Grimm's Grimmest

illustrated by Tracy Arah Dockray

introduction by Maria Tatar

Published by Chronicle Books

142 pages, 2005





It's A Grimm World After All

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


Parents of young children should beware: despite the inclusion of rich and fabulous illustrations by Tracy Arah Dockray and the vaguely childish associations of the Grimm Brother's fairy tales, Grimm's Grimmest is certainly not intended for children. This is nothing like the Grimm creations served up by the magicians at Disney. That said, the child in many of us -- all of us who are now adults, that is -- might enjoy Grimm's Grimmest. Especially if the adult in question has tastes that run towards the dark and slightly twisted.

These are not the Grimm tales spun to you when you were a child. That is, some of them will be familiar, but I'm fairly certain they won't be the same.

Take for instance that old standard "Rapunzel." Just about everyone knows the story. Boy meets girl. Girl gets locked in tower. Girl grows hair so long that, eventually, boy can climb hair to be reunited with girl. There are many versions, but they're pretty much all variations on this theme. Except here, in the folk tale originally collected by those grim brothers. Here Rapunzel -- locked in her tower by a wicked enchantress -- manages to meet a prince who she uses her hair to haul up every night. When Rapunzel turns up pregnant, the enchantress is perplexed and amazingly pissed. She cuts off Rapunzel's hair, then dumps her in the desert "where she lived in great woe and misery." She then uses Rapunzel's hair to lure the prince to the tower. He's understandably surprised to find this nasty enchantress and leaps down from the tower, unfortunately piercing both eyes in the fall.

The prince spends "some years" weeping and moaning and -- presumably -- stumbling blindly through the forest and comes finally to a desert where he meets -- you guessed it -- Rapunzel, now the mother of twins, living with her children in the desert in "wretchedness." Rapunzel's tears of joy at being reunited with her lover "wet his eyes, and they grew clear again, and he could see with them as before." So he takes Rapunzel -- and one would think, their kids -- and sets off for home, where everything is hunky dorey and they live, pretty much, happily ever after.

In her introduction to the book, professor and folklorist Maria Tatar tells us that, by the second editor of Nursery and Household Tales Wilhelm Grimm "sacrificed folkloric authenticity for cultural correctness by erasing the fact of Rapunzel's pregnancy and replacing covert sexual passion with explicit conjugal loyalty."

It should be remembered that the stories in their original form were never intended for children. Rather, argues Tatar, as collected, the folk tales would have taken the societal place that horror films enjoy now.

Like horror films, folktales trade in the sensational -- breaking taboos and enacting the forbidden with uninhibited energy. The plots of both folktales and horror films, as folklorist and cultural critic Carol Clover has pointed out, are driven by a stock cast of characters, one that often frames the central conflict in terms so emphatically polarized that we appear to be in a clear-cut world of good versus evil.

Thus readers of the original stories -- as represented here -- find themselves faced with the "graphic descriptions of incest, murder, mutilation, and cannibalism that fill the pages of these bedtime stories for children."

Clearly, Grimm's Grimmest will not be for everyone. But for a different perspective -- one so old it's new again -- and brilliantly executed, you'd go a long way to find better. | November 2005


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.