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Fairy tales need to be gruesome!

Baba Yaga

Image via Wikipedia

That’s what I think at least. Like most Germans, I grew up with what I think were the ‘sanitized’ versions of the Grimm stories, which get stuffed into almost every German’s brain as soon as they can speak. While pretty gruesome I don’t remember ever being really disturbed by them. However, I remember three, no, four stories that I read when I was older that really freaked me out:

  1. I think it’s in Rapunzel where the witch or stepmother has her cats scratch out the eyes of the prince when she catches him trying to get into the tower and he’s made to wander the earth blind.
  2. There is a part in the story of Rübezahl (not sure about this) where there is a group of old women who are as wrinkled as maroni. I never really understood what those were, but I imagined them as wrinkled figs or plums. I think they are chestnuts.
  3. There’s a Russian folk tale that involves magical shoes made of the back skin of old women. I don’t remember the name.
  4. And, last but not least, a story whose I also don’t remember but that involves a mother looking for her child and ending up going to the garden of life, where every person’s life is represented by a flower. The entrance is blocked by a rosebush who says that he will only let her in if she presses him to her bosom with so much passion that she spills her heart’s blood.
  5. Oh, and Hans Christian Anderson‘s stories are one big fucking horror show.

That’s really fucked up stuff, no? Yet I still remember them after all these years and I’ve always been drawn to the adult versions. If you have access to a good library (and speak German) you should take a look at the big collection of Grimm’s stories, which I think is 3 volumes and they include no full stories, but fragments and story cores, sometimes only five sentences long. And if you have access to Netflix you should definitely check out Jim Henson’s Storyteller series — it’s for children but it’s also Jim Henson, so there is no sugar-coating of the stories and it completely acceptable for a man to gamble with a devil for his teeth. Some of my favorite stories are the Russian Baba Yaga stories — come on, it’s a children-devouring witch riding in a mortar, carrying the pestle and broomstick who lives in a house with chicken feet! And I’ve recently discovered Angela Carter’s Virago Books of Fairy Tales, which are fantastic.

I think I prefer those kinds of stories because the uneasiness and the uncanniness they cause is something I think every form of art should do be able to — disrupt your regular way of viewing the world and going through life, to rip a little tear in the fabric of what you think is reality, and let you catch a small glimpse behind that curtain. I have a friend who refused to read those old stories to his children and, honestly, I don’t really know where I stand on that question. On the one hand I think they are part of folk history and oral culture and should be passed on to the next generation. On the other hand, I think everybody has, at some point, been traumatized by a fairy tale. So, fuck, I don’t know…

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3 Comments

  1. Maybe reading them to really young children isn’t a particularly great idea, but what better way to introduce kids to the power of books? If they read the original fairy tales from an early age, they learn the power that words have to scare, delight and teach.

    I think allowing children to read stories like the Grimm’s fairy tales might encourage an interest in reading, because the content is more appealing to them than the watered down versions and they are very easily read. What better introduction to the magic of reading?

    • DGS

      Yes, one of my earliest memories is of my grandfather reading to me and it definitely had an impact on me as a reader. I also think that the way language is used in more traditional tales signals that this is ‘story time’, which probably also makes them easier to digest. With kids You probably have to start with the ‘easy’ ones and then progress…well, I will think more about that when one is actually on the way, I guess.

  2. Pingback: Back with the fairy tales again « The Grumpy German

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