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Muses of the Grimm

I often wonder about the women who told the fairy tales to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to write down. We know very little about these modern-day muses who were the oral sources of the tales that the Grimm Brothers rewrote into the most popular book in history aside from the Bible. We do know a few things; they were German and French, and they told stories that were passed down among women, by mothers and grandmothers and nannies. They were told to other women and sometimes to children. Some of the tales were pure folklore, and others were popular retellings of single-authored works written in other countries and languages.

And I wonder about all the women who came before those veiled friends of the Brothers Grimm, the women who carried and rebirthed those tales, multiplying and dispersing them over several continents and several thousand years.

I find it interesting that before the Grimm brothers heavily edited and revised the tales to adapt them into books suitable for sale to German men, they were women's stories. They had a lot more sex and a little less violence. Some of the sex was premarital, and some of it was incestuous. Perhaps some of it was homosexual or polyamorous--after all, such things happened in the societies the stories came from, and the women spinning juicy yarns behind closed doors at home would have known about them. It is difficult to uncover, because most sexual references were scrubbed in the written versions that were ultimately sold for the audiences of men and the upper class children of fathers who could afford to buy them books.

The brutality in the oral traditions was more ordinary and closer to home. There were evil fathers and evil mothers who molested, abused, and abandoned their own children. There were evil wizards in the forest who preyed upon travelers. While a few examples or hints remain, most of those characters were converted into weak fathers, absent mothers, evil stepmothers, evil witches, and devils.

The stories and characters were Christianized; the tales with animist and pagan morals were overwritten with Christian theology, and they hardly make any sense and are not among the most popular and well-known tales of the canon.

The Grimm tales as most of us know them are an interesting snapshot of male Teutonic values overlaid on a base of motley international women's stories. And actually, the tales as most of us popularly know them are not even those but the reinvention and further romanticizing and censoring of them by Disney and other creators of content for American family consumption.

In my book Briars and Black Hellebore, I am creating a fantasy world that draws from what I know or can imagine of European culture hundreds of years before the Grimm brothers, woven through with satirical references to the "pop" tropes of fairy tales that are most familiar to us now--like transformative kissing.

Our culture loves stories about (generally male) hideous beasts transformed by (generally female) love and beauty--Beauty and the Beast, obviously (which is a literary story loosely based on ancient myths), and stories such as "The Frog Prince." But in the Grimm canon and in countless European folktales from many nations, people magicked into animal form do not become human again with a kiss. In the Grimms' "The Frog King," the princess did not kiss the frog prince. She got pissed off at him for harassing her and threw him against a wall, at which point he turned into a prince. In similar tales, foxes begged lovely ladies to stab them so they could be reborn as men.

The only tales involving magical transformations from animal to human that were not achieved through slaughter by the object of one's affections were self-induced. In many stories, a man (or woman, especially in Eastern European tales, which had less rigid gender roles) disguised him/herself as an animal and only revealed him/herself in human form when he/she felt he/she could trust his/her lover's affection.

Ass kissing (I mean donkeys, of course--haven't you heard of "Donkeyskin?") or toadlicking never got anybody anywhere in the old stories.

So as I write my own fairy tale retelling, much of which is from female perspectives in a time before the Brothers Grimm and the Holy Roman Empire, I constantly have to address what I know and what I believe and what I can imagine about those bawdy, earthy muses of my own time's favorite stories, buried deep under layers of patriarchal and capitalistic revision.


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