a happy ending for the Grimms

after years of severely watered-down modifications and PC adaptations, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are finally living up to their last name thanks to a newly published English language version of their first edition stories that originally appeared over 200 years ago. as featured in The Guardian, the new publication will contain all the gore of the days of yore and a whole lot more. the author and translator, Jack Zipes, is a professor at the University of Minnesota who feels strongly about the ceasing of “dumbing down the Grimms’ work.” he’s right. too often, fairy tales morph from gruesome to gorgeous simply to placate audiences and to alleviate concerns over appropriateness for younger crowds.

on the subject of appropriate nature for children, Maurice Sendak comes to mind right up there with the Grimms (ahem, Banned Books Week). in fact, one of Sendak’s most memorable works was Dear Mili, based on a letter written by Wilhelm Grimm to a young girl in 1816. while not overtly graphic or violent like the Grimms’ more well-known works, Mili evokes a wave of emotion from adults and children alike in part to its themes of separation and loss. when i was in Library School, i took a course of Children’s Literature and one of the assignments was an Illustrator Study. Sendak had passed away a few months prior, and it seemed fitting to choose him as my subject matter. i did not own Dear Mili at the time (i later found a used copy for $2 on Amazon), so i borrowed it from the library. strangely enough, the librarians seemed nervous when i asked for it along with Outside Over There. they revealed they were so disturbed by the themes, that they couldn’t bear to read it to their own kids and grand kids. if a book causes that much discomfort, it’s evident that the Grimms were a major influence on Sendak…and that influence is certainly held by countless other writers as well. readers are able to decide which version they prefer, but if they really want the full experience they should opt for the elements that truly make the Grimm brothers…well, grim.

(this is not the real Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, obviously. but a fine representation, nonetheless)

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3 Responses to “a happy ending for the Grimms”

  1. Hi there! “Dear Mili” is a huge favorite of mine – my husband and I had the opening letter read at our wedding. I think it’s interesting that you’re using Dear Mili to make a case for the Grimm’s grimmness, however; it was a tale written by Wilhelm Grimm (though undoubtedly inspired by the many fairy tales he and his brother collected), and is actually a really great parallel to the type of revisions the Grimms made to their later editions of the tales. It’s Christian-themed, and full of beautiful detail that wouldn’t necessarily be found in oral tales. The new Zipes book – which is a huge addition to any Grimm-lover’s collection, and an important one for scholarship – is of the first editions that the Grimms published, before * they themselves * made massive edits to the tales. I’ve seen a lot of commentary about this new volume inferring that readers should replace their “watered down” versions with it, but I hope readers won’t forget that the Grimms themselves made many edits over the years, and that the tales that for two centuries readers (if not fairy tale scholars) have loved as “original” and “dark” were already edited by the Grimms, in many cases in the interest of making them more poetic, if also troublingly “less offensive.” This wonderful new translation of the 1812 & 1815 tales is a piece of a legacy, not a replacement for what the Grimms adapted and made their own – still plenty dark – by 1857.

    • i always found Dear Mili to be somewhat grim, since it deals with loss and child mortality. there are many people who say this book terrified them as children. although it’s, as you say, Christian-themed, Maurice Sendak was Jewish yet was able to take a Christian story and present it to readers of all backgrounds with the utmost sensitivity (which is not always the easiest thing to do).

      • I know, I especially love the rendering of the photo of singing children from the Terezin camp in the double-page spread. Very haunting. I didn’t mean to imply that Dear Mili isn’t “grim” – it’s incredibly sad. I was commenting more on the fact that you’re comparing it to the original editions of Grimm tales, newly translated by Zipes, when it’s more akin to the way the tales appeared later, after Wilhelm had added his poetic touch to many of them, and softened many of blows of bleakness with references to heaven, or just rewards.

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