Einstein is credited as saying: If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.
I am currently re-visiting my own copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, given to me by my father in 1965. Unusually, there is no dedication. Instead, in a six-year old’s wobbly handwriting are the words: Sunday May 23 Suseli from Papi.
Dad gave me a lot of books as I was growing up and he often wrote something pithy and poetic on the fly leaf. His words went over my head but I never asked him to explain them because, well, I didn’t want him to think I was stupid. The hardback edition Dad gave me when I was six years old is a fine one. Printed in Czechoslovakia and illustrated by the German Expressionist painter, Josef Scharl, it contains 210 stories and concludes with a folkloristic commentary by Joseph Campbell.
There is nothing about Scharl’s illustrations that seem appropriate for a six-year old. The faces of kings, trolls, devils and witches are terrifying and the anguished expressions of fishermen, bridegrooms, sisters and servants, imply a world of worry and trouble.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Kassel, Germany in the late eighteenth century and their stories are collected from local farmers, weavers, tailors, grandmothers …. The Grimm brothers sought not beauty but accuracy: from mouth to ear to page.
I was once asked about my favourite childhood fairy tale. The one you choose, it seems, is a reflection of how you see your own life. I was obsessed by The Singing Ringing Tree, (based on Hurleburlebutz by the Brothers Grimm). It was first shown on the BBC in 1964 as part of the Tales from Europe series. Das Singende, Klingende Bauemchen was an East German production and the German dialogue would play simultaneously with the voice of the English narrator. This conflicting jumble of voices and language only served to amplify the sinister quality of the characters, who all looked as though they had walked off an Otto Dix painting. Even the good-prince-transformed-into-a-bear-by-the-wicked-dwarf looked weird and scary. But … it was impossible to look away. The whole thing was utterly compelling. My parents were still at work at 4.00 in the afternoon and so I would watch The Singing Ringing Tree by myself. I used to worry that they’d walk in unannounced, switch off the television and forbid me from watching it ever again.
Joseph Campbell writes about the visionary rather than the descriptive quality of fairy stories: The ageless tale of human destiny, recognised, for all its cannibal horrors, as a marvellous, wild, monstrous, irrational and unnatural wondertale. This is the story our spirit asks for; this is the story we receive. Einstein declared that the gift of fantasy meant more to him that any talent for abstract, positive thinking.
I am looking forward to reading fairytales to my grandchildren; not the plump, bright cartoon versions but the ones my mother used to read to her grandchildren. Polly and Lucy’s favourite was Snow White and Rose Red, the tale of two sisters, a bear-prince and a wicked dwarf.