Neil's Reviews > The Annotated Brothers Grimm

The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm
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's review
Jan 20, 2009

it was amazing
Read in January, 2005

JACOB and Wilhelm Grimm did not set out to entertain children, not at first. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who almost two centuries ago assembled German fairy tales as part of a life's work that included, Maria Tatar points out, ''massive volumes with such titles as 'German Legends,' 'German Grammar,' 'Ancient German Law' and 'German Heroic Legends.' '' (''Jacob Grimm's 'German Grammar' alone,'' we are told helpfully, ''took up 3,854 pages.'') They published their first collection of Märchen, ''Children's Stories and Household Tales,'' in 1812, with a second volume in 1815 and an expanded and revised edition in 1819; folklorists who became, of necessity, storytellers, they reworked the tales for years, smoothing them while removing material they considered unsuitable for children.

The Grimms' fairy tales are inescapably, well, grimmer than the courtly, sparkling 17th-century ''Cinderella'' and ''Tales of Mother Goose'' of Charles Perrault. The Brothers Grimm toned down bawdier content -- in their first edition, Rapunzel's question to the enchantress was why, after the Prince's visits, her belly had begun to swell -- but not much of the violence and bloodshed. Occasionally they were even heightened. ''The Juniper Tree'' is a treatment of death and rebirth, just deserts and restoration, that feels almost sacred, but the child murder and cannibalism make it untellable today as children's fiction.

''The Annotated Brothers Grimm'' gives us a sample of the 210 tales in the authoritative version of the seventh and final edition of 1857. Tatar, dean of humanities and professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard University, has newly translated 37 of the 210, as well as nine tales for adults, and annotated them, drawing on the commentary of the Grimms themselves and of writers who have reused the Grimms' material, from Jane Yolen and Peter Straub to Terry Pratchett.

Annotating fairy tales must be different in kind from the task of annotating, say, a Sherlock Holmes story or Lewis Carroll's ''Hunting of the Snark.'' Sherlock Holmes stories don't have a multiplicity of variants from different cultures and times; Red Riding Hood exists in versions in which, before she clambers into bed with the wolf, she first eats her grandmother's flesh and drinks her blood; in which she strips for the wolf; in which, naked, she excuses herself to use the privy and escapes; in which she is first devoured, then cut from the wolf's stomach by a huntsman; in which. . . .

Tatar's book, with its annotations, explanations, front matter and end matter, illustrations and biographical essay and further-reading section, is difficult to overpraise. A volume for parents, for scholars, for readers, it never overloads the stories or, worse, reduces them to curiosities. And as an object, it's a chocolate-box feast of multicolored inks and design.

The annotations are fascinating. Tatar points out things so plain that commentators sometimes miss them (for example, that ''Hansel and Gretel'' is a tale driven by food and hunger from a time when, for the peasantry, eating until you were full was a pipe dream). In the introduction to ''Snow White,'' we learn that ''the Grimms, in an effort to preserve the sanctity of motherhood, were forever turning biological mothers into stepmothers,'' while an annotation tells us that in the 1810 manuscript version ''there is only one queen, and she is both biological mother and persecutor.''

Only rarely does Tatar note the blindingly obvious. When the heroine of ''The Singing Soaring Lark'' (the Grimms' ''Beauty and the Beast'') sits down and cries, we're told that characters often cry when things are going badly: ''The weeping is emblematic of the grief and sadness they feel, and it gives the character an opportunity to pause before moving on to a new phase of action.'' Well, quite.

The assemblage of stories -- Germanic tales that have become part of world culture -- parades an array of nameless youngest sons and intelligent and noble girls. As both A. S. Byatt (who wrote the introduction) and Tatar point out, the heroes and heroines triumph not because they have good hearts or are purer or nobler than others (indeed, most of the young men are foolish, and some are downright lazy) but because they are the central characters, and the story will take care of them, as stories do.

The ''adult'' section contains several murderous cautionary tales, along with the nightmare of ''The Jew in the Brambles,'' a story not much reprinted since 1945, in which the hero tortures a Jewish peddler using a magic fiddle, making him dance in brambles; at the end the peddler is hanged. Three of the Grimms' tales contain Jewish figures; ''the two that feature anti-Semitism in its most virulent form were included in the Compact Edition designed for young readers'' (1825), Tatar tells us. ''The Jew in the Brambles'' casts a long shadow back through the book, leaving one wondering whether the ashes Cinderella slept in would one day become the ashes of Auschwitz.

AND yet most of the stories, no matter how murderous, exude comfort. Rereading them feels like coming home. Tatar's translation is comfortable and familiar (the occasional verse translations are slightly less felicitous); several times I found myself reading right through an unfamiliar or forgotten tale to find out what happened next, ignoring the annotations completely.

Illustrations are an important ingredient of fairy tales. The variety and choice here are beyond reproach: among them, Arthur Rackham, with his polled trees that gesture and bend like old men and his adults all gnarled and twisted like trees; the elegance of Kay Nielsen; the lush draperies and delicate fancies of Warwick Goble.

''The Annotated Brothers Grimm'' treats the stories as something important -- not, in the end, because of what they tell us of the buried roots of Germanic myth, or because of the often contradictory and intermittently fashionable psychoanalytic interpretations, or for any other reason than that they are part of the way we see the world, because they should be told. That's what I took from it, anyway. But fairy tales are magic mirrors: they show you what you wish to see.
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07/04 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Craig (new)

Craig That's one hell of a review. This was already on my to-read list. I think I've got to bump it up in priority now.

Astri Aw man, I had almost forgotten about this book. I remember drooling over it fondly at work. I of course had to buy it since the pages were soggy.

The Book Gobbler This is a gorgeous book. You MUST read Clever Maids by Valerie Paradiz as it compliments their work quite well!

message 4: by Barney (new)

Barney Neil,

THANK YOU for re-posting that review. I missed this in it's original appearance but have a habit of tucking well-written (and in your case) associative reviews - because you're playing in their league no matter how often you're relegated* - into the volume in question.

This is also a nice demonstration of a perfect use of this sort of internet venue. Well done!

Best regards as always - Barney Dannelke

(like LUFC, my adopted football club - don't ask.)

message 5: by Simon (new)

Simon Thank you for your review.

I find it very, very sad that there is not a copy of this book in any of the university libraries of Hong Kong. The systems are linked and any college student can request books.

message 6: by Leslie (new) - added it

Leslie Embarrassingly my second copy of this book has been sitting on my shelf for too long now, the first copy lent to a high school boy who must have found it equally comforting and informative because he never returned it. This one I need to read professionally, as a middle school librarian, and personally, so thanks for the reminder and the thorough review.

message 7: by Julie (new) - added it

Julie This is a great review, Neil. This book has been on my list since i got another of Maria Tatar's books as a present a number of years ago. I have "the annotated classic fairy tales" on my bookshelf, and never got around to getting the grimm or the other ones she has annotated. Better get my boogie shoes on...

message 8: by Amanda (new)

Amanda But Donald, there's no point in being a sub-par ass kisser! If you're gonna do it, do it right! :) hee hee hee

Ryan Wonderful review. Thanks, Neil!

message 10: by Matt (new)

Matt That was truly wonderful. I haven't reviewed my fairy tales in quite some time. I obviously need to remedy that.

For an interesting counterpoint, dealing with French folktales (and also with French newspapers, and the weirdly important novel, "Dangerous Liasons"), I recommend Darnton's "The Great Cat Massacre." The same stories evidently made the rounds across Europe, and the themes-- if not the details-- are relatively unchanged.

message 11: by Patricia (new)

Patricia So I must read now this version. After reading Grimm's Grimmest and enjoying revisiting my childhood tales, this sounds like it will appear to my adult self. Always in my mind from childhood, the princess whose horse was beheaded and would speak to her each day as she went out to the fields. I dont think such a dark image was was mom had in mind when purchasing a copy of fairy tales for her little dumpling. Thank you for quirking my interest,

message 12: by Emma (new) - added it

Emma Brilliant review - now I need to read this book.

message 13: by Andria (new)

After reading this review I sought out The Juniper Tree (my son's name is Juniper) and read it. I loved the tale, and was happy to read a Girmm tale I had never heard of. Thanks for mentioning it in your review!

Spider the Doof Warrior I need this book.
Also, Juniper is a great name.
Which reminds me...

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