What Big Teeth You Have...
Anthony McGowan untangles the surprising origins of the Grimm fairy tales that belie their use as children's entertainment, psychoanalytic tools and even Nazi war propaganda.
Children's author Anthony McGowan examines the tangled story behind the beloved children's stories.
Once upon a time in Kassel, two brothers set out to record the traditional oral tales of their country. To their horror, they realised that the stories - full of sex and violence - were happily being devoured by children in nurseries all over Germany. The first people to police the stories of the Brothers Grimm were the brothers themselves, as they sanitised the stories over seven editions.
This bowdlerising trend continued throughout the 19th century, when children's literature was used as a didactic tool to encourage moral behaviour. Right into the 20th century the tales were used to reinforce the moral beliefs of the day. From the prim and proper 'Listen with Mother', to Walt Disney's first foray into big screen animated features - 'Snow White' complete with seven dwarves - the fairy tales reinforced the ideals of the day.
Then in the 1930s, films were released in Germany - stories where the huntsman in Little Red Riding Hood wears an army uniform and Snow White's father leads a heroic charge into Poland.
After the war there was a policing of the Grimms, this time by the Allied Commanders - complete removal. But, like Snow White in her glass coffin, they were only waiting to be revived. In the 1960s there was a resurgence of interest in the Grimms. Acclaimed analyst Bruno Bettelheim claimed that the stories were not vehicles for human evil - but that the tales were essential in the development of children's minds.
Coinciding with, or because of Bettelheim's work, there soon came a rush of new versions of the stories reclaiming them for a post-war world, from Angela Carter to acclaimed fantasy writer Jane Yolen who expressed the horrors of the Holocaust through Sleeping Beauty, Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods and Philip Pullman's new tales.
Yet, as Anthony discovers, the various interpretations of these classic tales belie the true origins of the tales that were not, as we have been led to believe, spoken stories told by the good German peasant folk to their children at bedtime.....