Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Grimm brothers' celebration awakens saga of fairy tale link to German culture

Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and roots of Nazism on agenda at Kassel congress for 200th anniversary of brothers' classic tales
Grimm's Fairy Tale illustartion for Fitcher's Bird
Fitcher's Bird is among dozens of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, here illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
 
Once upon a time two German brothers began collecting the best fairy tales of their age. They gathered an array of stories involving princes and princesses, forests, castles and magic, but also darker sagas of cannibalism, dismemberment, murder and evil stepmothers.

The 200th anniversary on Thursday of the first publication of the Grimm brothers' Die Kinder und Hausmärchen (children's and household tales), a collection of 86 stories which became worldwide classics, is triggering a year of feverish celebrations in Germany to mark the birth of one of the most frequently read books in the world.

Academics from around the globe, meeting this week in the central German city of Kassel, close to the brothers' birthplace, are kicking off the Grimm 2013 celebrations with a Grimm brothers' congress. Its participants, ranging from lexicographers to psychoanalysts, will focus on everything from the book's enduring legacy, to the brothers' impact on German grammar and how they shaped the nation's erotic imagination.

"Even during their lifetime the Grimms' book became a huge bestseller among every section of society," said Claudia Brinker-von der Heyde, the congress president. "And so they became an indispensable part of our every day culture and our national identity."

Other Grimm events will include forest trails in the western city of Marburg where the brothers studied, light shows, art installations, cabarets, theatre productions, readings and operas.

But amid all the fanfare for the siblings who gave the world those unforgettable, childhood-defining tales of Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Rapunzel, cultural observers say the anniversary is above all a chance to examine once again a literary legacy that has often been associated with the gloomier side of German history.

In a recent essay in Der Spiegel, Matthias Matussek, one of Germany's leading cultural commentators, argued that the "most successful book in the German language" offered an unparalleled exploration into German people's "dark souls", but said that most ordinary Germans had long ago fallen out of love with the story-telling masters. They were more revered everywhere else, from Asia and India, to the US and elsewhere in Europe, than in their native Germany.

"The Grimms are more popular in China than they are here," he said. "What do the others see in us that we don't see in ourselves anymore? Have we become blind because we have had an overdose of dark fairy tales?"

While there are plenty of foreign tourists going to Bremen to soak up the atmosphere of the Town Musicians of Bremen tale, or to Sababurg's 14th century Sleeping Beauty Castle, German interest in the tales and the paraphernalia surrounding them is remarkably limited.

Matussek, who describes the Brothers Grimm as mind doctors who "eavesdropped" on Germans' primordial joys, fears and hopes, writing as they had when memories of the 17th century thirty years war were still strong and at a time when Napoleon was seen as the new threat to peace, says it was the Nazi era that quashed the Germans' interest in their favourite fairy tales.

"Since then, the Germans have been without dreams and they'd like to ensure it stays that way," he suggested. Having a dream or a vision – if the consequence was a murderous dictatorship it was viewed with suspicion, he said.

The theory that the Grimms' tales, particularly the more brutal ones, such as How Children Played Butcher With Each Other, in which a whole family massacres itself, had had an adverse affect on the German character, was expressed frequently after the second world war.

In his 1978 book Roots of German Nationalism, Louis Snyder argued that the brothers helped shape certain deleterious traits, such as discipline, obedience, authoritarianism, glorification of violence and nationalism, which became part of the national character. That was the reason allied commanders banned the book in schools after the war, arguing that they had found the roots of Nazism in the Grimms' world.

A British major, T J Leonard, even said the fairy tales had helped Germans teach their children "all the varieties of barbarousness", making it easy for them to fit into the "role of the hangman".

The German author Günther Birkenfeld saw in the fairy tales the answer to "how the German people were able to perpetrate the atrocities of Belsen and Auschwitz".

The book was therefore largely banned from the German nursery – which was simultaneously undergoing its own anti-authoritarian, pro-modernisation reaction to Nazism – for decades. At the same time though it was becoming increasingly hijacked outside Germany by Disney and Hollywood.

Matussek and others are calling for a re-think about the place the Grimm tales have in Germany's cultural identity.

But the theatre director Jan Zimmermann, who is staging a fairy tale version of the Brothers Grimm biography at Berlin's Hexenkessel Hoftheater, argued that the pair's endurance lay in the fact that they were international.

"The brothers might have written the stories up but [the tales] had existed for 1,000 years or more beforehand as Greek, Jewish and Egyptian myths and sagas. What they did was to conserve them forever like flies in amber, It's up to us to keep them alive," he said.

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