Saturday, September 21, 2013

Starting out Grimm

The first volume of fairy tales I read was this collection of Grimm's Fairy tales.  It must have been the standard household volume in the 1950s, as both sets of my grandparents had it, along with a matching volume from Andersen.  Every bedroom I knew had a shelf of books, but there weren't a lot of books in common between the bedroom shelves of my paternal grandparents' Manhattan penthouse apartment and my maternal grandparents kit-built chalet on a dirt road in Sandgate, Vermont. These books were in both places.

After family dinners with either set of grandparents, I'd sneak off to the spare bedroom and come back with Grimm's fairy tales.  Then, while grownups drank after-dinner coffee or aperitifs, I'd read about lost children, transformations, and the unfortunate effects of badly worded promises.  The 1945 Grimm's was a bit less expurgated than versions common in the 1980s, so it never came as a surprise to me that Snow White's evil stepmother had to dance to her death in red hot iron shoes, or that Cinderella's sisters cut off their heels and toes (at their mother's urging) to wedge their feet into Cinderella's slipper.

Things I learned from my first volume of fairy tales: Be careful what you promise. Be polite to strangers. Be careful who you trust.

The fairy tales were dark.  There was a lot of death, drugging, betrayal, and chicanery.  There was also poetic justice and humor and beauty and transformation. There was a streak of practicality throughout.  The world of those stories was a world where sometimes you were gifted with the best outcome, sometimes you had to earn the best outcome, and sometimes things were just stacked against you no matter what you did.  Much like the world we live in.