- Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Ann Schmiesing
Despite the multitude of disabled characters that appear in the pages of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen (KHM) and other fairy-tale collections, disability has received surprisingly little critical attention in fairy-tale studies. Ann Schmiesing’s Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales is the first book-length study of disability in the fairy tale, and it is a readable and well-researched foray into this subfield. Thoroughly grounded in both fairy-tale studies and disability studies, Schmiesing’s text neatly and cogently bridges the two bodies of critical work. Disability, Deformity, and Disease should interest scholars in both disciplines and provide a much needed starting point for further discussion. Individual chapters or the entire text would be appropriate reading for undergraduate or graduate classes in disability, folklore, or the fairy tale.
The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, a conclusion, an appendix of the KHM tales studied, notes, works cited, and an index of tales and topics. The introduction demonstrates the prevalence of disability in the KHM and establishes the importance of David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s concept of narrative prosthesis—an approach that “forwards the notion that all narratives operate out of a desire to compensate for a limitation or to reign in excess” (Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and [End Page 361] the Dependencies of Discourse , 53). Schmiesing ties this concept to the lack-lack liquidated pattern identified by Vladimir Propp and then presents what she refers to as editorial prosthesis, or “narrative prosthesis introduced, augmented, or commented on by the Grimms” (4). Her concept of editorial prosthesis animates the following chapters, in which Schmiesing is primarily interested in how the Grimms interact with the issue of disability in their collection as they edit subsequent versions of the text. She also provides useful working definitions of key concepts, including disability, ableism, the social model, and complex embodiment, before offering a literary review of the existing studies of disability in the KHM and laying out her methodology. Finally, she outlines the Grimms’ collection practices and their editing process and introduces the concept of wholeness, which she traces “with regard to bodily perfection” and within the Grimms’ “efforts to restore folkloric texts to what they regarded as an ideal, divinely inspired form” (20).
In Chapter 1, “Able-Bodied Aesthetics? The Grimms’ Preface to the Kinder- und Hausmärchen,” Schmiesing examines Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s personal relationships with disability and disease. Identifying their own struggles with poor health and intense awareness of their mortality, she posits that the Grimms’ own personal perceptions of disability were reproduced in their revisions of the KHM. Schmiesing establishes an analogy between the fairy tale and the disabled body, suggesting that the Grimms viewed the fairy tale as a genre that had sickened and eroded. The fairy tales collected by the Grimms therefore required a restoration to their once healthy state, and Schmiesing conceptualizes the revising of the KHM as a surgical quest for the reinstatement of wholeness to the impaired or diseased genre/body.
Chapter 2, “The Simulacrum of Wholeness: Prosthesis and Surgery in ‘The Three Army Surgeons’ and ‘Brother Lustig,’” reveals the elusiveness of bodily wholeness in the Grimms’ stories, despite repeated revisions. Schmiesing demonstrates how the protagonists of the two titular tales fail to fully restore the disabled or diseased body and argues that that their efforts mirror the Grimms’ editorial surgery on their texts.
The intersection between gender and disability is highlighted in Chapter 3, “Gender and Disability: The Grimms’ Prostheticizing of ‘The Maiden Without Hands’ and ‘The Frog King or Iron Henry.’” Schmiesing compares the Grimms’ treatment of disability though editorial prosthesis in both tales, demonstrating how “females are typically given disabilities that make them more passive, whereas males often—but not always—have disabilities that mark them as Other without significantly reducing their agency” (82). She argues that the Grimms’ revisions on subsequent versions of “The Maiden Without...