Wednesday 9 January 2013

Grimm Thoughts on Fairy Tales

Further to my mention of fairy stories in yesterday’s post, did anyone else out there listen to Grimm Tales on Radio 4? Writer and mythologist Marina Warner, whose work I always admire, marked the bicentenary of the first publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with an exploration of the stories – their origins, how they were gathered together, the way they’ve evolved over the last 200 years, and the various meanings that have been attributed to them. The series was broadcast over the Christmas period, in ten 15-minute slots, each highlighting a different facet of the stories. It’s the kind of thing the BBC does superbly well, and Marina Warner, a very erudite writer, is an excellent presenter.

She began with a resumè of the life and times of German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected and studied folk tales. Children's and Household Tales, which contained 86 stories, was published in 1812 and was reprinted and added to in the years that followed until eventually, in 1857, there were 200 tales.  To me, the brothers’ own lives always seem to have a fairy tale quality, and in a later episode Dr Warner looked at their role in the fairy tales, and considers them as avatars of Hansel and Gretel, which is an interesting idea.
My childhood copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales has this illustration
by Pauline Baynes, showing the Prince by Snow White's glass coffin,
and the Seven Dwarfs wondering what will happen.
 For many of us fairy tales are inextricably linked to illustrations. My own favourites are Arthur Rackham, Edmund du Lac and Walter Crane (all discovered long after I first read the Grimms’ work). Dr Warner’s preference, however, is for the spikier, sketchier etchings produced by David Hockney early in his career for a tiny book of six tales, and it was his work she focussed on when discussing the pictures that accompany the stories.

She also spent time exploring the origins of the tales, showing their similarities with stories from other cultures and other times, and gave a fascinating account of Rhodopis, an ancient Egyptian version of Cinderella.  Elsewhere she examined the evidence for historical figures who might have inspired some tales – the story of Bluebeard, for example, may be based on the life of Giles de Rais, a murderous French aristocrat who served in Joan of Arc’s army.

Most chilling was the session explaining how the Nazis treated the Grimms’ work. I hadn’t realised that they took some of the stories, repackaged them to promote their theories of racial purity and national identity, and even produced propaganda films – in one, apparently, the huntsman who rescued Red Riding Hood wore a swastika armband.  According to Dr Warner, this led to the Grimm Brothers and their folk tales being viewed with suspicion in the aftermath of WW2. Personally, I’m not sure I agree with her on that point, as the wonderful, magical stories were very much part of the culture of the 1950s, when I was a child, whether they were read in book form, or related by parents and teachers in their own words.
Wilhelm (left) and Jacob (right) Grimm, painted by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann in 1855.
 However, I think she’s right about the way our view of the tales has altered with changes in society. Today we question the role of women, the way children are treated, and the social system, and there’s a danger that the stories gathered by Jacob and Wilhelm can be dismissed because are no longer regarded as ‘politically correct’. And that leads on to censorship, for Marina Warner also considered the question of  banned books, and whether we are right to produce sanitised versions, by removing anything with a sexual context, and toning down the terrifying violence which appears in some tales.

These stories feature great cruelty: there are murders, abandoned and abused children, wife killers and cannibalism.  And they highlight issues that may be difficult to come to terms with – growing up, death, old age, illness, relationships between parents and children, men and women, sibling and sibling, master (or mistress) and servant. Psychologists could have a field day unearthing the hidden meanings and revealing secret desires, and Dr Warner touched on the theories of Jung and Freud, as well as talking to Susie Orbach, the renowned psychotherapist and psychoanalyst.

Dark and macabre these tales may be, but they are wondrous tellings of a world apart from our own, where talking creatures exist, impossible things happen, and help comes from unlikely places. The juxtaposition of the commonplace and the fantastic is intriguing, and the tales raise questions about the nature of fantasy and reality, falsehood and truth, and their relationship to each other. It’s a wondrous world full of wishes and dreams which can come true, but it’s a dangerous world, and you must be careful what you wish for, for the outcome may be unexpected.

Trying to describe the difference between a lie and a story, Dr Warner told us that basically a lie hides the truth, whilst a good story reveals it. And therein, perhaps, is the secret of the longevity of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for they are about universal truths, and it is that which makes them so timeless, and enables each generation to recreate them in their own way, for their own time and place.
Red Riding Hood, by Walter Crane.
There were so many ideas, and so much information packed into Grimm Thoughts that it would have been nice to have some kind of list referencing sources and the work of experts who took part in the programmes – surely the BBC could post something like this on its website. And there was so much to think about that it would have been nice to return to them, just as one returns to a favourite book. Why can’t radio programmes be made available in some format that would enable you to listen again and again, rather than for only seven days? I know some programmes are available as podcasts but Grimm Thoughts, alas, is not one of them. Or perhaps Marina Warner could publish these essays, for that is what they are, as a book.

But the nice thing about radio is that there are no ‘personalities’ nodding their heads and waving their arms about, no computerised graphics, and no distracting images, so you can just concentrate on the words, and words, after all, are what fairy tales – and all other stories - are all about.

By the way, Helen, over at, has been looking at the individual stories and has some interesting posts on her blog, so do take a look at what she has to say.


  1. I missed the programme but will grab it from listen again, I agree though that this is the perfect show to spiral out to a single, summary page with links and snippets from the show. The BBC misses a trick when it forgets that anniversaries peak a couple of times rather than just once!

    1. Each episode only seemed to be available on Listen Again for seven days. I was hoping there would be podcasts, which are usually there for much longer, but I couldn't find anything - however, generally speaking I don't find the BBC site very easy to negotiate, especially since they last changed it.

  2. Hello Christine, I'm sorry to be commenting so late but I really enjoyed your fascinating post and am now kicking myself all over again for missing the programmes. Like you I do hope that they are published or otherwise made available; I'm sure they will.

    And Pauline Baynes! An illustrator of whom I'm very fond, although not perhaps my first choice for the Grimms. I have a soft spot for Michael Foreman, who illustrated my childhood copy, but I do love Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac et al. too. I noticed there's a new edition of the tales recently published which was illustrated by Liesbeth Zwerger, I bet they're lovely.

    I had no idea the Nazis co-opted them as propaganda. As you know, the tales are always being re-invented - even the Grimms' versions were just versions - but that just seems a step too far - even though the last tale I wrote about, The Good Bargain, was horrible and anti-Semitic, I believe that the brothers themselves would have been disgusted by Nazism.

    Happy new year! And thank you for your kind mention of my blog.

    1. Helen, thank you for you kind comments - it's such a shame you missed the series. Perhaps we should lobby the BBC to re-run them!I've always been fascinated by fairy tales and the way there are so many different versions of stories like this.