Why Those Newly Uncovered Fairytales Are The Darkest Ones Yet

Illustration for article titled Why Those Newly Uncovered Fairytales Are The Darkest Ones Yet

If you've had a chance to dig into that cache of recently discovered fairytales (and if you haven't, visit our exclusive look at one of the tales), you may have noticed something about them: They are unusually dark. Here's why these new versions might be a little grimmer than the ones you are familiar with.


Maria Tatar, author of the first translation of these tales into English, The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairytales, stopped in today to answer some of our questions about the tales. Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth, who collected these stories back in the 1800s, was working at the same time as the Grimm brothers on a similar project. So why did his fairytales, some of which feature stories that are very similar to the ones the Grimms collected, end up with a darker twist? It has to do with both how they were collecting them and who they were collecting them for.

Tatar explained:

The genius of the Brothers Grimm was to create literary tales from stories that circulated in oral storytelling cultures. And yes, you are absolutely right that they edited, censored, and sanitized to make the stories more child-friendly. They also added lessons ("Don't stray from the path!" or "When you make a promise you must keep it."—even when it meant letting a frog into your bed) so that their volume could serve as a "manual of manners." Schönwerth, by contrast, wanted the tales straight-up, as they were told by adults to other adults, often to pass time on long evenings without books or electronic entertainments. And so the tales in The Turnip Princess have a more powerful bite—they are bawdy, scatological, and have an emotional ferocity not found in many other collections.

But what did that mean in terms of individual stories?

I've touched on some of the differences between Grimm and Schönwerth already, so I'll focus on the question of the "softening process." When the Grimms published their collection, they came under much critical fire for publishing stories that were "crude" and "vulgar." One reviewer was outraged by the story of Hans Dumm, who makes women pregnant by looking at them. The Grimms quickly dropped that story from their collection in part because they found that by making the volume more appealing to parents, they sold more books. Schönwerth never refashioned his stories, and he gives us a story in which a fellow eats dumplings and then makes a mess outdoors. Then there is the king's bodyguard, who gets the king's daughter pregnant. I imagine that these stories will expand the folkloric canon, and in some cases they will be watered down, in other cases intensified and made even more explosive. Neil Gaiman once said that a fairy tale is like a "loaded gun"—and that's why I use the term "explosive." You can always blow up a fairy tale, blow it up in both senses of the term.


Image: Little Red Riding Hood, 1820 / Fleury François Richard



Can't wait for Disney to make these into movies and the scream when anyone else does.