Grimmer than your average fairytale
The 1820s Irish, the Grimm brothers told their readers, are a people who still show traces of their “antiquity, of which the belief in supernatural beings, presented here, is perhaps one of the best examples”.
Perhaps the best-known tale in Germany in this collection is about the poor man nicknamed “Fingerhütchen”. In the original, this is Lusmore, after the foxglove – which was considered a fairy plant – that he stuck in his straw hat. Fingerhütchen was from Aherlow near the Galtee Mountains, and he falls in with a gang of elves in Knockgrafton on the road from Cahir to Cappagh.
They’re so delighted when he improves one of their elf songs that they magic away his hunchback and give him some smart new clothes.
How to go down to the woods today . . .
The Fairytale Route runs 600km from Hanau, near Frankfurt, to the northern port of Bremen. The southern half is best negotiated by car, the northern half – north of Hameln – runs along a purpose-built cycle path along the Weser river. Worthwhile stops not mentioned above include the pretty university town of Marburg, where the Grimms studied; Hann. Münden, the perfect fairytale town with crooked houses galore, and Bodenwerder, home to the great fabulator Baron Münchhausen.
You can plan trips and make bookings at deutsche-maerchenstrasse.com/en/
Heart of darkness How grim is Grimm?
Forget enchanting bedtime stories: the original Grimm collection makes for grim reading with enough mutilation and cannibalism to make a Disney heroine faint.
In The Castle of Murder, a young woman agrees to marry a rich man who turns up at her family’s door, only to later discover a secret room in his castle in which people are killed and eaten.
The Juniper Tree features a stepmother who beheads her stepson, cooks him in a stew to be served to an unsuspecting father, while traumatising her younger daughter into thinking she is responsible for her brother’s death.
Children frequently come to sticky ends in these tales. In Darling Roland, a witch accidentally chops off her daughter’s head, and a curious and disobedient little girl is turned into a block of wood and thrown in the fire by the witch Frau Trude. In The Girl With No Hands, a father chops off his daughter’s hands because the devil told him to.
Even the best-loved fairytales have, in the original, long-forgotten brutal twists. When the stepsisters in Cinderella try to force their feet into the glass slipper, modern retellings may not mention they cut off their toes and heels in the process. At their lucky sister’s wedding to the prince, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.
In Snow White, the wicked stepmother does not just order the huntsman to kill Snow White, she also orders him to bring back her heart so she may eat it for dinner.
Bringing up the rear of non-child-friendly themes is what Wilhelm Grimm coyly referred to as “certain conditions and relationships”. For in the 1812 version of Rapunzel, the naive girl finds herself wondering why her dress is getting tighter around her belly after the prince has been visiting her in the tower every day.
Another tale stars Hans Dumb, who finds himself with the magical gift of being able to impregnate the king’s daughter simply by wishing it.
However, it’s not all that grim. In the earliest-known printed version of Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault, the wolf is the victor when the story ends after he has eaten Red Riding Hood and the grandmother. Perhaps the Grimms were having one of their more cheerful days when they altered the ending to have a huntsman slash open the wolf’s stomach from which the girl and her grandmother emerge unscathed to live happily ever after.
Once upon a timeline
1785: Jacob Grimm born on January 4th in Hanau, Germany
1786: Wilhelm Grimm born on February 24th
1812: First edition of the Grimm brothers’ collection of stories appears on December 20th
1823: First version of the collection in English, translated by Edgar Taylor. It is published as German Popular Stories
1825: Small edition of the collection. It has the first illustrations by another Grimm brother, Ludwig Emil.
1859: Wilhelm dies on December 16th in Berlin at the age of 73
1863: Older brother Jacob dies on September 20th, aged 78 in Berlin
1893: Copyright lapses and the collection begins to appear in many different formats, including Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel in Weimar 1907: The most famous German illustrated edition with images by Otto Ubbelohde is published
1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens as the world’s first animated feature. Walt Disney builds an entertainment empire with Grimms’ tales: Cinderella in 1950, Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and opens Disneyland in 1955
2012: Grimms’ Fairytales celebrates its 200th anniversary. The collection has been translated into 160 languages, with 120 different editions available in English.