Tales of Magic, Tales in Print: On the Genealogy of Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm

By Willem de Blécourt. 2012. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8379-2 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Jeffrey Mifflin, Massachusetts General Hospital Archives and Special Collections

[Review length: 926 words • Review posted on April 23, 2014]

Tales of Magic, Tales in Print argues that “genuine fairy tales” (5), stories whose plots and characters revolved around magic, were initially transmitted as printed works and that spoken versions recorded by folklorists and other collectors in Europe after ca. 1812 were rooted in published literature rather than oral tradition. The conjectures of Willem de Blécourt, a Dutch historical anthropologist specializing in the history of witchcraft and folk magic in Europe, benefited substantially from conversations with colleagues like Ruth Sue Bottigheimer, whose thinking about fairy tales is “parallel” to his own (vii). The book traces the genealogy of several important fairy tale clusters, following selected stories through various fragments, interpolations, and transformations; examines and assesses the research of literary historians as it relates to the fairy tale genre; and dissects the materials assembled and edited by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

The practice of writing down these orally related stories started with the Brothers Grimm, already famous for their work with German and Indo-European linguistics and philology. The Grimms cultivated a special interest in German culture, the importance of which they wanted to emphasize in the wake of humiliating defeat and domination by Napoleon’s armies. It was attractive for Germans to think that folk stories represented an unbroken continuity of German folk culture stretching back to an era before historical memory. The Grimms fostered the romantic notion that peasants, especially illiterate grandmothers, were the living repository of traditional stories, which they passed down from one generation to the next by means of oral transmission.

Kinder- und Hausmärchen (KHM), published by the Grimms in seven editions between 1812 and 1857, is the pivot around which Tales of Magic, Tales in Print is centered. De Blécourt analyzes evolving editions of KHM, as well as similar tales and fragments published before the nineteenth century. The brothers, for the most part, remained at their home in Kassel, pored over published tales, and encouraged storytellers to come to them to recite for transcription and editing. They apparently wanted the public to believe that older women like Dorothea Viehmann, a widow who walked to town to sell rural produce, were their typical informants. But many of their storytellers were young, literate, and somewhat sophisticated. Some came from bourgeois families, and some (such as Marie Hassenpflug) had been exposed to tales published in French by authors like Charles Perrault. De Blécourt frequently cites the probable influence of pre-nineteenth-century literary figures such as Perrault, Gian Francesco Straparola, Giambattista Basile, Lorenzo Selva, and other authors of published tales, as well as published medieval romances and works of mythology.

Tales transcribed for KHM show little evidence of an underlying peasant culture, and are best understood as complex interactions between the refined Grimm brothers and a number of relatively educated women who were eager to please them. De Blécourt argues that the informants often conflated separate plots into a single tale and/or repeated stories they had at some point read (154-157). The Grimms regularly added or removed tales as the collection moved from one edition to the next, and more than minimal editing resulted in a carefully crafted “fairy tale style” (28). Jacob Grimm knew that a story could not be recounted without the addition of some touches based upon the teller’s personal taste or experience. He compared the acquisition of a tale to the messy process of cracking open an egg, and was apparently satisfied if the yolk remained intact. As de Blécourt explains, “the soul of the story [for the Grimms] was hidden in the egg and manipulating the external language was justified to retrieve it” (15).

Ideas about fairy tale history since the Brothers Grimm have been predicated, de Blécourt suggests, on unsubstantiated assumptions. Stories in print may well have circulated even in remote regions and among illiterate listeners, who could easily have been exposed to printed works read aloud at public readings. The history of the term “fairy tale” in English and its equivalents in other languages, e.g., French (contes merveilleux) and German (Zaubermärchen), points to the existence of a published genre that crossed national borders. Although Tales of Magic, Tales in Print concentrates on Europe, some attention is also paid to the dispersion of stories to cultures in other parts of the world, which imported variants of European tales “through commercial and cultural links” (221).

The book’s assertions, sometimes broadly and aggressively stated, are at other times more limited and circumspect. De Blécourt hazards, for example, the hope that he has “enhanced the probability that many later orally recited and subsequently recorded fairy tales had their basis in printed form, from cheap booklets, broadsheets [and] newspapers” (220). But, more assertively, he hypothesizes that “nineteenth-century tales of magic can all be traced back to earlier nineteenth-century or late-eighteenth-century publications” (221). Readers may be justified in wondering whether the thesis is limited to “many” tales or whether “all” are really included.

Tales of Magic, Tales in Print is arcane and likely to be of limited interest to the general public. It sparked, however, a heated controversy among folktale specialists even prior to its publication. Oral tradition is a fundamental tenet of folklore studies, and de Blécourt’s ideas, which deliberately attempt to “break through the paradigm,” have encountered “many obstacles” (vi). One of the author’s main themes is an appeal for open-mindedness and “serious consideration” of an “alternative assumption” (221). Experts will be divided as to the validity of his adductions, arguments, and conclusions; but discussion is the linchpin of intellectual exchange, and books like this are likely to fuel stimulating debate for years to come.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.