Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Household Stories

Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm
collected by Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm
English translation by Lucy Crane
Published in 1886

I'm taking the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World on Coursera, taught by University of Michigan professor Eric Rabkin. The first assigned reading is the Lucy Crane translation of the classic stories collected by the Brothers Grimm.

These stories, written in a Victorian-era translation that predates Disney and all other aspects of twentieth-century popular culture, are essential cultural literacy for anyone curious about the origins of modern fantastical literature.

Most of these stories are very weirdly off-putting because they don't quite follow the structural rules that underlie most modern fiction. These structural rules are so fundamental that I didn't even really appreciate that they existed until a few years back when I read Tales Before Tolkien, a collection of fantasy fiction which inspired J. R. R. Tolkien. Most of the stories contained therein were written in the 19th century, but many were based on far older material that predated the codification of what we think of as modern fiction, so they retained pacing and plot structures that seemed exceedingly odd to my brain.

This is also evident in Household Stories, which tells me that Lucy Crane was probably very faithful to the very old source material (otherwise the stories would likely have struck me as more modern). Possibly the strangest story is 'Mr. Korbes', in which a cock and a hen go to pay a visit to Mr. Korbes. Along the way they are joined by a variety of animals and sentient versions of inanimate objects. When the motley bunch reach Mr. Korbes' house, they beat him to death. No reason is given.

In another story, 'The Dog and the Sparrow', a dog and a sparrow are friends until the dog is run over and killed by a man driving a cart. The sparrow then takes revenge, methodically destroying first the man's livelihood, then his house, then taking his life. The latter two-thirds of the story are nothing but the sparrow's cold-blooded violence described in gruesome detail.

Some assorted other thoughts:

  • Inanimate objects seem to gain and lose sentience rather arbitrarily. You know how the dish ran away with the spoon, back around the time of the cow-jumping-over-the-moon incident? Yeah, that sort of thing happens a lot here. Yet an anthropomorphic needle that hitches a ride with a couple of chickens out for an evening ride in their carriage gets transmuted into an ordinary needle in the very next scene with no logic or explanation.
  • The world of the Brothers Grimm is profuse with kings and queens. It seems like every few miles down the road a traveler would come across another castle with a whole different king and queen in residence. This is awfully convenient for storytelling. That said, just look at a map of Germany from any era after the Dark Ages and prior to the 19th century, and you'll see that the great profusion of monarchs might not be that far from reality.
  • There are evil stepmothers aplenty in these stories. I can't remember any evil stepfathers. (There are stepfathers, but they tend to be inoffensive sorts who fade into the background.) There's got to be some cultural factor at play here.
  • Everything you ever heard about the violence of pre-Disney fairy tales is entirely true. In 'Aschenputtel', the Grimm Brothers' version of Cinderella, one of the Evil Stepsisters chops her own big toe off to fit into the discarded shoe. My own favorite scene of horror is probably the one in 'The Almond Tree', in which an Evil Stepmother tears her stepson's head off by slamming the lid of a chest on it. Then she loosely reattaches the severed head, props the body up at the table, and gets her biological daughter to smack him in the face, making her think she's accidentally decapitated her half-brother. Then the stepmother cooks and serves him to her husband.
Overall,  I enjoyed the collection. These are stories that survived as folklore for centuries before being collected for posterity by the Grimms. They are very different creatures than modern fiction, but they represent a literary tradition that's been folded into modern fantastical literature.

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