01 04 brothers grimmToday is the birthday of Jacob Grimm, The eldest of the folk tale collecting Grimm brothers. He and his brother Wilhelm were born in Hanau in what is now Germany. Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm, a year later. I don’t particularly favour Jacob above Wilhelm, It’s just that I wanted to write about them and needed to pick a day. Germany was, when they began to collect their stories, a fairly loose collection of states, part of which had been invaded by Napoleon. German people had a strong need to hang onto their national identity. Many felt that this identity was to be found in the popular culture and amongst the ‘volk’, the ordinary working people. This was one of the things that led them to make a collection of German folk tales. Another was that peoples’ work patterns were changing in a way that meant they had less time for storytelling. Jacob and Wilhelm wanted to capture the tales and write them down before they were lost.

Their first collection ‘Kinder – und Hausmärchen’ (Children’s and Household Tales) was published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815. They claimed, or at least heavily suggested, that the stories were all German in origin and collected from the humblest of people. Neither of these were really true. For example, they presented ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as uniquely German. It isn’t, there are loads of versions that come from all over Europe. It dates back to at least the 10th century. There are even echoes of it in the Elder Edda in a story about Thor dressing up as a bride to retrieve his stolen hammer. There are similar stories from Russia, from North Africa, even from China. The protagonist was not always a wolf, sometimes it was an ogre, sometimes a werewolf. 01 04 little red riding hood doreWerewolves were a very real thing to medieval Europeans. Real people were tried, found guilty and executed horribly for being werewolves. Sometimes Red Riding Hood takes off her clothes and burns them on the fire before getting into bed with the wolf. Often the wolf tricks her into eating some of her grandmother’s flesh. Variously, she is eaten and that is the end of the story, or she is saved by a man, a woman, or just saves herself. No one can say where the story came from of what it was originally about. Perhaps it is a story about how night swallows day. Perhaps it is a rite of passage story, perhaps it is a warning against sexual predators. Perhaps it is all of these things.

Some of the tales were collected from written sources, others from their friends and family. A major contributor, Dorothea Viehmann, was the wife of a middle class tailor. Also she was a Huguenot, so basically French. Definitely not a German peasant. Nor were the stories written down exactly as told, but were embellished with each succeeding edition of the tales. Also as they became more famous, they were inundated by people sending them their own versions of the tales. So they had more material to work with. We can’t really accuse them of changing the original stories, because folk tales are stories that have been changing all the time for ever. As we have seen, there are no definitive versions.

The first edition didn’t really go down that well. It was never really meant for public consumption and was certainly not aimed at children. Yet that was the general complaint: These stories were terrible for children. This was not really the fault of the Grimms. They had collected stories from adults, some of which were to be told to other adults. They were not cosy bedtime stories for children. In their original version of Rapunzel, the witch who locked her in a high tower finds out that she has been visited by the prince, not because Rapunzel complains that the witch is so much heavier than the prince as she climbed up her long plait of hair, but because she is clearly pregnant. As the Grimm brothers began to perceive a new market for their work amongst the rising middle classes, they began to tone down their stories. They began to add more Christian elements to them and to add morals. They took out obviously French stories like ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Bluebeard’ and also references to fairies, which were similarly, a bit too much of a French thing. They removed the sexual references, but not really that much of the violence. Certainly Hansel and Gretel are taken to the forest on the orders of their Stepmother, rather than their actual mother, as in the first edition. But they are still abandoned in the forest to starve. In their other stories, the murders, the dismemberments, the cannibalism are all still there.

The Grimms being, as they were, all about German Nationalism and identity, suffered rather after the Second World War. Hitler loved them and demanded that every school should teach the stories. The tales are full of fearless and heroic German Boys. The Nazis even made a film of Little Red Riding Hood where she is rescued at the end by an SS officer. The Grimms were tainted by Hitler’s enthusiasm for them and, after the war, they were banned in a lot of places. They are not universally liked today, particularly by parents who want to keep their children away from such violent stories, but also because quite a lot of the female characters are rather insipid and helpless.01 04 hansel and gretel They lie about, sleeping or dead or something while they wait to be rescued. But if you pick your stories you can find some good female role models. Gretel is pretty smart, the way she tricks that witch into getting into the oven and, as when I mentioned Bluebeard in an other post, I point you heavily in the direction of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’.

The final edition of their tales though, from 1857, with which people are generally most familiar, is a much altered version of the original. Recently, Professor Emeritus, Jack Zipes from the University of Minnesota has published the first English translation of the Grimm’s first edition. There, you can read a story of a mother who is so poor and hungry that she plots to kill and eat her own children and how a whole family die horribly as a result of two children playing a game called ‘Butcher and Pig’ So now we have both ends of the Grimm spectrum. Their (slightly) sanitized final version and the glorious originals. Which ever you choose, lots of people will die in truly awful ways, but what are these dark evenings for if not a scary story?


A Warning From History

10 26 bluebeardUnusually today, I am celebrating someone’s death. Gilles de Rais was executed on this day in 1440 and, if the charges brought against him were true, the world was a better place for it. He was accused and found guilty of torturing and killing perhaps over a hundred children between 1431 and 1440. No one knows how many. I have no desire to go into the nature of these crimes, and beyond a certain point, I cannot do so, as many of the details were so shocking that they were stricken from the record.

What I can do is take a look at his increasingly odd behaviour that led up to the point where he thought it would be okay to lure children into his castle and murder them. De Rais was born into a wealthy family. His parents both died when he was ten and he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He inherited a great deal of wealth and acquired more through his marriage to Catherine de Thouars in 1420.

De Rais was a soldier who fought bravely alongside Joan of Arc and seems to have saved her life more than once. He was recognised for his valour following the siege of Orleans in 1429. He even officiated at the coronation of King Charles VII. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 and, although he wasn’t present, he seems to have gone a bit wrong after that. The following year his grandfather died, leaving the sword and breastplate that should have gone to Gilles to his younger brother René. It was a protest against Gilles’s profligate spending of his fortune. It didn’t stop him because the year after that, he’d sold most of his property and was down to his last two castles.

By 1434 he had left the army to pursue his own interests. He built a Chapel of Holy Innocents, where he officiated wearing robes of his own design. He also poured a lot of his financial resources into a mystery play about the Siege of Orleans. The play had 140 speaking parts and required 400 extras. He also provided unlimited food and drink for his audience and lavish costumes that were worn once, discarded and made anew for subsequent performances. His family became increasingly concerned about his spending habits and gained a royal edict that forbade him from selling any more property and anyone else from doing business with him.

In 1435 he fled to Brittany and by 1438, according to witnesses at his trial, he had become involved with the occult. He was trying to use alchemy to summon a demon in the hope that it could restore his wealth. When the demon failed to appear, he was asked for, and happily provided, the body parts of a child as a sacrifice. He was arrested and tried in 1440 after he kidnapped and imprisoned a cleric. He was sentenced to be hanged and the burned along with two of his servants, but spared the burning part at the last moment.

His daughter Marie built a memorial on the site of his execution, which oddly became a place of pilgrimage for pregnant mothers who wished to pray for an abundance of breast milk. There have been efforts in recent years to exonerate Gilles de Rais and many have suggested that the charges were made up by his enemies. I am very wary of absolving anyone who may have been guilty of such horrific crimes. I also think it’s as well to be circumspect when looking at people who are apparently very public spirited, dress flamboyantly and enjoy the company of children.

10 26 fitcher's birdThe crimes of Gilles de Rais are often thought to be the inspiration behind the story of Bluebeard, a man who murders not children, but his wives and hides their bodies in a cellar for his subsequent wives to discover. Quite when or why it was decided that murdering wives was less of a problem than murdering children isn’t clear. It seems the same to me. It’s an extremely bloodthirsty story and it’s heroine is rather a passive character who is eventually rescued by her brothers. If you’re looking for a heroine with a bit more about her, have a look at Fitcher’s Bird, which clearly has the same roots as Bluebeard. She fools her murdering magician husband, rescues her sisters, escapes in disguise and lures him to his death with a decorated skull.