Snow White and Other Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Happily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a new entry in Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which so far seems to be concentrating on classic collections of short stories. Like most people, I know some of the Grimms’ stories from childhood, though in a bowdlerised version, and from Disney, pantomimes, ballets, etc. However, I’ve only tried to read the originals once before, in Philip Pullman’s version. He’d modernised the language horribly and tried to put in some archly knowing little jokes, and I disliked it all so much I only got about a third of the way through. So when I saw that this collection is a modern translation too, I was a bit apprehensive. Of course, I needn’t have worried – as always the OWC have treated the stories with respect and the translator, Joyce Crick, has done an excellent job of using standard modern English, making the stories easily approachable and enjoyable, while still retaining the sense of antiquity which gives them part of their charm. She tells us she has striven to return the stories as far as possible to the Grimms, by stripping out the layers that some later translations and adaptations have added over the years.

Rumpelstiltskin
by Anne Anderson

The book includes the Grimms’ Preface to the Second Edition where they explain how the stories were collected, from where, and that the point was to preserve the stories before the custom of oral storytelling died out. However the interesting main introduction, also by Joyce Crick, reveals that some at least of the stories were not collected from peasants but from friends of the Grimms from their own social class, recounting tales they had been told in their childhoods. Crick uses the introduction to supply some historical context to the stories, an insight into the then-contemporary drive to collect folklore, and to give some background about the brothers’ lives, while also looking more academically at the relevance of the stories to their own time and place.

Rapunzel
by Walter Crane

While many of the stories could be shared with children, either to read themselves or to have read aloud to them, others may be less suitable, either because of some fairly strong images of horror or simply because of the more adult themes they contain. This volume is clearly aimed primarily at the adult reader, with the introductions, appendices and notes, and also because it lacks illustrations. Crick explains: “The present edition has no pictures, though its conversations have certainly invited them, taking place as ever between a princess and a frog, or a wolf and a girl in a red bonnet, or two frightened children in the forest, but also between a disgruntled fiddler and a Jew, and between a boy-giant and an officious bailiff. So this selection finds itself aimed at readers who once read these tales in their childhood, or had them read to them, and are returning to them late, apple bitten, naivety lost, in history. It was Jacob Grimm who spoke of a ‘lost Paradise of poesy’.”

The Brothers Grimm

There are 82 stories in the collection, including all the best known ones, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, although sometimes not going by those names – here we have the originals rather than the versions that have developed over time. So Cinderella appears here as Ashypet, and we have the spirit of her dead mother sending her aid rather than a wand-wielding fairy godmother. But there are also lots that I either didn’t know or hadn’t heard for many years, so I found it an excellent mix of the familiar and the new. There’s humour, horror, lots of poor girls finding their Princes and even some poor men finding their Princesses, animal fables, morality tales, supernatural intervention and human goodness and evil. There are quite a lot of stories that repeat or echo other ones, but each time with enough of a different take to allow them to stand as individual.

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
by Maurice Sendak

I loved the retellings of all the stories I already loved – Rapunzel, The Singing Bone, The Tale of the Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear (some great horror imagery and lots of humour in that one), The Tale of the Fisherman, etc. But I found lots of new favourites too, including Cat and Mouse as Partners (a timely warning of the perfidy of our beloved felines), Faithful John (horrific in parts, but they all live happily ever after, even the beheaded children!), The Three Little Men in the Forest (which I’m sure I’ve come across before but for some reason particularly enjoyed the way it’s told here), Clever Hans (lots of humour enhanced by some lovely repetition). And on and on… too many to list. There were very few I didn’t enjoy – a couple that felt unnecessarily cruel, like Sensible Elsie whose fate seemed rather worse than she deserved, and a couple which had rather ugly depictions of Jews – of their time, but didn’t sit comfortably with me in today’s world.

Hansel and Gretel
by Arthur Rackham

Overall, I loved this collection, and will undoubtedly dip into it again often. I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the stories and would like to, or to people who are already familiar with them but would have their appreciation enhanced by the great extras always found in OWC editions.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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41 thoughts on “Snow White and Other Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

  1. You warned me off Pullman’s retellings but I’ve hung on to my copy for his commentary. This sounds altogether more acceptable.

    My collection was published by Routledge and, I think, is a republishing of an earlier, possibly 19th-century translation, though using texts that had already gone through the Grimms’ thorough revisions. It also seems quite comprehensive though it’s been years since I waded through many of the tales.

    • To be fair, lots of people love the Pullman version, but it didn’t work for me. This one, with the standard English, is much more my style, managing to be modern without sounding too contemporary, if that makes sense. I can’t remember what version we had in the house as kids, but I’m pretty sure it was bowdlerised to some degree, although there were still some dark bits, like Rapunzel’s prince losing his eyes on the thorns – still makes me shudder!! But it was one of my favourite stories anyway… it’s easy to forget that kids can tolerate horror, sometimes more than adults!

  2. I’ll definitely add this collection to my TBR, as I haven’t heard of some of these, and it will be good to return to some old favorites too. I’m not surprised you weren’t keen on the Philip Pullman translation. I’ve read a fair amount of his fiction over the years, and I find his authorial intrusion and agenda get in the way of what are otherwise great stories.

    • I tried Pullman’s own books years ago when he first came to prominence and couldn’t get on with him at all, but I put it down to my fantasy aversion. But the way he dealt with the Grimms’ stories put me off him completely – he’d be talking about a Princess and then mention that her father had weapons of mass destruction, or he’d have some character exclaim “Whatever!” or “Respect!” like some modern teenager. It destroyed the feel of them for me. This translation manages to be modern without being too noticeably contemporary – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  3. I was really pulled in by your comment about the use of language in this edition, FictionFan. It’s such a tricky balance, isn’t it, to maintain that language and its connection with the original stories, but to make it approachable. That’s not easy and I’m glad that this edition succeed. A few of those stories are new to me, too, so it’d be interesting to discover them. This sounds like a much better edition to explore those fairy tales than some of the others I’ve seen…

    • It makes such a difference when it’s done well, as it is here. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it so much if I hadn’t tried the Pullman version and discovered how much I dislike it when the language is made too contemporary. So I was delighted to finally be able to appreciate the stories – some of the lesser known ones are great fun… or truly horrible… either of which works for me… 😉

  4. I have a collection of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, but not this one (though I believe it’s on my wish list). Wow. Definitely familiar with the Faithful John story. Yikes.

    • I enjoyed them far more than I thought I would – some of the less well-known ones are great fun. Hahaha – yes, the beheading of the children in Faithful John was a bit shocking, but all’s well that ends well, eh? 😉

  5. I love the stories, I’m surely keeping my eyes peeled for this book. I love the illustrators contributions. As Margot Kinberg says, it’s such a tricky balance. I have the Grimm’s complete tales in 4 nice volumes in Spanish. They are nicely bound paperbacks, but no illustrations. Which it’s still okay. I read not all but two volumes for sure to my girls when they were young, and I was fascinated by the stories not being like the Disney renditions, but more raw, and by how much religious influence in christian faith as culture and folklore, they have.

    • Ah, I didn’t mean to mislead you, but this volume has no illustrations. I just picked up random illustrations from around the internet to brighten up the review. This one is definitely aimed more at adults, although some of them could easily be read to kids. When I was a child we had a beautifully illustrated version though I can’t remember who by now – but the stories had definitely had some of the darker bits removed. I do think children on the whole can cope with horrors more than we think these days – I’m sure I was more shocked by some of these than a five-year-old would have been! 😉

  6. Fables, fairy tales, myths, and such are GREAT background for a writer, FF, as you’re probably well aware. I’ve heard that most stories are a retelling of other stories (films are, too!), so having a copy of a book like this is a must. I’m glad you found it interesting (despite the changes in titles!), and I appreciate your reading through it first!

    • Yes, indeed, and I think that familiarity helps readers to know what they’re reading, if that makes sense. I think that might be why sometimes we feel as if an author has been unfair if they veer too far away from our expectations of how a story should work out. There are so many different styles of story in this one – great fun! 😀

  7. This sounds really good! I like the idea of modern language we can more easily understand, yet retaining the old world feel. Seems I’ve read that once upon a time, fairy tales weren’t told to children as much to entertain them (and give them sweet dreams), but as warnings about life. I also think that children in past centuries lived out such horrors (by our modern standards) that they wouldn’t have been as fazed by some of these tales as children today would be.

    • I loved the language in this – not overly fancy and very readable, and didn’t get in the way of the stories if that makes sense. A lot of these were morality tales with “messages” about obeying rules and being kind and so on. But a lot of them were definitely about how cruel and unfair life can be and not every poor girl got her Prince in the end. I reckon even today kids could probably cope with horrors better than we think – I think it’s us adults who’ve got soft!! 😉

  8. This sounds right up my street although I already have various collections of fairy tales, mainly the lovely Folio editions. Some are quite horrific!

    • Oh, some of the Folio editions are gorgeous! Haha – yes, there were a few of the stories in this that weren’t exactly what you’d think of as kids’ reading! I guess people have always liked horror stories… 😀

  9. Hmm, it’s seems to be just me that has a life long aversion to stories with messages. They take me back to being an early reader & flipping through a very heavy, very old & terrifyingly illustrated version, plus the constant repetition of Grimm tales & Aesops fables at school story time (in the hope we learned some morals I expect!) when I would have much rather had something more lightheartedly uplifting to end the school day. The fact these stories are still in print is a testament to their continuing popularity, & I read many fine versions with my own offspring, but I’ve yet to be converted 🙂

    • I have a feeling the modernised versions of these are more message-heavy than the originals. While some of these definitely had moral messages, lots were clearly just for fun or entertainment. Some of the messages were things like you shouldn’t be too sensible, or cunning people get on better than good people or suchlike! The ones aimed more clearly at kids were the ones most likely to warn against lying or being disobedient or unkind. I do seem to remember Aesop’s as being more heavily full of moral messages, although I’ve forgotten most of the actual stories now. Of course, they all must have worked since we’ve turned into such perfectly good adults… 😉

  10. This sounds a really interesting edition. I’m not particularly in the market for fairytales but I like OWC and its sounds like they’ve done a great job here, and wrapped it up in a lovely hardback too!

    • I love these hardbacks – they’re very tactile. Though of course I’d never be so shallow as to be swayed by such a thing! 😀 More seriously, I do find the intros and notes really enhance the reading, and this translation works really well.

  11. I think I’d like this one because I hate modern re-tellings of classics, in general. Why mess with a good thing? I visited the Brothers Grimm museum when my daugther was a baby (I think it was in Germany?) and it was fascinating. We bought her a little kids collection of Grimm tales that i hope to read to her when she’s older and has a longer attention span LOL

  12. This sounds wonderful. I have a collection of Anderson’s Fairy Tales that I’ve had since childhood and remember being shocked at how different they were than the versions commonly told. Also, I did not know Cinderella was originally called Ashypet and I find that very funny!

    • Haha – poor Ashypet’s life was even more miserable than Cinderella’s and her revenge was much bloodier! I almost ended up feeling sorry for the sisters! But I did enjoy reading the originals, and the notes and intro are great too – just enough and not too much, (as Goldilocks might have said… 😉 )

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