When the brothers Grimm first collected the Snow White story, there was no stepmother, no huntsman, and no prince… at least not until long after the princess had returned home, safe and sound. As a boy, I had always found it “lame” that the heroin had to be saved by the kiss of a prince; later, the idea of someone kissing a girl in a coma seemed altogether wrong. I knew that Disney had borrowed that idea from another fairy tale, Briar Rose a.k.a Sleeping Beauty, where it occurs under very different circumstances, but the fact that the Grimms’ first Snow White had been saved without kiss or prince both surprised and intrigued me.
The Power of Fairy Tales
Little Sister Grimm came from my fascination with the origins and evolution of fairy tales. It is easy to forget that well-known stories like Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella came from oral storytelling traditions that went on for centuries. A recent study even traces some European fairy tales as far back as the Bronze Age, some 6000 years ago. This means that the images and plot lines of such tales have been filtered through the individual minds of generations of storytellers, becoming more and more universal over time. They deal with existential problems we may all face in life, such as jealousy, deceit, injustice, love lost or material hardship, and offer insights that may help us overcome them. According to psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim and Marie-Louise Von Franz, fairy tales use a timeless, dream-like language of archetypal images that speak directly to our subconscious mind. Rather than offer concrete advice, they empower us to come up with our own solutions in the here and now.
Though there is nothing wrong with retelling old fairy tales in a new form, something of value may be lost in the process. When Disney’s team enlisted a kissing prince to come to Snow White’s rescue in 1937, they imprinted generations of movie-goers with the idea that “true love’s kiss” will magically save the day. Life is essentially a romantic comedy, and as long as you’re pretty and patient you will get your Happy Ever After… Disney may say so, but does that make it true?
The brothers Grimm
By the early eighteen hundreds, when the brothers Grimm began to collect fairy tales, oral traditions were dying out across Europe because of industrialization and changes in society. As scholars, they intended to preserve these “folk treasures” exactly as they found them, but when their collection grew more popular with each successive edition, the Grimms abandoned some of their academic scruples and “tweaked” the collection to make it more suitable to the tastes of a middle class audience and their children. They removed offensive tales, replaced overt sexual references with innocuous details, changed evil mothers into stepmothers, and added embellishments that matched their concept of the “perfect” German fairy tale. By the final edition some tales had become twice or three times as long as they had been in the first.
The Grimm’s Urfassung, the field notes in which they recorded fairy tales as they first heard them, reveals how different some of these tales were before the Grimms published them. Some of the stories existed in multiple variants, with different endings or beginnings depending on who told them. Often, there were overlapping elements between diverse tales, and sometimes it was not clear where one narrative ended and another began. For Snow White, or “The Unfortunate Child,” Jacob Grimm noted that the most complete version they had found had an ending that was “not right like this, and inadequate.” By the time they published their first edition, they had collected at least six variants of the tale, as well as a more satisfactory ending.
Reviving Snow White
For my puppet project, I wanted to go back to the earlier, less polished version of this iconic story, and to the questions raised by its “inadequate” ending. Without a Prince Charming, how does Snow White wake up? How can a girl, poisoned and paralyzed by her mother’s jealous rage, be brought back to life? I decided to leave the solution in the hands of my protagonist, the brothers Grimm’s little sister. Not much is known about the real Charlotte Grimm, other than that her family called her Lotte, that she married a family friend, had children of her own and died at age 40. Her (other) brother Emil Ludwig, an artist, made a few sketches of her as a young woman; in one of them she is playing the guitar. My puppet Lotte is a feisty, creative little girl with ideas of her own. Little Sister Grimm is a tribute to the power of stories and the imagination, to the women history has forgotten, and to all children everywhere who face evil or hardship.
A Few Interesting Resources
[Please note: I am in no way associated with any of the resources or websites mentioned]
Maria Tatar on “Why Fairy Tales Are for Adults Again” (podcast)
The Guardian on the prehistoric roots of certain Indo-European fairy tales (article)
Stuff You Missed in History Class episode about the brothers Grimm (podcast)
Sur La Lune fairy tale resource website (annotations, international versions, illustrations and more)
Maria Tatar’s annotated edition of some of the classic fairy tales (book)
Jack Zipes’ English translation of the first edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales (book)
Marie-Louise Von Franz on the interpretation of Fairy Tales (book)
All site content © Kris Fleerackers except where noted otherwise