From here . . . to there


EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Günter Grass and Giovanni Trapattoni

AMONG THE OLDEST of literary genres and possibly the most diverse, the fairy tale is also the most ambiguous. For a start, fairies seldom appear. Evil, cruelty, truth and humour are major elements, as is justice, while the fairy tale tends to be as scary as a ghost story if far more complicated. The good suffer hardship, often horribly, yet they usually triumph in the end, while the bad face a deserved damnation. Most importantly of all, the fairy tale though intended for children is actually for everyone. Sources are complex, multi-cultural and cross-referenced and the interpretations have become increasingly sexual. The origins are also oral, tracking down these stories and preserving them was a task for gifted scholars. German brothers Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm spent a number of years interviewing farming folk and villagers, listening to the many variations of narratives known by heart and passed down by mouth. The brothers wrote it all down, sensitive to the voice of the tellers, alert to the nuance.

The pioneering siblings worked in harmony. Jacob was meticulous and obsessively committed to accuracy; the sickly Wilhelm was more sympathetic and aware of balancing faithfulness to the original with readability. They gathered 210 fairytales and folk narratives which were first published in three volumes between 1812 and 1815, this year marking the bicentenary of the beginning of an enduring achievement. The first English language translation of the tale appeared in 1823. “It is hardly too much to say that these tales rank next to the Bible in importance” would claim the poet W.H.Auden.

Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Briar Rose or The Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, The Goose Girl with its famous talking horse from which the German writer Hans Fallada took his pen name, Cinderella – Grimm’s Fairy Tales are black, moralistic and subversive and are everywhere, from Gunter Grass to Disney.

Once upon a time an aspiring young film maker was recruited by Disney Production’s animation studio. His name was Tim Burton. He worked on The Fox and the Hound. His first live-action production was a Japanese-themed adaptation of Hansel and Gretel. It was aired once, on Halloween 1983. His next project, a short about a boy who brings his beloved dead pet to life, was considered too dark for children. Burton was fired. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice would follow. But with Edward Scissorhands in 1990, Burton’s singular vision of life as an odyssey suspended between childhood and adulthood, life and death, dream and reality, began to mature. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow released in 1999 and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) showcase Burton’s flair for making the grotesque beautiful, yet in the middle of these two bigger movies is the sublime, poignant grace of Corpse Bride (2005) with its hint of the Brothers Grimm. Currently on release is a gorgeous feature-length re-working of Frankenweenie, the Gothic-inspired wonder that had cost him his job with Disney, enabling his imagination to pursue darkness and light as few others have.