Away with the fairies

Grimm Thoughts - review.

NA re-enactment of Little Red Riding Hood for 200th anniversary celebrations
A re-enactment of Little Red Riding Hood for the Grimm 200th anniversary celebrations. Photograph: Getty Images

Grimm Thoughts
Radio 4

A ten-part series devoted to the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales is presented over the days before Christmas by the mythographer Marina Warner in her compellingly steady, serious voice. It’s a voice that suggests, with its occasional musical modulations for sarcasm and intrigue, an off-the-scale hinterland to which we are never quite invited and which we would never dare trespass upon.

Compiled two centuries ago by the purposeful brothers Jacob and Wilhelm, the fairy stories contain no fairies and no fairy land but instead goblins, cannibals, a singing bone, a donkey cabbage, a cudgel in a sack, a girl without hands and a girl in a nail-studded barrel dragged through town until death. There is also a youth who went forth to learn how to shudder, a tailor who gets high on jam, a den of murderers eating ravens and a frog who crawls into bed next to a princess insisting “now I want some comfort”, after which the princess (who had already resisted his outrageous advances by a well) hurls him with exceeding violence against a wall.

In the programme, this bit was dramatised with a thorough splat, followed by the sound of the semi-conscious amphibean falling bloodily to a marbled floor. (Auden, in a piece for the New York Times, once described the tales as “an educational must for adults married or single”.)

In the first episode, Warner talked a little about the brothers, whose own early lives were fantastical – the death of their wealthy father forced them to leave their estate opposite a dark forest and “secret and unpredictable” mountains filled with wild boar and wolves in central Germany, and throw themselves on the mercy of an aunt who was lady-in-waiting to a local princess.

The boys started compiling the stories as teenagers and were soon dedicated to the cause, rejecting anecdotes with non-German origins (Puss in Boots nearly got it in the neck) and working Thatcherite hours interviewing tailor’s widows, miners, and “old folk” for the following 70 years to perfect the collection. They wrote it at adjoining desks in a little house where they devotedly lived together, and it opens with I think the saddest and most alluring line of all time: “In olden times, when wishing still helped.”

There is a unique calmness to the histrionics in the stories. Take this from “The Singing Soaring Lark”: “So they seated themselves on the griffin which bore them across the red sea, and when they were in the midst of it, she let fall the nut. Immediately a tall nut-tree grew up and they rested.” (You can see why the Tales are second only to the Bible and Koran in global sales). Insane things happen all the time and always in comfortingly plodding ways – yet still, somehow retaining in the timbre of the text a deep belief in magic, transformation and witchcraft. A felt but hidden quality. Not unlike Warner’s far-seeing voice.