Grimmest of the Grimm’s: Introduction by Sally Gardner
A good fairy tale takes us into the dark, dark woods of our imagination. From there we can go as deep into the forest as we dare or stay on the edge, looking at the trees. A fairy tale talks to our souls in a way few other stories have the power to do. It holds the heartbeat of our fears.
Fairy tales came to us over the centuries from an oral tradition. Cinderella is believed to be about a thousand years old. The earliest datable version of the story anywhere in the world occurs in a Chinese book written about 850-860. By the time it had made its slow journey across the world it had already brought with it tiny feet wearing glass slippers. The beginning of the original story illustrates how we have sanitised fairy tales to make them suitable for the very young, for they were coming of age stories, never meant for little people.
The dying queen, Cinderella’s mother, commands her husband not to marry again until he finds a woman as beautiful as she or who possesses a finger so delicate it will fit in her ring. You may be surprised to learn that only when Cinderella comes of age does the father, desperate for a wife, discover that not only is his daughter just as beautiful as her mother but the ring fits her finger. He decides to marry her. Cinderella runs away to a merchant family and the story that we know today begins.
Perhaps what a good fairy tale shows us more than anything is its versatility. It may be retold and rewritten and still we recognize its origins. The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen has always been one of my best beloved stories. He adapted a favourite childhood tale, The Spirit in the Candle, and added a dash of Aladdin. It is a wonderfully disjointed tale that travelled in the mind of its author who was twenty-nine years old before he wrote it down.
Fairy tales should be frightening. Their nearest companions in literature are ghost stories. I love the dark retellings of Angela Carter, the fairy tales of Herman Hess, of the Italian writer Italo Calvino.
It is not by chance that one of the greatest modern interpreters of fairy tales is Bruno Bettelheim for he was interned in a concentration camp where life is reduced to its barest bones. Fairy tales, under the cloak of a story, reveal the essentials of our lives. They project the trauma of adulthood onto young readers and show them a way of untangling its problems.
“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
G K Chesterton