Friday, March 02, 2007

The Legacy of The Brothers Grimm.

For personal reasons some of you may be aware of, the spectre of the Brothers Grimm has followed me throughout my life. Truth be told, I've never been a great fan of their "fairy tales". That's probably unfair- no doubt it has to do with the sickenly sweet movies that Walt Disney foisted on the American consumer for over half a century. They were made out to be stories of romance and dreams for young girls. Only as an adult did I discover the true nature of those tales. Somehow these dark and violent fables were transformed into cuddly animation. What this culture did to the Grimm brothers legacy is no anomaly... just consider how the Bible has been twisted and turned toward every agenda possible. That's another macabre collection.

A well meaning girl I dated for about a minute in my twenties gave me a volume of the much maligned stories to set the record straight. I've never been able to get over the archaic style of the writing, but I do feel that I'll enjoy them someday. Perhaps I'll read out of that book as I put my own children to sleep someday. But until then many of the individual Grimm fables will flit about the periphery of my subconscious. Maybe that's an appropriate place for them to dwell.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born (1785 and 1786, respectively) in the idyllic rural countryside outside of Frankfurt, Germany. But before they were teenagers, their father died and they were moved into a cramped urban apartment with the rest of their family. While this condition may have transformed their outlook, they were able to transcend their circumstances and become professors in philosophy and linguistics. Besides writing from their collection of folk tales, they helped bring about a German Democratic revolution. They died in their seventies.

The Grimm professors made an exhaustive study of German folklore by inviting storytellers from mixed backgrounds to relate them for transcription. Interestingly, some of the tales were influenced by the French Huguenot tradition. Their seventh edition contained 211 entries. Although they claimed fidelity to the original sources, there is ample evidence that they actually did a substantial amount of revision. Though they are considered pioneers of the serious study of folklore, they seem to have adhered to few of the professional practices that they are given credit for. So in some way, the Disney perversions of their work can be seen as a kind of karmic retribution.

Anyway, we have seen contemporary attempts to rehabilitate the spirit and nature of the Grimm fables. Recently Terry Gilliam attempted a fantastic depiction of the brothers themselves. Unfortunately the film (aptly titled The Brothers Grimm (2005)) met with very little commercial or critical success. I haven't actually read any defenses for it. That's a real shame, because the movie is merely one more in a line of missed opportunities. Interestingly, the promise of a dark take on a Brothers Grimm fable has been fulfilled without significant notice- in the criminally unheralded Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997).

Little known director Michael Cohn subverts our contemporary sanitized version of Snow White. Those who are familiar with the story won't find it completely unrecognizable. There remain some consistent elements- the death of a mother, a poisoned apple, defective offspring, an enchanted mirror, and the like. But no one really gets off the hook in this version. There is nuance and complexity in the presentation of these characters. Sigourney Weaver humanizes the role of the Queen/wicked stepmother, showing us the steady deterioration of a woman caught up within an intense vanity. The noble father of Snow White (played by Sam Neill) is obsessed with siring a male heir to his kingdom. The dwarves are depicted as a band of savage peasants, adding a hint of social class analysis into the proceedings. Prince Charming is completely (and happily) done away with. There are elements of cannibalism, incest, the occult, and demonic possession. And all of it is dripping thickly with a foreboding medieval atmosphere that is simply breathtaking. In other words, this is not your mother's Snow White- and thank god for that.

I guess there is nothing wrong with the modernization of an old story, complete with the incorporation of contemporary themes of enculturation and morality. If the task of keeping rather vague remnants of these fables alive falls to the Disney Corporation- then so be it. But Cohn's Snow White provides a sort of corrective- in that the original purpose of the Grimm brothers was to preserve a set of tales from a culture that is now long past, with the essential intentions and tone intact. Certainly there is much that has been softened and ignored in these stories that we can find of use... even today.

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