Thursday, May 24, 2018

Snow White was originally rescued by her father (and other surprises from the 1810 Grimm manuscript)

(Disclaimer: In the case of folktales, there is no such thing as an "original" version. We can speak of "earliest known" or "earliest collected" instead, but those are usually preceded by centuries of oral tradition)

People have been pointing out that the 1812 first edition of the Grimm fairy tales is drastically different from the stories we know from later versions. This very first, "uncensored" collection has recently been given a shiny new full English translation by Jack Zipes. It is the book where Rapunzel still gets pregnant, where Snow White is still persecuted by her biological mother, and so are Hansel and Gretel.

The 1812 first edition, however, is still not the earliest version we have for the Grimm tales.

In 1810, while working on collecting stories, the brothers were asked by their friend, Clemens Brentano, who also had an interest in folklore, to send him the manuscript of the 50 stories they already had. And then, in true friend fashion, he forgot to give them back. Ever.
The manuscript, full of neatly hand-written pages by Jacob and Wilhelm, was re-discovered in the library of a monastery in the early 1920s. A hundred years later, in the form of a Kickstarter project, Oliver Loo created a full English translation for it. It is available on Amazon Kindle for about $2. and it is well worth the read.

Even at this point, between the first hand-written notes in 1810, and the 1812 print edition, several changes can be observed in the tales. Oliver Loo makes sure to point all of them out, along with translation mistakes and inconsistencies later English editions were likely to make. His translation is painstakingly true to the German original (to the point of leaving the German word order intact), and it re-translates both the 1810 and the 1812 versions of every story, side by side. It is a marvelous resource, and it helped me make a few shocking discoveries about the Grimm collection.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. The 1810 version Snow White is a trip. She is blonde, with "eyes black as ebony." The evil queen is her biological mother, who takes the girl into the woods to pick roses, and abandons her there (drives away in her carriage). Snow White, after eating the poison apple, is rescued and revived by her father (!), returning from a trip abroad. No prince.
(Also, the queen's question is "Who's  the fairest one in England?")
Also, there are other texts the Grimms used for the tale, including one where Snow White is abandoned in a dwarf cave (makes a lot more sense than a quaint little cottage), and one where Mirror is the name of her dog. In many of them Snow White comes back to life because a servant grows tired of caring for her dead body, and hits her, making her spit out the apple. Romantic.

2. The girl in Rumpelstiltskin can actually spin gold (!!). No one appreciates it, though, until the little demon helps her find a royal husband who knows what gold is worth. Is it just me, or this this a whole different story?!

3. Hansel and Gretel had no names in 1810. They were listed as Brüderchen und Schwesterchen (Little Brother and Little Sister). Originally, Jacob named them Hansel and Gretchen, and Wilhelm changed to to Gretel so it would rhyme better.

4. The birth of Sleeping Beauty is prophesied by a randomly appearing crayfish. Also, the fairy's prophecy is fulfilled on her 15th birthday (the last day of her 15th year), which often gets mistranslated as her 16th.

5. King Thrushbeard is a whole different story, put together from two separate tales. In one, the king in disguise takes the princess home, and then reveals himself and apologizes (!) for scaring her. In the other, she goes to steal food by her own volition, not because her husband tells her to. Both tales feel more like the princess was taught a lesson for despising poverty, rather than for being picky about a husband.

6. In the Three Ravens, the Glass Mountain (Glasberg) is actually a Glass Castle (Glasburg), which the girl lock-picks with a chicken bone. Makes a lot more sense than using the bone to climb the mountain...

7. In Thumbling's Travels, the famous line "Too many potatoes, too little meat" was not a part of the folktale at all. Wilhelm heard it from a kitchen maid, and he thought it would be funny to put into the story.

8. In Three Feathers, the two wives trying to copy the magical feats of the Frog Princess end up horribly dying. Wilhelm took this out by the 1812 print edition. (Also, in another early version of the same tale, there is no bride at all, magic items just literally fall from a tree into a hero's lap).

9. The name on Foundling Bird in the 1810 version is Karl.

10. In Allerlei-Rauh (All-Kinds-of-Fur), it is the stepmother who chases the girl away from home. The girl had been engaged to a prince, and it is to his castle she flees in disguise (not to some random royal household).

11. In The Golden Duck, the girl who can cry pearls and roses accidentally dies, and then her stepmother decides to replace her with a false bride. The prince immediately notices the exchange. This tale also has an unexpected ending: The prince falls in with bad company, and is stabbed to death in a knife fight. The girl lives happily with her brother ever after.
(This one was delegated to a footnote in the 1815 print edition)

12. There is a tale called Murmeltier (Marmot) that was also delegated to a footnote in the 1812 book. It is basically Frau Holle on steroids. Or LSD. It involves a girl that is locked in a snow globe, fights a bear, has a trusty beaver, and meets a miller married to a male earth spirit. Among other things. Apparently it is originally a French fairy tale that someone told Jacob in a scrambled version. Nonetheless, it is delightful.

I highly recommend reading this collection. You will never think of the "Grimm" tales the same way again.


  1. Love this! Thank you for the post.

  2. It's so fun to read about these stories and how they were written compared to how Disney did some of them.

  3. I might have to look into this. Definitely looks worth a read!

  4. Ignore the Random Crayfish of Prophecy at your peril!