Fairy tales never seem to go out of style. Disney’s adaptations of “Sleeping Beauty”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Snow White” are still household staples. On the small screen, television shows like Grimm keep the “once upon a time” method of storytelling alive. As the press release for the most recent edition Grimm’s Household Tales (illustrated by Mervyn Peake with a foreword by Sarah Waters) notes, recent film versions of Snow White have grossed millions.
Still, some fairy tales seem a little more enduring than others. Certainly, “Snow White” and “Cinderella” are just as popular now as they were both in the 19th century and in 1946, the year Peake’s illustrated Household Tales was first published. But Household Tales includes over 70 stories that range from the familiar to the not so familiar and everything in between. While skimming the table of contents, I saw the title “The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids”; it ignited a spark in my memory. By the time the wolf was making his voice soft by eating chalk, the memory had come back to me, full blown.
Other stories remained unfamiliar, and to be honest, I’m not certain I read “The Turnip”, “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces”, or “Fritz and His Friends” as a child. But whether the tale is familiar or unfamiliar, the audience child or adult, the Grimms’ stories possess a charm that defies both time and age. The language is simple and perhaps a trifle old fashioned (which to me just makes the stories more appealing), but the tales are clever and often include both a realism and a wittiness that may be surprising to some.
Over time, the Grimms’ stories have developed a bit of a reputation, a reputation of being disturbing and, well, grim. And there is truth to this. At the ending of “Snow White” for example, the Wicked Queen goes to Snow White’s wedding and finds that “iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.” Definitely gruesome.
Or think about the scene in “Cinderella” where the sisters cut off their toes and heels to try to get their feet to fit into the coveted glass slipper. As author Sarah Waters notes in the foreword “with their recurring cast of vulnerable characters—neglected children, ‘simpletons’, cashiered soldiers, faithful dogs and labouring horses past their best and facing the chop—they offer a quite terrifying glimpse of the brutalities and uncertainties of peasant life.” But the stories are not without whimsy or humor.
Some stories blend death (and destruction) with something almost comic or, at the very least, a sense of satirical ridiculousness. The first story, “The Three Sons of Fortune”, is a prime example. It opens traditionally—an ill father with three sons. Realizing he is dying, and having no money, he calls his sons “before him, and he gave to the first a cock, to the second a scythe, and to the third a cat”. The father also dispenses a piece of valuable advice “what I now give you seems of little worth, but all depends on your making a sensible use of it. Only seek out a country where such things are still unknown and your fortune is made”.
Fast forward to the end of the story and the youngest brother and his cat. He travels to an island “and it luckily happened that no cats had ever yet been seen here, and that the mice got the upper hand so much that they danced upon the tables”. Needless to say, the cat is welcome and the son is given, in Grimm’s vernacular, great treasure and riches. All is well, until the cat “mews”. Her mews terrify the people and they run away, but “the king took counsel [and] at last it was determined to send a herald to the cat, and demand that she should leave the palace, or if not, she was to expect that force would be used against her”. If you know cats, you can guess what happens from here. The King brings force in the form of a cannon, and they burn the palace to the ground. The cat, of course, simply jumps out a window to safety.
The images often highlight the more humorous elements of the stories. One of the illustrations for “The Three Sons of Fortune” shows a clearly smirking cat with a smoking castle in the background. The illustration of the bespectacled, finger-pointing magical lion from “The Twelve Huntsman” may also make readers smile. Not all the images are whimsical (for example the opening illustration for “The Grave-Mound” shows a peasant in a cemetery), but all add perspective to the stories and each can be “read” just like the texts.
The opening two-page color spread, which includes elements—trolls, a dragon, a prince and princess, a cat, etc.—from several stories deserves a most careful reading. Moreover, the images (this is the first time since the original publication that all of Peake’s color illustrations have been included) provide an excellent excuse for obtaining a new copy of this classic.