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  • The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm
  • Karen Seago (bio)
The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Edited and translated by Maria Tatar. Introduction by A. S. Byatt. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. xxxix + 325 pp., illustrations.

Although Maria Tatar states in her introduction that the aim of The Grimm Reader is to provide "a hotline" to the tales of the Brothers Grimm, "unencumbered by introductions and annotations [and not] cooked at the fires of the academic hearth" (xxii), this book includes not only a selection of stories from the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales) in a (new) translation by Tatar but also a wealth of peritextual material that one would normally expect in a more academic edition. This may be because this reader is a companion piece to Tatar's magnificently scholarly Annotated Brothers Grimm (2004) and follows its structure of offering two introductions, a biography of the Grimms, Wilhelm Grimm's introduction to their first edition, and a collection of quotations on "the magic of fairy tales."

In her elegantly written introduction, A. S. Byatt talks about what real fairy tales mean to her, differentiating authored stories with their psychological terror from authentic, orally derived tales, which "are older, simpler, and deeper than the individual imagination" (x). She lightly covers the different approaches to folklore study: the universal nature of fairy tale motifs; the relationship of fairy tales to myth; Freudian analysis of the psychological purpose of fairy tales and the original motivation for their collection as a gesture of German cultural identification; Lüthi's ideas on the "true" fairy tale's fundamental lack of character, depth, and psychological development; and how Wilhelm Grimm's editorial input shaped the tales. Byatt touches on some of the nastiness of the collection and its reception, concluding that "true" fairy tales do not moralize and do not manipulate but are the "narrative grammar of our minds" (xvii).

Tatar's own introduction continues with a discussion of the constitutive elements of fairy tales: everyday magic that is encountered without shock; wish fulfillment that may turn into a wish for survival; a happy-ever-after that is not necessarily linked to acquisition of wealth, although precious objects abound and are often crucial plot drivers; and beauty and graphic horror that is described in specific, abundant, morbid anatomical detail and for which Tatar provides a number of examples and direct quotations from the tales. She eloquently describes their development from the savagery of the "childhood of culture" (xxiv), surviving and evolving through many different variants, versions, adaptations, and transadaptations with their function to entertain and guide. She lightly touches on the main debates in Grimm scholarship by identifying "national pride and scholarly ambition" as the motivating factors for the Grimms to "create a cultural archive of German folklore" (xxvii), although this [End Page 113] was not recognized in reception, which focused more on the children's element. Tatar links the success of the collection to the tales' timeless content and universal appeal, perpetually appropriated, adapted, revised, and rescripted (xxvii). The power of this cultural legacy is the rationale for providing a new translation: to review the role of the stories whose main function, despite their morally conflicted pleasure, lack of parentally approved role models, and distinctly un-PC standards, is to allow children/readers to reflect on cultural and historical differences "and for figuring out how to survive a world ruled by adults" (xxix).

Unfortunately, Tatar does not provide any information about the extent of the original collection. There is no sense to the reader that the 37 stories in Part I and the 9 stories in Part II are only a small portion chosen from a corpus of 210 tales and an extensive appendix. The selection of tales is an interesting overview of some of the favorites, such as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Briar Rose" (Sleeping Beauty), "Snow White," and "Rumpelstiltskin," and less well-known stories such as "Fitcher's Bird," "Furrypelts," and "Golden Key."

Tatar's translations are wonderful, even if at times her idioms are perhaps a bit too modern ("in the nick of time" [163]) or...


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pp. 113-115
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