Like most children I grew up with fairy tales, glistening narratives of maidens and princes, kindly god-mothers, evil step-sisters, nasty witches and trails of breadcrumbs. The versions that my mother shared with me were however, of the twentieth century kind. I doubt I would have received such enjoyment should I have been told the originals. The Grimm brother’s are well-known for their dark collection of stories gathered in the early 1800s. This they did in an attempt to record a little of their heritage at a time when Napoleon was rampaging across Europe and threatening to engulf the defeated with all things French.

The Grimm stories are definately not the candy-cane fare of today, and a quick search of their fairy tales illuminates the dark edge to the narratives they so carefully sourced, wrote down painstakingly with quill and ink on parchment and then later published.

In ‘A Maiden without hands’ a girl’s hands are chopped off by her own father.

In the ‘The Frog Prince’ the maiden does not kiss the frog but rather throw him as hard as he can against a wall. (nice)

And in, ‘All Kinds of Fur’, a maiden disguises herself in a coat made from a thousand flayed animals.9781741668490

My interest in the less than happy fairy tales of the past was ignited by a reading of Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl, which tells how the Grimm brothers discovered their dramatic fairy tales during the Napoleonic Wars.
It’s a fascinating, if long story of how the young Dortchen Wild (growing up next door to the Grimm brothers in Hesse-Cassel, a small German kingdom) told Wilhelm some of the most compelling stories in their fairytale collection.

The story is set against a backdrop of Cassel, a town famous for its royal palace, its colossal statue of Herkules, and a fairytale castle of turrets and spires built as a love nest for the Prince-Elector’s  mistress.  It is also a story of Napoleon’s march across Europe and includes an abusive father, extreme poverty and a rather long-suffering heroine. Kate Forsyth has shared an illuminating slice of history, which is darkly compelling, in the Grimm Brother tradition.