The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Folklore collections

BEFORE

c.1350–1410 Welsh stories based on oral tales are collected in the Mabinogion, the earliest prose literature of Britain.

1697 French author Charles Perrault writes Tales of Mother Goose, a collection of rewritten and original tales.

1782–87 German author Johann Karl August Musäus publishes a popular collection of satirical folk stories.

AFTER

1835–49 Finnish folklore is celebrated in the epic poem the Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot.

1841 Norwegian Folktales, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, is published.

1979 The Bloody Chamber, by English novelist Angela Carter, challenges traditional folktale portrayals of women.

Folklore collections that synthesize into a single written text cultural traditions such as fairy tales, oral history, and popular beliefs (as told in homes and at social gatherings) have been compiled since the Middle Ages. The term “fairy tale” was coined by French writer Madame d’Aulnoy in the late 17th century, but it is her contemporary Charles Perrault’s retellings of old fairy tales that are better known. English antiquarian William Thoms first defined “folklore” in a letter to The Athenaeum magazine in 1846.

Some tales, such as the 14th- century Welsh Mabinogion, have a religious or spiritual function – but folk stories do not usually contain references to religion. Real places, people, or events are not cited. Instead, these stories are ahistorical, existing “once upon a time…”, and readers and audiences expect stock characters, random magic, reward and revenge, and a “happily ever after” ending. Poetic or literary references and realism are rarely used; fairy tales are written in a plain style, using mainly straightforward imagery, and plot is key: these stories power along with astonishing swiftness.

"In olden days, when wishing still worked…"


Children’s and Household Tales

Enriching Western culture

The Brothers Grimm, like many folklorists since, embarked on a scholarly project to identify and preserve the spirit of the people by recording the fairy tales being told across their culture.

This was an epic romantic venture: interest in folklore was inspired by a rise in nationalism and cultural pride, and the purpose of the Grimms’ collection was no different. Nor were they the only European scholars to undertake such an enterprise, and their peer group at university shared their enthusiasm for folk traditions. But the Grimms’ work, as reflected in their Children’s and Household Tales, represents the greatest body of stories collected in Europe and is the most widely translated and read. W H Auden declared Grimms’ tales “among the few common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded”.

The methodology for gathering stories did not include sorties into the woods, as is often picturesquely believed. The Grimms’ sources generally came to them, and some stories were already written down, such as “The Juniper Tree”, sent to them by painter Philip Otto Runge.

In their first edition, the Grimms wrote for a mainly adult audience. It was only after Edgar Taylor’s English translation of their work in 1823 was successful with children that they made revisions to sanitize the German stories. For example, their first version of “Rapunzel” openly referred to her pregnancy (outside marriage), but in the revised version she simply fattens. Yet violence was not necessarily minimized. The French Cinderella, Cendrillon, in Charles Perrault’s tale, forgives her stepsisters and finds good husbands for them. But in the Grimms’ punitive version, Cinderella’s helper-birds blind the sisters by pecking out their eyes.

Violence notwithstanding, the popularity of the Grimms’ collected tales has endured, and they have sustained multiple interpretations and rewrites in various media over the years. The romantic depiction of “Once upon a time” continues to manifest inextinguishable truths, which, along with the allure of a happy and harmonious ending, appeal across the generations.

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JACOB GRIMM AND WILHELM GRIMM

Known as the Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859) were celebrated German academics, cultural researchers, linguists, and lexicographers.

The oldest surviving sons of a family of six children, they were raised in Hanau, Hesse. Despite poverty following the death of their lawyer father, they were educated at the University of Marburg, thanks to a well-connected aunt.

The Grimms are credited with developing an early methodology for collecting folk stories that is now the basis of folklore studies. They were also notable philologists (studying the language in written historical sources). Both brothers also worked on a monumental (32-volume) German dictionary, which was unfinished in their lifetimes.

Other key works

1813–16 Old German Forests

1815 Poor Heinrich by Hartmann von der Aue

1815 Songs from the Elder Edda

1816–18 German Sagas

1852–1960 German Dictionary

See also: One Thousand and One Nights • Fairy Tales • Kalevala • The Bloody Chamber