A couple of weeks ago I (finally) bought ‘My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me‘, a collection of modern re-writings of traditional fairy tales that is definitely for adults. That, and a recent book review of a study on fairy tales in the New Yorker spawned a conversation about this with a buddy of mine in a bar, which in turn brought up Baba Yaga again, one of my favorite fairy tale characters. The review itself is pretty great, so you should read it and here’s a tease to make you:
The Grimms were told by friends that some of the material in the first edition was too frightening for children, and they did make a few changes. In a notable example, the first edition of “Hansel and Gretel” has the mother and the father deciding together to abandon the children in the woods. In later editions, it is the stepmother who makes the suggestion, and the father repeatedly hesitates before he finally agrees. Apparently, the Grimms could not bear the idea that the mother, the person who bore these children, would do such a thing, or that the father would readily consent.
This is an admirable scruple, but a puzzling one, because it is largely absent from other Grimm tales, many of which feature mutilation, dismemberment, and cannibalism, not to speak of ordinary homicide, often inflicted on children by their parents or guardians. Toes are chopped off; severed fingers fly through the air. A typical, if especially appalling, case is “The Juniper Tree.” As usual, there is a stepmother who hates her stepchild, a boy. He comes home one day and she asks him if he wants an apple. But no sooner does the boy lean over the trunk where the apples are stored than she slams the lid down and cuts off his head. Now she starts to worry. So she props up the boy’s body in a chair, puts his head on top, and ties a scarf around the neck to hide the wound. In comes Marlene, the woman’s own, beloved daughter. The girl comments that her stepbrother seems pale. Well, give him a slap, the mother says. Marlene does so, and the boy’s head falls off. “What a dreadful thing you’ve done. But don’t breathe a word,” the stepmother says. “We’ll cook him up in a stew.” Then the husband comes home and she serves him the stew. He loves it. “No one else can have any of it,” he says. “Somehow I feel as if it’s all for me.” You can hardly believe what you’re reading.
The article deals at length with the origins of the Grimms’ collection and the nationalist motivations behind their project, but also touches on the relatively modern origins of what, until a few years ago, I believed are ‘old folk tales reaching way back over time and space’. As a German I swallowed that narrative hook, line & sinker and it’s interesting to see how nobody is immune to such modern myth-making!
When I grew up my parents exposed me to all kinds of fairy tales with no regard to content. They got read to me and once I learned to read I’d read them myself. And I had dozens of tape recordings of the stories and some really freaked me out. There is one scene in Rapunzel where the witch has her cats scratch the prince’s eyes out when she catches him. And I remember once reading a Russian story that involved magical shoes that were made out of the back skin of old crones.
But I turned out fine, right? Right?