First Thoughts on Grimms’ Tales

The first video session on Grimms’ Household Stories was very short indeed which leaves the scope for writing about them wide open.  This really doesn’t help me very much because it means that I don’t have any promptings to move me away from considering the structure of the tales.  However, one tiny comment has got me thinking.

The suggestion appeared to be made that while the Grimm brothers intended that their readers should think that these were oral tales which they had collected from around the country, in fact they were stories which they had invented themselves.  If that is the case then presumably they wrote them in a style which they thought would mimic that of actual oral tales.  Brothers Grimm, if you’re listening, you got it wrong.

One of the first things that became apparent to me as I started reading the prescribed Lucy Crane collection was that I was used to very much tidied up versions of the stories, versions that had been given a narrative shape any child would be familiar with because not only do they follow the canonical Exposition, Development, Climax, Denouement, Conclusion pattern but within that the more discrete sections are canonically shaped as well.  (If you want me to explain that further I will need to set up a ten week degree level course:).)  These stories frequently lack that level of organisation, especially at the more discrete levels.  In narrative terms, they are a mess.  But that wouldn’t be true of oral stories.  In fact, they are often far more highly patterned and well shaped than written stories because the patterning helps the storyteller to remember the tale.  Even very small children telling you a story recognise the need shape the tale to the listener.  There is ample research evidence of this, although to be fair to the Grimms it wasn’t around when they were writing.  So, I can only assume that the brothers had never listened to a decent storyteller and simply decided that writing tales that were, to say the least, rough around the edges, would convince their readers that they actually had gone out and collected these stories from among the populous.

But why?

I mean that has to be the question, doesn’t it?  Why did they write the stories in the first place and why did they want them to appear to have come down as a sort of folk wisdom?  I can only conclude that despite the fact that none of the tales hits the reader between the eyes at the end with a moral, the brothers did want to suggest that particular ways of behaving were more acceptable than others, ways which presumably conformed to their moral code but which they felt would be better accepted if it appeared that they reflected the ethical path followed by generations of hard working country folk.  If we look at the tidied up versions that have come down to us,  I’m not certain they succeeded.

For example, take the story that we know as The Frog Prince.  In this edition we have what I know is a good translation of the original.  I know this because the original has given me analytical problems for years.  Now, I’m quite willing to wager that the story as you know it has the princess finally capitulating and kissing the frog who promptly turns into a prince and low and behold we all live happily ever after.  Not this version….

[W]hen she had lain down to sleep, he came creeping up, saying, “I am tired and want to sleep as much as you; take me up, or I will tell your father.”

Then she felt beside herself with rage, and picking him up, she threw him with all her strength against the wall, crying,

“Now will you be quiet, you horrid frog.”

But as he fell, he ceased to be a frog, and became all at once a prince with beautiful kind eyes.  And it came to pass that, with her father’s consent, they became bride and groom.

Again, I ask why?  I mean I would have thought the frog could have had her for domestic violence.  However, in this version the story doesn’t end there.  A carriage turns up to take the happy (?) couple back to the prince’s kingdom accompanied as footman by faithful Henry.  Faithful Henry is servant to the prince and has bound his heart with bands of iron to keep it from breaking as a consequence of the froggy spell.  As the couple make their way home they are accompanied by the sound of these bands breaking.  (The prince is very worried about the state of the coach’s axles – practical man, clearly.)  Now I assume that we are being asked to contrast the behaviour of the princess with that of Henry, but my experience is that readers are so thrown by the sudden appearance of dear old Henry that all their attention is drawn to the clumsy structure rather than any possible moral.  We don’t make the contrast, which is presumably why the tale that is so much better known is the one where the princess turns out to be nicer than she seemed and gets her ‘reward’ for finally behaving honourably.

But, there must be something going for these tales, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived, even if it is normally in a tidied up form. Rather than following through the fantasy side of this, I’m much more interested now in looking at the publishing history of the collection.  Does anyone know anything about that?

But, I can’t get stuck here.  I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so I had better get on with the rest of it and see if anything else comes to mind.

More to follow.

I’ve published this here, but I don’t really want to clog up this blog with my ongoing thoughts on the course.  So, while I will probably do a round up post here each week on the set text, I’ve started up another blog Talking Around  where this post can also be found and where I will add other thoughts on a more frequent basis if anyone is interested in following where I’m going.

3 thoughts on “First Thoughts on Grimms’ Tales

  1. Hmm, what an intriguing problem. When you were discussing the choice the brothers made to suggest these were oral tales passed down through the generations, I found myself wondering about framing devices. You will know much more than me, I feel sure, but was this a period in which the framing device was popular? You know, the ‘I found this manuscript in a box in the attic’, ‘I heard this tale from a sailor who was lost at sea the following night’ etc, etc. So they might have been following a convention that was popular at the time? How come those particular tales have lasted may be because previous generations were less fussed about the moral (well, up until the Victorian age) and rather liked the violent comedy of the frog being flung against the wall? The same sort of audience, in other words, who knitted alongside guillotines? But I am speculating here, just chucking ideas out and don’t have any reliable answers.

    1. Litlove, you are one of the main reasons I came back to blogging. I so need these sorts of conversations. In fact, these tales are so ‘blunt’ that they have nothing as audience aware as a framing device. Rather it is the true oral tale that would have this. If you look at some of the transcriptions of mediaeval oral tales, you will find that they do have framing devices. They frequently start with the equivalent of, “Gather round now I am going to tell you a story.” And end with something like, “And now my story is done.”. These are, if you like, elements at the level above the story itself. So you have a sequence that might be grammatically labelled Gathering – Story – Dismissal. Then you would analytically break down the story into lower-level grammatical units. The problems lie in those lower levels. To put it bluntly, the Grimm brothers have terrible grammar:)

      On the subject of knitting at the guillotine, I think that goes on in any age. A friend of mine who lived in St James’s at the time of Diana’s death, said that during those first few days before the funeral the atmosphere was such that she was simply waiting for the knitting to come out!

  2. Aw that’s so nice. And thank you for your thoughts on framing – I didn’t know all that and found it fascinating! (And the knitting anecdote was most amusing.)

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