Thursday, January 21, 2016

A New Look at Old Tales

Because I use fairy tale themes so much in my work, a few (well, probably more than that by now) years ago I made a point of reading the entire collection of the Grimms' fairy tales. I wanted to make sure I was getting closer to the original versions rather than the Disney versions that have become so ingrained in our popular culture. For one thing, the Disney versions are under copyright, so they're not really fair game to play with. For another, anyone who knows the tales would recognize that you're not working with source material (it's like anyone doing a Wizard of Oz riff and having Dorothy's shoes be red -- they're clearly working from the movie rather than the book).

One glaring example is the "true love's kiss" that's become such a huge part of the fairy tale imagery, but it mostly comes from Disney. In the Snow White fairy tale, the prince doesn't revive Snow White with a kiss. He merely falls in love with her corpse in its glass coffin (which says a lot about him) and wants to bring the coffin home to have with him (which says even more about this guy). When the coffin is being moved, it dislodges the bite of poisoned apple from Snow White's throat, which revives her. While there are some versions of the Sleeping Beauty story in which the prince's kiss wakes her, there's also a version in which instead of kissing her, he rapes her unconscious body, she gets pregnant and delivers twins, and she wakes up when one of the babies sucks on her finger, which removes the sliver of enchanted spindle. In the frog prince story, in most versions the princess doesn't turn the enchanted frog back into a prince by kissing him. She throws him against a wall. Yes, very romantic.

Anyway, I've been toying with an idea that plays with some fairy tale tropes, and I recalled at least one tale that's not as well known. It starts with the familiar type of story about the unlikely commoner who completes impossible tasks and thereby wins the hand of the princess, but instead of them just living happily ever after and the story ending there, there's a part 2 to the story in which the princess and her mother are not at all happy that the king is giving her away to this lowly guy, so they scheme to kill him off by sending him off on a quest they know will be deadly. I couldn't remember all the details or the name of the story, so I decided a re-read was in order. But the library didn't have the book I read before in, but they did have a new book that's a new translation of the first edition of the Grimm stories. The Grimms went through a number of revisions after their first publication, and it's the later versions that became better known.

While there's a lot of talk about the Grimms sanitizing the stories as they went on, I didn't see much of that. The earlier version was no more bloody than the later ones, as far as I could tell. There might have been one or two cases of a mother who became a stepmother in later versions, and there might have been a little more moralizing inserted later, but there was still plenty of that here. The main difference I saw (and that was pointed out in the introduction by the translator/editor) was in writing style. This version was a lot easier to read because it's so much less florid. It's a very direct style, like a straight transcription of oral storytelling. In later editions, they tried to make the tales more literary, inserting descriptions and transitions and trying to make the tales flow better so that later twists are set up and plot threads aren't left dangling.

The results are somewhat mixed. While this version is easier to read without all the verbal ornamentation, the stories themselves can get pretty crazy, lurching from event to event as the storyteller threw things in or forgot things or circled back when telling a tale from memory. Come to think of it, some of it reads a lot like the plotting on Once Upon a Time, so maybe they're trying to be authentic. There were some stories I didn't recall reading before that must have been dropped from later editions, and there were some I recalled that didn't seem to be there in a form I recognized (including the one I was looking for, unless the part 2 I remembered was a later addition). After this first publication, they were inundated with new stories people submitted, so I guess they added some and dropped others.

If you like reading fairy tales, it's worth looking for this edition, translated and edited by Jack Zipes. Even for the old, familiar stories, the different language gives them a fresh look. This might also be a good introduction to the Grimm tales because some of the later editions can be a real slog.

Now I need to find that story I'm looking for.


Chicory said...

Is the story you're looking for `The Brave Little Tailor'? There is a part two to that in which the princess figures out that he's just a tailor because he talks in his sleep, and has her dad send him to slay an angry unicorn. He uses himself as bait to lure it into ramming a tree, then once its horn is stuck, he kills it, saving himself. Then he takes over the kingdom and lives happily ever after, the end.

Shanna Swendson said...

That's one of the stories that fits the pattern, but it's not the specific one I have in mind. This one involves him being at sea at some point, so the princess thinks he's lost at sea because of something she set up, but he manages to escape. I have a vague sense that this one may not have ended with them living happily ever after, like the king found out his wife and daughter tried to kill this guy and does something to them and gives the kingdom to the guy anyway. Or something like that.