Lasting Spell of Grimm Tales Grips Scholars

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time a Freudian, a behaviorist, a feminist, a Marxist, a librarian, an ethnologist and several Germanists sat in a room on a college campus in the heart of America, sipping a potion made from coffee beans and raising their voices in debate over the silliest things.

The time was the present. The scholars were arguing about “Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” but they paid little attention to Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel or the rest of that band. They were concerned with spell-casting, proverb-injecting, sexual metaphors, submerged voices and bourgeois tendencies.

Far from the forests and castles where the wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers were said to live--on farmland that nevertheless has a heavy German influence--several dozen scholars gathered at the University of Illinois here Friday and Saturday for an international symposium on the Brothers Grimm.

“These tales still pack a tremendous punch,” said Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley.


The bilingual symposium, the largest of its kind on this side of the Atlantic, drew speakers from Germany, Norway and Canada, as well as from Milwaukee, Long Island and Champaign, Ill. Samples of their works weighed heavily on a long table: “The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood,” “Beauty and the Beast: A Study of Aesthetic Survival,” and other critiques and appreciations of “Kinder-und Hausmarchen,” the Grimms’ stories.

Brothers’ 200th Birthdays

Wilhelm Grimm was born 200 years ago, one year after his brother Jakob. The scholars Grimm have been honoring their bicentennials by doing what they have done since the Brothers Grimm first published their collection of fairy tales in 1812--analyzing, interpreting, criticizing and generally disagreeing about the meanings of the stories on which generations of children have grown up.

One thing they do agree on is the lasting appeal of the frightening, enchanting and magical tales.


“This is literature most people knew as children. Then, as an adult, you sort of wonder why you were so attracted to them. That’s the fascination,” said James M. McGlathery, head of the department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Illinois, organizer of the symposium.

Although they came from many academic disciplines, most of the 100 or so participants were well-versed in folklore and fairy tales.

Some, however, were just fairy tale lovers.

Adult Reader of Tales


“It makes me want to go back and read them over again,” said Jolee West, a graduate student from Chicago who stopped by to listen at one of the sessions. “There were a lot of stories I had not known were Grimms’ tales.”

Another student, Kris Hedmen, of Moorhead, Minn., came because “Grimm tales are something you remember as a kid. I like the non-cleaned-up, non-Americanized versions.”

Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German at the University of Vermont, sees a resurgence of academic interest in the tales. “I go to conferences where no one shows up for the 8:30 a.m. session,” he said, surveying a room that was filled with nearly 100 people at that hour.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer, a professor of comparative literature at State University of New York, Stony Brook, opened one session by shattering the notion that wicked witches and evil men cast spells in Grimms’ tales.


Writing Book on Lore

“The people who lay spells tend to be young, beautiful--and generally nubile--women, not wicked witches,” said Bottigheimer, who is writing a book about the tales, titled “Bad Girls and Bold Boys.”

“Males, on the other hand, fail dismally in conjuring up powerful forces and casting spells,” she said. She suggested that the reason might be a folk belief in the supernatural powers of young maidens.

Much of the debate about the Grimms in academic circles centers on the reason they made so many changes in the stories with each new edition. Proverbs, for example, were often added later.


Mieder, of the University of Vermont, argued that it was done “with deliberate care, and designed to recreate the traditional folk tale.”

He cited “Hansel and Gretel” as an example: Their stepmother persuades their father to abandon them in the woods. When the plan doesn’t work, she talks the reluctant father into trying it again. “Because he had done it once he could not say no,” the early edition of the Grimms’ tale reads.

By 1843, however, the justification had been changed into a proverb: “He who says A must also say B.”

The brothers saw their work simply as an attempt to preserve the traditional tales they had heard in their youth around their home in Kassel. Many of the stories, however, originated in other countries.


The Grimms were in their 20s, working as librarians, when the first edition was published. It was meant as a scholarly achievement, not a book for children.

Produced Dictionary

While they are known for putting the tales into print, the brothers were also well known for their work in linguistics and lexicography. They developed a historical dictionary of the German language, were leaders in the publishing of medieval manuscripts and were among the founders of philology--the preservation of old texts.

The weekend symposium featured lectures on those topics, but it was the fairy tale sessions that packed the meeting room. A paper on “The Frog Prince” by James McGlathery, the symposium organizer, interpreted the story as “a tale of passage from girlhood to womanhood.”


While the popular belief is that the frog was turned into a prince by the beautiful young maiden’s kiss, he said, the Grimms’ version has her hurling the frog against the wall. It turns into a prince as it falls.

Academics have long argued the value of the Walt Disney film versions of the tales, which have become perhaps better known than the original stories.

Movies Called Too Literal

“I don’t object to Disney changing the stories, but his visualization is so explicit that it leaves no room for you to create your own story,” said Kay Stone, professor of folklore at the University of Winnipeg and professional storyteller.


These Grimm scholars did show a sense of humor, however.

“I don’t know whether there will be a happy ending,” said Jack Zipes, professor of German at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “But, even for the so-called experts, there is still a lot to learn.”