PORTLAND – On Nov. 12, 1944, World War II raging, W.H. Auden wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “… among the few indispensable, common property books upon which Western culture can be founded — that is excluding the national genius of specific peoples as exemplified by Shakespeare and Dante — it is hardly too much to say that these tales rank next to the Bible in importance.”
He was reviewing a new and complete translation of the “The Fairy Tales Collected by the Brothers Grimm.”
Fast forward to December 2012, and we may celebrate the 200th birthday of the first publication of the tales.
Shortly before Christmas 1812, bookstores in Berlin displayed a new book in octavo format with the title “Kinder- und Haus-Marchen,” usually translated as “Children and Household Tales,” collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
It did not make a splash. Nine hundred copies had been printed on low-quality paper. It contained 100 tales.
Little could anyone know that it would have a long life, inspire collectors in cultural traditions all over the world — composers, choreographers, illustrators, imitators. Or that it would have a lasting impact on American popular culture, beginning most famously with the 1937 Disney film of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first feature-length cartoon film.
Berlin in 1812 seemed like a quiet center in a European storm. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with somewhere between 600,000 and 690,000 soldiers, a bit more than half of them French, the rest from German lands, plus Poles, Croats, Swiss, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese.
In the winter of 1812, after battling the Russians and the bitter cold, 31,000 marched out again, and another 35,000 survivors straggled home somehow. The rest were dead. Napoleon valiantly abandoned his Grande Armee. Russia had lost 150,000 troops and hundreds of thousands of civilians.
In the next year, though Napoleon managed to raise another army, he’d suffer defeat in battles in Saxony, and two years later his fate was sealed at Waterloo. In the same year the fledgling United States declared war on the British, tried to invade Canada and withdrew several times. Beware of invading very cold places!
The German-speaking parts of Europe, and most other parts for that matter, had been under French occupation since the late 1790s. The inspiring promises of liberty, equality and fraternity had turned into despotism.
Sensing the danger of having their language and culture obliterated, Germans tended to turn inward and two young law students, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, under the tutelage of a young law professor, Friedrich Karl von Savigny, began in 1802 to study, collect and edit older texts, searching for old sources of Roman law. This necessitated sifting through documents of all sorts, including folktale collections.
As coincidence would have it, Professor Savigny had married Kunigunde Brentano, whose brother Clemens, with his friend Achim von Arnim, had published a collection of folk poetry, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” made famous by Gustav Mahler’s setting of several poems for voice and orchestra.
Clemens Brentano was well-to-do and looking for young collaborators to help him collect folk tales. So he turned to his brother-in-law, who suggested two of his diligent and inseparable students, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Eventually they put together their own collection, which went on sale 200 years ago. By the time the Grimms edited their last 1857 version, there were closer to 300 tales.
They represent the remnants of a European tale tradition, touching on all European cultures, including secularized sacred traditions, echoes of Near and Far Eastern traditions, and some giving glimpses into pre-Christian, shamanistic culture.
Much has happened to the tales, most famously, of course, their Disneyfication. In the antecedents to the Frog Prince, the princess does not kiss the frog. Neither does the prince kiss a corpse to resurrect Snow White. The dwarfs stumble and out pops the poisonous apple. The dwarfs have no names and keep a tidy house!
Without denying the genius of the Disney studios, it is worth going back to a complete edition, and of course raising a glass of something to celebrate their 200th birthday.
Michael Bachem, Ph.D., emeritus humanities professor at Miami University, is a resident of Portland.