A rare discovery in the world of fairy tales – now for the first time in English. With this volume, the holy trinity of fairy tales – the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen – becomes a quartet. In the 1850s, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth traversed the forests, lowlands, and mountains of northern Bavaria to record fairy tales, gaining the admiration of even the Brothers Grimm. Most of Schönwerth’s work was lost – until a few years ago, when thirty boxes of manuscripts were uncovered in a German municipal archive. Now, for the first time, Schönwerth’s lost fairy tales are available in English. Violent, dark, and full of action, and upending the relationship between damsels in distress and their dragon-slaying heroes, these more than seventy stories bring us closer than ever to the unadorned oral tradition in which fairy tales are rooted, revolutionizing our understanding of a hallowed genre.
Even if I’ve gone on the record stating I’m not really a fan of reimagined fairy tales, I’ve never held any grudge against the original tales themselves. Like so many others, I grew up on the sanitized versions of them and as an adult would occasionally go and check out the unedited thing. So when this popped up, my curiosity was piqued. So was it worth the look? Let’s check it out.
The book is very well organized. After a forward there is a nicely detailed introduction that goes into the history of this collection. That is followed by a nice suggested follow-up reading list that serious fans of the genre are apt to appreciate. The bulk of the book are the stories themselves divided into themes, followed by some short notes on each individual story and, perhaps most intriguing for the die-hard fan, an appendix denoting the source of each tale, the town where it was collected from, and the “tale type” meaning that if you think a tale sounds familiar to another you can go look it up. It’s rather neat.
While I completely appreciate and understand the logic of setting up the book this way, it does have the unfortunate effect of highlighting the weakness of a collection like this: the repetitious nature of some of these stories. Because they’re grouped by type, you can skip to your favorite kind of tale. On the down side, it starts getting impossible to shake off the feeling you’ve read this before, be it due to the fourth tale in a block of a man agreeing to “give up something you don’t know is in your home” (aka their wife is pregnant and hasn’t told him yet) or yet another tale of a trio of giants that need to be slain. It is understandable: if you really break down fairytales there are only so many base sources that time and a game of telephone slowly shaped into different versions. That doesn’t make it easier to get through, however, and that’s a shame. The last three sections are have some genuinely unique stories that felt real fresh to me. Some, like Pearl Tears and Flour for Snow are almost Christian allegories. Learning to Steal is a story of a boy proving that thieving is a craft unto itself while Don’t Get Mad is a story of someone outwitting a scammer and finally The Sun Takes an Oath is an attempt to explain why the Sun and the Moon never appear in the sky at once. There’s some great stuff, it’d just have been nice to get to it much sooner.
So at the end of it, it begs the question: who is the book for? The amount of care that went into the book, and all of the notes at the front and the end suggest that the publisher is likely targeting serious fans of the genre and I think that’s a good aim. A lot of these fairy tales are a bit too samey-samey for the casual fan and a more casual crowd would probably just prefer sticking to the known classics. Still, the last part of the book is absolutely worth a read and the references would probably make this a must-have for the serious fan.
While I can’t say I was a huge fan of the book myself, I am still glad I picked this up, and I think the intended audience will be well pleased for having done so. The rest of us can probably check it out of the library, skip around the first half and read the stories of the last half and be content.
Verdict: Buy It for the serious fan, Borrow It for the casual fan.