms had older, pre-woodsman, pre-kiss versions, but nope!  Rapunzel is actually pretty similar, just, uh, well, it wasn't marriage the prince and Rapunzel were getting up to in that tower.

A couple were different in goofy, funny ways.  The Frog King is not turned back to human by a kiss.  He's turned back to human when the princess throws a bratty, ungrateful temper tantrum and throws him against a wall rather than letting him sleep on her pillow.  The 1857 version adds a moral and leaves out the princess being quite happy with having a handsome man in her bed.  All modern versions leave out that the story immediately veers away into an Act 2 where the princess is barely mentioned, and is all about the Frog King's faithful servant.

Hansel and Gretel is one of the 'almost identical' stories, but is much longer in the Grimm books than in modern tellings, mostly because of Hansel's tricks to keep from being ditched in the woods.

Some stories have multiple versions.  There's a version of Rumplestiltskin with no weirdly named dwarf, but a princess who hates spinning using three ugly women to convince her father that spinning is bad for you

EDITED TO ADD - I forgot the old grey man!  If you go into the woods on a quest, almost always there's an animal or an old grey man there to tell you how to accomplish it.  If it's an animal, nine times out of ten it's a prince or princess under a curse.  If it's the old grey man... I guess it's Gandalf getting in some wizard practice?  He's never explained, but he hangs out in the woods giving advice.

One interesting bit of censorship between the 1812 and 1857 versions - all that 'wicked stepmother' stuff?  In the original fairy tales, it's about half-and-half stepmothers and the child's actual mother, with a very few fathers trying to kill their kids.  Wilhelm apparently felt motherhood was sacred, and changed it all to stepmothers.

I do recommend the 1812 version for the academic interest and for the fascinating bizarrity.  Great inspiration there in the fragments and overall weirdness. The imagery is wonderfully random, and as a writer gave me a great sense of freedom.


One story stands out so much that it nags at me, and made me want to write this.  A famous story whose 1812 interpretation is so strangely different that I just couldn't handle it, and I'm still going 'Dur!?'

Snow White is... different in the Brothers Grimm.

You'll recognize the main structure of the story, with Snow White's wicked mother (not stepmother) getting jealous and Snow White running off into the woods to live with dwarves and being poisoned.  You've probably heard of the glass coffin.  But some of the details are just... too weird, even for me.

The biggest one I choke on is...

Snow White is seven years old.

At the age of seven, Snow White surpasses her mother to become the most beautiful woman in the world.  Her mom goes murderously nuts, and the rest of the story happens.  It happens fast.  Mom's magic mirror keeps her constantly updated on where Snow White is, and the state of Snow White's health.  There is no lengthy happy living-with-dwarves period.  After several murder attempts that show Snow White is appropriately clueless for a seven year old, the poisoned apple finally kills Snow White for more than a few hours.

And she's dead.  The story drives that point home.  The only weird thing is she doesn't rot.

So, while I'm going "Is this going to get romantic about a seven year old?  Because that's messed up", Snow White kicks it up a notch.  The handsome prince doesn't wake her up with a kiss.  He's so obsessed with this beautiful dead seven year old girl that he buys her corpse and has his servants parade it around with him everywhere he goes.  He can't stand to ever not be able to look at this fantastically beautiful cadaver.

Messed.  Up.

And then, yes, the apple falls out and Snow White returns to life and he immediately marries her, and I'm like 'Seriously?!'

Look, I'm used to pre-modern standards of marriageable age.  I write YA books and am aware that tweens are not exactly innocent and lust-free.  I rolled my eyes at Rapunzel being 13, and Briar Rose being 15, but wasn't surprised.  (Oddly, only those two and Snow White have specifically mentioned ages.)  But seven is beyond anything I imagined, mainly because of the implication nobody thought this made a story weird.  It creeps me out so much I'm having trouble letting go, and the corpse part just adds to it.  They sure don't include either of those details in modern tellings, hoo boy!

So, uh... here is your review of the Brothers Grimm, with added rant about how Snow White makes my skin crawl!


  1. Well, I have a friend that has studied a lot of the old tales, and has frequently mentioned how bizarre and freakish they could be.

    But that Snow White was seven, that is a new. It is "freaky," but not as bad as the Sleeping Beauty Story that I had heard.

    As my friend relayed, apparently in the 'original version' the Prince indulged his carnal desire with Sleeping Beauty, and she was eventually eaten by her hungry child while she slept.

    I would say that this says a lot about our ancestors, but I have access to the internet. The 'bizarre' stories and story telling just continues to this day.

  2. Hey Richard, since you enjoy reading crazy stories, might I interest you in reading mine? I’m writing an e-novel right now and had been posting the draft online on my blog and on the writing website Royal Road. My story is titled “The Dungeon Hive” under the name Ghostman . I would love to read your views on it. Thanks


  3. I have a translation of the 1857 version of Snow White (a fresh English translation done in 1987 by Jack Zipes), and it has the stepmother, but Snow White is definitely 7 years old: "By the time she was seven years old, she was as beautiful as the day is clear and more beautiful than the queen herself." Events proceed immediately from there.

    She also very definitely dies, but remains in the coffin for "many, many years" without decaying.

    The dwarfs end up giving the coffin to the prince, and his servants stumble as they carry it away, which jostles the piece of apple free, and she wakes up.

    That's still pretty creepy. Maybe previous translators cleaned it up a bit?