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The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes, illustrated by Andrea Dezso

FINALLY! More than two hundred years after its initial publication, someone (Jack Zipes, bless you) has translated the document (and a summary of the scholarly notes) into English!

I am in GEEKSTASY over here.

I received this book as a gift from Krampus over the holidays for being... a good girl? A bad girl?

After all, the moralism of these early versions of the tales, while certainly present, is inconsistent and... let us say, of a less Victorian bent than Wilhelm's commercialized seventh edition tales with which the world is so familiar.

Many of these stories are wild, wooly, and weird, reading much like dream sequences or episodes of Adventure Time. While the plots are a hot mess compared to those of more refined literary stories (lending them an authentic flavor of informal, oral tradition), the characters are vivacious, juicy, and earthy, showing a surprising range of personalities and emotions.

These stories feature loads of premarital sex, deals with the devil that turn out awesome, appearances of Mary/Jesus/God that are clearly re-cast roles written for sinister fairy creatures, trickster princesses, whip-smart children, cannibals, hermaphroditic giants with magic breastmilk, and evil unicorns that terrorize the forests until they are exterminated like pests.

There is less coldblooded violence in these first-edition tales, and yet there is more excitement--there's more weeping, laughing, lusting, and loving. Humor, from dry to silly, graces the action and dialogue. Along with increased bawdiness, there is also more kindness and compassion here; Snow White's huntsman (like all the servants ordered to kill children in the many tales in which this happens) never even considers carrying out the order, and wronged heroes don't always seek gruesome revenge against their enemies. Stories of couples rarely end with marriage and "happily ever after"; there are many interesting problems to work out in the relationship after the wedding--sometimes even after the children are grown.

Many of the tales in this collection have never been translated to English before at all, and so there are some I've just had the pleasure of reading for the first time. One of my favorites is "Simple Hans," based on old stories along the lines of Straparola's 16th century "Pietro Pazzo," but the version presented here is the most amusing I've read. It is no wonder that this tale about a magic fool who can think a woman pregnant didn't make it through Wilhelm Grimm's Victorian cutting room.

Other tales were changed in surprising ways that I had not anticipated. "Donkeyskin" is apparently a gender-reversed version of the older "Little Donkey" story, which seems to descend from Straparola's "Pig King" with its implication of bestiality.

Speaking of Italian variants, this document stands self-evidently (to me, if not to the Grimm brothers themselves) as a demonstration of how German folklore blends seamlessly out of and into the folk traditions of surrounding linguistic groups near and far as well as generating endless variation within itself through standard tropes mixed, fragmented, and recombined in myriad combinations. The idea of a "fragmented fairy tale" seems absurd to me after reading this collection; all folk tales are cobbled together from the fragments of other tales, which tumble and flow organically through time and social space.

This book is a snapshot of diverse middle-class and working-class German cultural beliefs and fantasies at a brief moment in time, filtered through the lens of one family with many fascinating social and academic connections. Read through as a whole, the stories reveal the chaos and motion of a living tradition of storytelling, so much warmer and livelier than their pinned-and-dried, stripped down, tidied up, censored and daintily dressed versions that became the Western world's fairy tale Bible.

The cut-paper illustrations by Andrea Dezso exquisitely capture the delicate, elaborate folk art of storytelling and help, as Jack Zipes writes in his foreword, to reveal some of the hidden meanings in the tales. This is a gorgeous and important book that I am so happy to keep on my shelf as an inspiring resource, a thing of beauty, and a pleasure to explore again and again on cozy nights at home.

My gratitude and appreciation to Jack Zipes for translating this marvelous collection into English and offering it to the world in such a lovely form!


  1. Hi! I was wondering if the writing is big enough so that it is comfortable to read, or if it's more in the small side.
    Sorry if my english was not correct, it's not my mother tongue :)

    1. Hi Sofia, the words are a little on the small side but not as tiny as in some of my other fairy tale collections.


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