In the preface to the first English edition of the Grimms' tales (1823), the translator, Edgar Taylor, expressed his belief that these stories had been "obtained for the most part from the mouths of German peasants" and that "many . . . are proved to be of the highest Northern antiquity." That nostalgic view has been whittled away at for decades by German scholarship, flamboyantly assaulted recently by John M. Ellis ("One Fairy Story Too Many": Chicago, 1983), and discussed indefatigably and provocatively for a decade by Jack Zipes, the skilled translator of the new edition under review.
In keeping with Romantic fascination with national origins, the brothers Grimm, philologists by profession, were tireless collectors of what they believed to be prototypical tales. Their attention was focused primarily on plots.
Actually, they did not claim to transcribe the tales verbatim, nor did they deny that the mode of expression was their own. Still, the full extent to which they actually "improved" the tales in every successive edition from the first (1812, 1815) to the last (1857)--"sanitizing," and making each version more consistent and "readable" than its predecessor--has recently given rise to a flurry of scholarly discussion here and abroad.
In addition, far from relying on folk informants, the Grimms depended primarily on bourgeois or aristocratic women from a rather narrow circle of their Hessian acquaintances. These, who had heard a number of the stories from their governesses and servants, would relate the tales at the house of the brothers and would not hesitate to combine motifs from the oral and the literary traditions of France and Germany.
Other tales--as Zipes informs us in his excellent introduction--the Grimms took directly from books and journals.
Zipes' translation, taken from the Grimms' seventh and last edition, is marginally more discursive than the excellent one Ralph Mannheim made from the Grimms' shorter second edition of 1819. This translation is made more readable than Mannheim's by Zipes' decision conventionally to indent each instance of direct speech.
Besides the usually printed 200 tales, Zipes has added 32 that, for one reason or another, the Grimms had omitted in the course of their revisions. Unpedantically but tellingly, Zipes has added notes giving dates of first transcription, as well as the dialects, names, and, most significantly of all, the occupations and social connections of the Grimms' informants. In instances where the Grimms combined tales, Zipes has so indicated.
The edition is made singularly American in that it revives the illustrations that John B. Gruelle prepared for Margaret Hunt's translation of 1914--the same John B. Gruelle who, between 1918 and 1938, gained fame for his 12 volumes of the adventures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.
The golden age of literary fairy tales came later in England than on the Continent. In "Victorian Fairy Tales: the Revolt of the Fairies and Elves," Zipes has selected from the plethora of published English tales with singular purpose.
For a decade, Zipes has been a vehement and articulate analyst of the sociological mirroring and the acculturating power of fairy tales. The repressive power of rationalistic, capitalistic, paternalistic tales has been the subject of his scrutiny in persuasive books such as "Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales" (1979), "Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion" (1983), and, most recently, "Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England" (1986).
The present collection is of a piece with Zipes' previous collections and commentary, focusing in its selection and in its articulate introduction on the anti-authoritarian and subversive strain exemplified by those Victorian fairy-tale writers who questioned dominant puritanical and economic dogma, and who rebelled against the crass materialism of the leading urban, industrial nation of Europe, against its oppressive educational system, against the male-dominated and humorless religiosity that crippled men, women and children and which, in England, more than elsewhere, hobbled the free play of the imagination.
In point of fact, partly due to the importation of work of the Grimms and of Hans Christian Andersen during the golden years of the English fairy tale, between 1840 and 1860, the rationalist-materialist stream of tales upholding the status quo, as well as playfully androgynous and rebellious tales, were prolifically represented.
In this collection of 22 tales with representative black-and-white illustrations (not reproduced very well) from some of the best-known fairy-tale artists (Arthur Hughes, Richard Doyle, Walter Crane and others), Zipes introduces us primarily to those who ventured bravely, to those who celebrated (sometimes sentimentally) the innocence of childhood.
Sociologically, pedagogically, literarily, the subversive strain in such as Oscar Wilde, Horatia Ewing, or Mary Louisa Molesworth, is liberating. It is a gift to have their protests and visions here put in evidence, together with an instructive bibliography. But much as Zipes has taught one, over the years, to applaud and to be sensitive to these free spirits, one might wish, nonetheless, that the tales had some of the brisk narrative speed evidenced by the far less idealistic brothers Grimm.