Ever more Grimm

19 November 2014 - 02:36 By Andrew Donaldson
Andrew Donaldson
Andrew Donaldson

If you read one book this week

'The Skeleton Road' by Val McDermid (Little, Brown) R280

The discovery of a skeleton leads an Edinburgh detective - DCI Karen Pirie, a new protagonist from McDermid - to a Croatia scarred by the memory of the Balkan conflict. Slow at first, but the tension rapidly mounts in this gripping revenge story.

The issue

Think you know fairy tales? Be prepared for a nasty shock. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition, translated by Jack Zipes (Princeton University Press), presents, for the first time in English, all 156 stories by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their original gruesome versions as first published in German in 1812.

This is the stuff of nightmares. It is not a stepmother, but Snow White's biological mother who plots her murder, telling the huntsman to ''stab her to death and bring me back her lungs and liver as proof of your deed". The mother of Cinderella's stepsisters is equally demented. ''Here's a knife," she tells her daughters. ''If the slipper is still too tight for you, then cut off a piece of your foot. It will hurt a bit. But what does that matter?" All to no avail - the prince spots the blood gushing out the slipper.

In the less familiar How the Children Played at Slaughtering, some boys pretend to be a butcher and a pig. It ends badly: one slits his brother's throat. His mother, enraged, stabs him to death while an unattended toddler drowns in the bath. She then hangs herself, and her despondent husband dies soon afterwards.

The tales' "sanitisation" began with the Grimms themselves. They published several editions, each successively more child-friendly with added Christian references. The best known was published in 1857. Zipes told The Guardian: "The original edition was not published for children or general readers. Nor were these tales told primarily for children. It was only after the Grimms published two editions primarily for adults that they changed their attitude and decided to produce a shorter edition for middle-class families."

More fairy tales, this time from the Middle East. Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, translated by Malcolm C Lyons (Penguin Classics), predated The Thousand and One Nights by 600 years and has also just made its debut in English. Here, according to the London Sunday Times, are stories "full of myth and imagination, with a cast of monsters and giants, jinn and shapeshifters, sorcerers and sea captains, wicked viziers, necromancers, archfiends, as well as a variety of handsome and sometimes homicidal princes and occasional lustily adulterous princesses, one of whom turns into a gazelle."

The bottom line

"At least we left with our heads up." - Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars by Daniel Bolger (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)