- Grimm Tales
Good fairy tales appeal to widely different audiences and can be interpreted at different levels. In her lively book, Kate Forsyth takes readers for a ride on several tracks and at various levels. We are back in the times of the Napoleonic wars.
The protagonist is Dorte Wild, a girl in Kassel in the Kurfürstentum of Hesse in Germany. She belonged to a circle of girls and unmarried young women who would get together and while away the hours, days, weeks, months and years until Prince Charming would pass by on his white horse, cast his eye on the bevy and fall in love with the most beautiful maiden in their midst, proclaim her to be his true bride and take her away to the land of everlasting married bliss. The brothers Grimm heard about the circle from their sister when she was invited to join and, since they would contribute with their knowledge of literature, ancient lore, and mythology, they were allowed to listen to the girls’ songs, talk and especially the tales they were telling one another.
The brothers had already started collecting folk tales from old literature and it took them no time to realise that the tales that flowed from the mouths of the girls were fresher and ‘fuller’ than those penned in ancient days by men. The girls got the point that the brothers were interested in tales. These the young men would remember until they got home where they could write them out—for it would be an unheard of freedom to produce piles of paper to write the stories by dictation in view of the bourgeois mores of the time. Jacob Grimm, the eldest brother, who was apparently a skilled international consecutive interpreter would thus be able to render the girls’ stories more or less word-by-word. In some cases it is obvious that one of the girls had been in the country and heard some new fairytales that were then communicated to the brothers in the course of one or a few days.
A brief summary of the novel’s plot which spans the years 1805–1825 is in place: In Kassel the impoverished and fatherless Grimm family with one daughter and five sons and the well-off Wild family with a son and six daughters live next door to one another. The head of the Wild family, a pharmacist, is a strict patriarch and is particularly enraged by his daughter, Dortchen, who is twelve years old and sometimes disobeys his stern commands or gets into scrapes. She meets the handsome Wilhelm Grimm, falls in love with him, and hears about his and his brother’s wishes to collect ancient German narratives.
At the same time Napoleon wages war against the Austria-Hungarian Empire and subsequently Prussia, in the course of which Kassel is taken by the French.
Initially the Wilds and the Grimms stand on the sidelines and get international news from the court of the Kurfürst. He and his court flee when the French invade Kassel. Jacob finds employment with the new ruler, a brother of Napoleon, King Jêróme, first as his librarian and shortly after as his secretary (interpreter) and is thus in a good position to follow European developments. The French rule, albeit resented by Johann Wild and eyed with scepticism by Jacob, introduces freedom for all—except women. The decadent king’s propensity for feasts and balls strains the state coffers and leads the imposition of higher taxes and poverty. Things get worse when Napoleon finally invades Russia and the Wilds’ son, Rudolf, is enlisted. He is the only survivor from his unit and recounts the traumatic battles and defeats on the way to and from Moscow. Jacob is obliged to help the French king transport Hesse treasures to Paris. Shortly after he is employed by the re-installed Hessian administration to assist at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). He has little to do and issues a call for the collection of folklore to scholars in all ‘German...