05/02/2013 09:55 am ET

Brothers Grimm On Preserving Fairy Tales (EXCERPT)


From Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated from the German by Peter Wortsman. Reprinted courtesy of Archipelago Books / Peter Wortsman (c) 2013.

Edited excerpt taken from the Foreword to the second edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1819) by the Brothers Grimm.

Translated from the German by Peter Wortsman

We take comfort in the fact that when a storm or some other mishap hurled by the heavens thrashes an entire crop to the ground, among the low-growing hedgerow, or the bushes lining the way, a small patch is invariably spared and a few ears of grain withstand the onslaught.

When the sun once again shines down on them, they keep on growing, solitary and unnoticed – no sickle fells them for the silo. But in late summer when they rear up ripe and full, hungry hands come to seek them out, laying them, ear upon precious ear, meticulously binding them in bundles, and far more prized than any other sheathes, they are carried home; they provide nourishment all winter long and even give seeds for future planting.

This is how it seemed to us, when we saw that of all that blossomed in former times nothing survived – even the memory thereof was almost erased– nothing, that is, but a few folk songs, a handful of books, some legends, and these innocent household tales. Hobbling kitchen stools by oven and hearth, stone stoops, holidays still celebrated, meadows and woods in their very solitude, and above all the untroubled imagination are the hedgerows that provided refuge in the storm, preserving them and facilitating their transmission from one age to another.

It was perhaps high time to collect these fairy tales, for those who ought to safeguard them are fewer and fewer in number. Indeed, those few who still retain the knowledge of them tend to know a good many tales, for though other people pass away around them, they don’t pass away for the people –but the custom of storytelling itself is on the wane, just like the knowledge of all those secret nooks in homes and gardens passed on from grandparent to grandchild, yielding to the constant shifting of an empty sense of splendor, a custom as elusive as the smile that plays on our lips when we speak of these household tales, a custom that may seem lavish though it costs but little.

In those few places where they can still be found, fairy tales are such that we wouldn’t think of asking if they’re good or bad, poetic or insipid – we know them and love them precisely because this is how we first heard them, and we take pleasure in them without hesitation.

In the process of compiling this new edition we took pains to weed out every turn of phrase not appropriate for children. Should readers nevertheless object that here and there parents may find elements that make them bristle, so that they would rather not put the book in children’s hands, they can easily make their own selection – but as a whole such measures are surely unnecessary for those with a healthy state of mind. Nothing can plead our case better than nature itself that made these flowers and leaves grow in just such a color and shape; should they not be held to be appropriate, according to any one person’s special standards, he cannot insist that they should therefore be cut or colored differently.

All that’s natural can thrive and this is what we should strive for. As a matter of fact, we know of no other healthy and powerful book compiled by the people, notably the Bible, in which certain questionable elements abound, more so than in our book; yet judicious practice finds nothing bad in this but, rather, as the saying goes, takes heart in it. Children fearlessly point at the stars, while others, bound by superstition, believe it disturbs the angels.

We happened to meet a peasant woman in the village of Niederzwehren, near Kassel, who told us the majority and the most beautiful of the fairy tales in the second volume. Frau Viehmännin was still fit and not much more than fifty years old. Her facial expression had something firm, wise, and pleasant about it, and her big eyes shone clear and sharp.

She kept all the old legends firmly lodged in memory, and she herself said that such a gift was not granted to all and that some people couldn’t remember anything. Her manner of telling was thoughtful, deliberate, and uncommonly lively, clearly taking pleasure in the telling; she would first tell it freely off the top of her head, and then, if asked to do so, she would repeat it again slowly, so that with some practice one could record the words. Certain elements have thus been preserved verbatim and will be recognizable in their fidelity.

Whoever may be inclined to suspect the slightest falsification of the traditional account, or any laxity in her retention of the tale, and therefore, the impossibility of long-term preservation, ought to have heard for himself just how precisely she stuck to the telling and how meticulous she was; she never changed a word when retelling any part, and promptly interrupted herself, correcting any inadvertent slip of the tongue on the spot.

The attachment to tradition is much stronger among such people who live their lives in the selfsame way day in and day out than it is to those of us inclined to countenance change. It is precisely for this reason that such painstakingly preserved narratives display a certain emphatic immediacy and intrinsic proficiency in the telling, which other more polished literary creations never achieve.

We pass this book on to sympathetic hands, cognizant of the beneficent strength of the tales it contains, and sincerely wish that its mysteries may remain invisible to those who would begrudge such crumbs of poetry to the poor and the needy among us.

Kassel, July 3, 1819