Last week, Google marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a doodle on its search engine telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in 22 sleek and sweet slides.
The graphics were charming, taking us through a Disneyland of conical trees, vivid colours and cute cartoon characters. In Google’s retelling of the tale, Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny are saved by the lumberjack not by cutting open the big bad wolf’s belly. Rather, they are neatly pulled out of the wolf’s tummy by the end of a scarf that Granny had been knitting while patiently waiting to be rescued. Looking at the graphic of Red Riding Hood sitting crestfallen, as Granny knitted away stoically, I was reminded, from an illustrated version of the tale I had read as a child, of a picture of Pinocchio and Geppetto, sitting at supper after they had been swallowed whole by a whale. Later, in college, I had another déjà vu moment when I saw depictions of Jonah, once again gulped down by a whale but rescued in one piece by no less than the Almighty, in medieval versions of the Biblical morality tale.
In a final fit of charity, presumably in keeping with the flavour of the season, the Google doodle showed the big bad wolf languishing in prison and not, as in the Grimm brothers’ version, dropping dead after his stomach has been stuffed with stones and sewn up by Red Riding Hood and the lumberjack.
Happy endings are inevitable, and indeed, a prerogative in fairy tales, which are largely intended for children. But ironically, children often turn out to be more heartless in their capacity for being amused by the grotesque and the macabre than more squeamish and politically correct adult readers, writers and tellers of fairy tales. The Grimm’s Fairy Tales, compiled in the early years of the 19th century by the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob, are sterling examples of this dichotomy.
Originally collected from the oral testimonies of various ‘story-wives’—ordinary women in the German countryside who were repositories of folktales—these stories first appeared in 1812 as Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). Translated, retold and adapted time and again, the collection was described by the poet W.H. Auden as one of “the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded”. He considered it “next to the Bible in importance”. From Sigmund Freud to Walt Disney, the influence of these stories has been enduring, delighting children as well as grown-ups across cultures. This year, Philip Pullman has retold a selection of the tales in his inimitable style, and called it, quite appropriately, Grimm Tales: For Young and Old.
Although most of us have grown up reading the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Hansel and Gretel, few know the bizarre tales of Clever Elsie and Clever Hans, or the hair-raising adventures of the children who played butcher with each other or the perverse story of the girl without hands. Tracing their origins to the European folktales of 14th-16th centuries, these stories draw their energy from the social and cultural milieu of Reformation Europe, immortalized in the paintings of Brueghel or the woodcuts of Dürer. Beggars, swindlers, lepers, violent men, mad women and far-from-innocent children are recurring features of these tales, and visual reminders of a time when misfits and eccentrics were hung, drawn and quartered or burnt at the stake at the drop of a hat.
No wonder, even as Germans gear up for the bicentenary celebrations of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, cultural commentators have been reiterating the dubious legacy of these stories. As early as the 1970s, Louis Snyder, author of the Roots of German Nationalism (1978), had blamed the Grimm’s tales for fostering intensely unflattering traits in the German national character—severe discipline, deference to patriarchy, jingoism and authoritarianism. As the Grimm bicentenary kicks off with a conference in Kassel next year, academics continue to discuss the tales’ influence on German grammar, lexicography, psychoanalysis and, of course, on the Nazi era. Children in India or Japan, it would seem, may be allowed a more uncomplicated pleasure in the Grimm tales than those in Germany—if adults would have their way.
When Charles Perrault told the story of Red Riding Hood in 1697, borrowing it from what is believed to be an Asian folklore, he had the little girl take off her clothes and get into bed with the Old Father Wolf impersonating as her grandmother. Gustav Doré, who illustrated Perrault’s version, did not bother with niceties either, opting for a full-on scary-hairy beast instead of a cartoonish wolf. But the ghastliest bit was the conclusion of Perrault’s version: the wolf gobbles up the girl and that is the end of the story. The moral: naughty girls meet dire fates.
The Grimm brothers not only added a happy ending but also a twist to the tale. Very few know, or care to remember, that at first the wolf flees after the lumberjack rescues Red Riding Hood and Granny. A few days later, the shameless creature tries to seduce the little girl yet again, but this time, she knows better. It is only then that the wolf is tricked and killed by Team Red Riding Hood. The moral: Once bitten, twice shy.
But the Google doodle manages to keep everyone (reasonably) happy. Red Riding Hood and her Granny are saved, the lumberjack is seen innocently frolicking with the little girl, and the wolf is alive but incarcerated. Children are warned against wily tricksters, animal rights activists are not offended, and unsavoury insinuations are neatly avoided.
(This fortnightly column, which will appear on Mondays, will talk about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.)