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Top>Research>Reading into Grimm fairy tales


Hideo Toguchi

Hideo Toguchi [Profile]

Education Course

Reading into Grimm fairy tales

Hideo Toguchi
Professor of the Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University

Eternal character - Cinderella

When approaching Maihama on the Keiyo Line from Tokyo Station, Tokyo Disneyland comes into view on the right. What especially catches your eye is Cinderella Castle stretching up into the sky. On a dark winter's night it rises like a fantasy. Cinderella! This eternal character is a symbol of eternal dreams and hope for girls. Children the world over have very much identified with this main character, hoping that they, themselves, could become like her one day.

By the way, did you know that Disney's Cinderella isn't actually that of the Grimm fairy tale, but based on the character of Frenchman Charles Perrault? In Perrault's 1697 The Tales of Mother Goose, in addition to Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper (Cendrillon) , other famous stories are told, such as Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding-hood, Blue Beard, and Puss in Boots. The glass slipper can be used as a test to confirm the origins of Disney's Cinderella. This is used in Perrault, in Grimm, the slipper is golden.

The story of Cinderella was already present in Europe's oldest collection of tales, Pentamerone by Italian Giambattista Basile (1634-36), appearing in the story titled Cenerentola, and similar stories can also be found in Japan and China. In Japan's Komebuki to Awabuki, a girl is mistreated by her stepmother, but at a village festival a wealthy man falls in love with her and after confirming the clothes she wore at the festival, they get married. Also, there are other stories such as Japan's Haibo (Cinder Boy), where the leading character is a male. There are actually 500 tales with this storyline throughout the world. And this isn't limited to Cinderella. Debate has continued over the ages as to whether the many folktales with similar storylines have their roots in a single source (such as India), or have naturally sprung up in various places.

What are fairytales?

Folktales which have been originally passed down by mouth are called Märchen (fairy tales) in German. These can further be divided into three categories, (1) original folktales, (2) animal folktales, and (3) humorous stories and strange tales. Of these, (1) are stories that have a beginning and end, containing set structures like "Once upon a time." to ".and they lived happily ever after," for example. They can be said to be stories which don't specify time, place or characters. Even if the characters in the fairytales have names, the majority would be popular names (with no surname), Hänsel and Gretel for instance. Cinderella is also a plain noun meaning girl covered in cinders. While on this subject, when Westerners talk about fairytales, most will think about tales from (1), and especially magical tales.

The creation of Grimm fairy tales and Cinderella

The Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) first assessed oral literature as a human cultural heritage, and researched it academically. The results of their diverse research, the roots of folktales and legends, comparing similar tales, motifs and themes, manner of narration etc. became a great model for future researchers. The first volume of the fairytale collection they gathered and edited, Children's and Household Tales was first printed in 1812, with the second volume published in 1815. The final edition (seventh and definitive edition) was printed in 1857 and comprised of 200 stories (as well as 10 religious legends.)

Grimm's Cinderella (Fairytale 21 Aschenputtel) is a story that was already recorded as a handwritten script (テ僕enberger Handscript) before the first printing. Cinderella, along with Snow White and Hänsel and Gretel, could be said to be the three most popular Grimm fairy tales. This could be put down to the high degree of perfection as a fairytale. Now then, let's have a look some characteristics of fairy tales by using Cinderella as an example.

Joining our world with the spirit world

It was a bird who comforted Cinderella when she was mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, and it was also the bird who gave her the dress for the ball and the golden slippers, as well as punishing the stepsisters at the end. What is this bird? It is a bird with strange powers and connected to the spiritual world. The bird may actually be Cinderella's true mother's spirit. In Perrault's Cendrillon, a fairy appears, and with her magic produces a dress and coach. Disney also uses Perrault's images here.

Be it a bird or fairy, they both exist in the spirit world. A fairy tale is a vast world. That includes the far away universe and supernatural word. Even if you can differentiate between this world and the supernatural world, the two are joined. So, even if something from the spirit world suddenly appears before our eyes, we are not surprised. On the contrary, people from this world travel between the two worlds as if it is a matter of course.

The main character has a travelling existence

Cinderella has no mother, and her father takes the side of her stepmother, leaving her completely isolated. Many of the main characters in fairy tales are weak and poor. They are the youngest child or stepchild ridiculed by all, driven away like the livestock in The Bremen Town Musicians, and lead an existence like Hop o' my Thumb, or Tom Thumb. In other words, they could be said to have no permanent residence, travelers of this world.

So they are exposed to the evil power of this world and fear of death, as well as being exposed to the fearsome power of the spirit world. From this power of death and evil constantly standing right in front of them, fairy tales are said to be scary. This is not restricted to Grimm, fairy tales are essentially scary. The main characters live in a world which has lost its system of a social promise to guarantee life security. Yet, on reflection, haven't we, in modern times, experienced the collapse of the safety myth, having our financial or career plans wrecked in an instant by an accident or event of some kind? We are also surprisingly similar to the main characters in the fairy tales, existing as travelers.

An omnipresent relationship with all things in the universe

When mentioning Cinderella's belongings, all she has are rags for clothes. She has been stripped of all her possessions. She has been robbed of blood relationships, money and honor which guarantee safety and assurances in this world, and been condemned to <nothing>. In other words, she doesn't get tired of longing for <possessions> and has become completely free from self-centeredness. So, at that time, the world starts to sparkle anew. She enters new relationships with animals. In order to go the ball she is given the difficult task of gathering a large bowl full of lentils out of ashes by her stepmother, and she is helped out by doves, turtledoves and other small birds. These fairy tale-type helpers symbolize those circumstances.

Cinderella grows a hazel tree with her tears. Upon hearing this, it is an image children never forget. Also, through this laconic expression, years of continuous crying are suggested. This is a wonderful narrative style. In fairy tales there are no longwinded, ineffective passages.

Incidentally, the hazel tree was believed, by the ancient Celts and Germanic people, to be a holy tree giving strength and health. We can also see glimpses of this in the ancient roots of fairy tales. And this tree becomes a helper for Cinderella.

In this way, the casual daily encounters with people and living things represent a deep meaning to the main character. This is no less represented by than the heart of the main character of Kasa-jizo who feels sorry for a jizo statue in the falling snow and gives it a straw lampshade hat. In this way, the poor and isolated enter an omnipresent relationship with all forms of life. That kind of relationship is also beautifully portrayed in fairy tale 24, Mother Hulda. And so, we can teach children the abundance of the world, and that this feeling of coexistence with living things seems to carry a modern significance.

But in order to enter that kind of relationship, a good heart and the power of love cultivated in times of anguish is indispensable. During Cinderella's long perseverance, her heart is purified with tears. Also in fairytale 12, Rapunzel, the power of the married couple's love overcomes the evil spell. Here, love is intensified from a youthful, romantic love into a mature love of a married couple. The heart matures during life's deep setbacks. That is conveyed concisely in fairy tales without redundant psychological descriptions. And the children who read these are guided to the depth of the human heart.

Finding one's self while being guided by supernatural powers

The golden slipper fitted Cinderella perfectly and she happily married the prince. For her, this was a totally unexpected event. This girl with strong perseverance didn't exactly lead a passive existence, but a characteristic of fairy tales is that the downtrodden are chosen as the main character and receive kindness. To put this in religious terms, they become people who receive grace. On the other hand, the strong characters (the majority being the rich and greedy), who plan in advance ways to gain favor, usually experience a miserable failure. Here, the most important point concerning us is that the notion that we unconsciously receive favors is becoming a foundation within us. Aren't we, modern people, also being led by those kinds of unexpected encounters?

In this way, the main characters, in a world of confusion and evil threats, in the end are cleansed, mature, and find justice and happiness, essential items for human beings. To rephrase this, they find themselves. Children, who are in comparatively weaker positions to adults, see these developments and the main characters realize their dreams, and in turn acquire the courage to live. Their wish for justice is realized and order is restored to the world. Fairy tales respond to children's hopes for health and happiness and sense of order.

Everybody, in this world of pleasure and pain, is on a long journey in pursuit of happiness. It is fairy tales that express these symbolic dynamics of life.

Hideo Toguchi
Professor of the Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Born in Gunma Prefecture in 1946. Graduated from International Christian University in 1969. Completed his Master's degree (Master of Arts) at Tokyo Metropolitan University Graduate School in 1971. Became an assistant professor at Chuo University in 1978 after working as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Economics at Kochi University. Became a professor in 1986. Visiting research fellow at the University of Vienna 1988-89.
Majors in 19th and 20th century German literature and Viennese culture. These days he researches fairy tales, especially those of Grimm.
Major publications include Sacred Things and the Power of Imagination (coauthored, Sairyusha, 1994), and Vienna - Her Unknown Aspects (coauthored, Chuo University Press, 2000). Translations of H. Schipperges' Hildegard of Bingen: (coauthored, Kyobunkwan, 2002), and A. Rieder's The Vienna Woods - Nature, Culture and History (Nansosha, 2007).