The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm trans & edited by Jack Zipes


Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Reading The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (hereafter Grimm’s Tales) for the first time supplies an insight into a hitherto undiscovered world. Brought up from childhood to enjoy Grimm’s Fairy Tales most people gave no thought to the possibility that what they were reading was heavily sanitized. Most did not know that there was more than one version. For the ordinary reader the release of the Zipes edition has shattered a squeaky clean image, while researchers find themselves with an intriguing means of measuring the effects of creeping censorship over a lengthy period of 200 years.

In a comprehensive, scholarly Introduction, Jack Zipes assures readers that the Grimm brothers believed that “the most natural and pure forms of culture” (xxv) were linguistic in origin and were to be found in a “Volk culture that emanated organically from people’s experiences and bound the people together” (xxv). They took the view that the origins of literature based on tales, legends, myths and pagan beliefs could be safeguarded if literary historians preserved the pure sources of modern literature. These they would find in the oral traditions of the language.

This raises the issue of the marked changes that Wilhelm Grimm introduced into the raw material that he and his brother Jacob had amassed. The tales were mostly contributed by others and collated by the Grimm brothers. Editing the material to meet changing conventions is hardly the preservation model alluded to in the preceding paragraph. Having accepted the contributions of the German people, the Brothers Grimm assembled the 1812 and later the 1815 collections. With the withdrawal of Jacob to other tasks the way was clear for Wilhelm to tinker.

The original Grimm’s Tales (as defined above) treat the reader to an unforgettable display of simplicity and freshness, each entry trimmed back into bare narrative, and each reflecting an unsophisticated society that has long gone. Who knew what a Rapunzel was? Only someone whose livelihood was the soil, perhaps? What child of our own era would ever think that a prince visiting Rapunzel might have hanky-panky in mind or, conversely, what teller of the original tale would think that not an inevitable consequence?  It is likely that any tale that was contributed 200 years ago by uneducated people would be told in a direct, in-your-face manner. The witch in Hansel and Gretel was attempting to murder the children. It was fitting that an eye for an eye system of judgment would consign the witch to the oven and think no more about the matter.

The modern version of Cinderella is a very interesting one because it is simpler than the 1812 edition. It bucks the trend. In the original the ugly sisters carry out surgery on their feet and fit the glass slipper. The dumbest prince in all creation accepts each of them as his bride until a flock of pigeons directs him away from the miscreants to everlasting love with the girl from the cinders. The story of The Golden Key (471) is completely within the spirit of the book as well as being a lot of fun.

Simple, direct, and forceful are epithets that spring to mind when perusing this gem of a book. Naked self-interest, greed, right vs wrong – there is no confusion about what is valued in this new Jack Zipes edition. A major component of its success is the artwork that accompanies the tales. Stark black and white illustrations support and inform a spare, bold text. It is as though readers observe a series of cut-outs so pared back is the illustrative material. “A mosaic of precious small pieces, each one glinting with its own color and character, glass and crystalline, but somehow hard, unyielding” was how Marina Warner of the New York Review of Books described the artwork supporting this selection. I could not have put it better.

The book is a worthy edition to display on the shelves because not only is it a very handsome publication but it also contains a scholarly reference section that has not yet been mentioned. I am thinking of two contributions in particular viz the List of Contributors and Informants and the Notes to volumes 1 and 2.

The List is a comprehensive document, a typical entry being that assigned to Dorothea Viehmann (1755 – 1815), wife of a village tailor in Zwehren near Kassel. The Grimms considered her to be the exemplary “peasant” storyteller. Another is that of Paul Wigand (1786 – 1866), close friend of the Brothers Grimm, who studied with them in Kassel. Aside from “The Three Spinners”, Wigand contributed nineteen legends to the Grimms’ Deutsche Sagen (1816 – 1818). Some entries are brief but each is an acknowledgment of that contribution’s importance. Three and a half pages are given over to the List.

The Notes to Volumes I and II begin on page 479 and continue to page 516. They are extremely informative and are models of clarity. The Note on The Frog King or Iron Henry is a typical example. The Note introduces the topic and goes on: “There is a handwritten moralistic version that predates the 1812 story and can be found in the Olenberg manuscript of 1810. It was changed and edited by Wilhelm Grimm for the first edition of 1812. The Grimms considered this tale to be one of the oldest and most beautiful in German-speaking regions” (479). It was often given the title of “Iron Henry”. Explanations within the Note occupy another half a page of fine detail.

Grimm’s Tales is a book that nobody saw coming. At first one is tempted to argue that the book was never needed, but a close reading negates that view. The amount of research that this edition will spawn is but one measure of the value of the edition. This is an unexpected, but thrilling, addition to the oral tradition.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm


Edited by Jack Zipes

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-17322-1

519pp (plus a huge introductory segment)


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