This Salon article talks about "darker-than-Grimm stories" recently discovered in a German archive and now published in English translation. That cutesy description rang alarm bells for me, but to my surprise the interview with the translator, Maria Tatar, is really substantial. Congrats to the interviewer, Laura Miller, for doing such a good job.
[MILLER] I was struck by several themes that came up repeatedly in these tales. There are a few stories where parents turn against their son because he’s too strong. It doesn’t seem that different from the more familiar stories where the stepmother takes against the daughter who’s prettier than her. We’re always hearing about the wicked stepmother and how she hates Snow White for being the fairest of all. That is a real generational rivalry, but the same rivalry happens between fathers and sons, except it’s about virility or strength instead of beauty. I was fascinated to see that there is a male equivalent of the beauty rivalry.
[TATAR] It’s remarkable, in one particular story, how the parents team up against the son. You would think they would make his strength work for them. Instead, they try to do him in! That’s another great difference between Schönwerth and the Grimms. For the Grimms, it is always the evil stepmother. The fathers tend to be exonerated. Sometimes they just go along with the stepmother, and they’re not described as complicit in any way, just overpowered by this demonic wife. Whereas in Schönwerth, there’s the story of Prince Goldilocks, where the father sends the boy into the wilderness and wants to kill him. That is unheard of in the Grimms’ tales.
[MILLER] You point out that we have this one-sided view of the way gender works in fairy tales partly because of how the Grimms edited their collection, but don’t you also feel that partly it’s because over time, as the oral storytellers became overwhelmingly female, they also might have focused on female characters more?
[TATAR] I’m not so sure. The Grimms picked and chose their stories, and I think that they just had some sort of deep reverence for fathers. Fathers could do no wrong for them. For example, take the story of Cinderella, where the villain is the evil stepmother. But there’s another version of Cinderella that circulated in the 19th century that is called “Donkeyskin” or “Thousandfurs,” and in that one it’s a father who loves his daughter too much. When his wife dies, he wants to replace her with his daughter. So you have a father who is totally out of control. Then he disappears in the course of the 19th century. I guess you’re right, I shouldn’t put it all on the Grimms. It could be part of a general trend toward focusing on evil women.
[MILLER] Reading this collection made me realize the degree to which intergenerational conflict in fairy tales is not just about the female characters but is a really pervasive theme. It’s about the child’s awareness that as much as their parents might love them, parents also know that their children will supplant them. Children can be threatening in this weird way, as well as being very much desired at times. The parents will fade as the children come into strength, and so the children also represent the parents’ own deaths. So there’s this ambivalence to the relationship. I didn’t really see that before because it had always been presented in such a gendered way in the more familiar fairy tales, presented as a conflict between women about desirability as opposed to something even more universal than that.
[TATAR] Fairy tales are about the hyper-dysfunctional family. Think of “Jack the Giant-Killer”: The giant is a proxy for the father. There’s always something terrible going on, these domestic dramas that are larger than life and twice as unnatural.
[MILLER] What do you in particular find so compelling about this form?
[TATAR] What I really love about fairy tales is that they get us talking about matters that are just so vital to us. I think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood and how originally it was about the predator-prey relationship, and then it becomes a story about innocence and seduction for us. We use that story again and again to work out these very tough issues that we have to face. My hope is that this volume will get people talking about not just the stories and the plot but the underlying issues. >