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Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm translated by Margaret Hunt

by Margaret Hunt

THERE would seem to be very little need of a Preface to any book possessing the great advantage of an Introduction from the pen of Mr. Andrew Lang, especially when it is a book which has always been so popular in this country that it has fully proved its right to the name originally bestowed on it.

The reader may, however, like to know something of its history as told by one of its authors in the preface to the 2nd edition, which was published in 1819. The first edition was in two volumes, the first of which appeared in 1812. The brothers Grimm were thirteen years in collecting the stories in this volume. They were all picked up little by little from the lips of people living in Hesse and Hanau, the districts best known to the authors. The second volume was finished much more quickly; it was ready in 1814. Chance favoured them, friends helped them, but their best friend of all was the wife of a cow-herd living in the village of' Niederzwehrn, near Cassel, a woman of about fifty, with intelligent and agreeable but somewhat resolute features, large, bright penetrating eyes, and a perfect genius for story-telling. "Her memory," Grimm tells us, "kept a firm hold of all sagas. She herself knew that this gift was not granted to every one, and that there were many who could remember nothing connectedly. She told her stories thoughtfully, accurately, and with wonderful vividness, and evidently had a delight in doing it. First, she related them from be ginning to end, and then, if required, repeated them more slowly, so that after some practice it was perfectly easy to write from her dictation."

This is how the Brothers Grimm did write them; much that she said was taken down by them word by word, and its fidelity is unmistakable. They bear emphatic witness to her ardent desire for accuracy. "Any one who holds that tradition is so easily falsified and carelessly preserved, that it is impossible for it to last for any length of time, ought to have heard how close she always kept to the story, and how zealous she was for its accuracy. When repeating it she never altered any part, and if she made a mistake always corrected it herself immediately."

A large proportion of the stories in these volumes comes from Hesse, which, as we are told, being a mountainous country lying far away from the great main roads, and with a population closely occupied in husbandry, is, of all German nations, that which amid all Time's changes has kept most fixedly to characteristic habits and customs.

The principle on which the Brothers Grimm worked shall be given in their own words: "Our first aim in collecting these stories has been exactness and truth. We have added nothing of our own, have embellished no incident or feature of the story, but have given its sub stance just as we ourselves received it. It will, of course, be understood that the mode of telling and carrying out of particular details is principally due to us, but we have striven to retain everything that we knew to be characteristic, that in this respect also we might leave the collection the many-sidedness of nature. For the rest, every one engaged on a work of this kind will know that this cannot be looked on as a careless or indifferent method of collection, but that, on the contrary, a care and skill which can only be gained by time are required to distinguish the version of the story which is simpler, purer and yet more complete in itself, from the falsified one. Whenever we found that varying stories completed each other, and that no contradictory parts had to be cut out before they could be joined together, we have given them as one, but when they differed, we have given the preference to that which was the better, and have kept the other for the notes.' The authors express great regret that in so many cases they have been obliged to give the stories in High-German, which, though it has gained in clearness, has "lost in flavour, and no longer has such a firm hold of the kernel of the thing signified." Whenever it was possible they have retained the patois of the district where they heard the story, and their two volumes contain stories in ten different dialects.

There have been several English translations of the Household Tales, and yet this is, I believe, the first which has aimed at presenting them precisely as given by the Brothers Grimm. They wrote down every story exactly as they heard it, and if some of its details chanced to be somewhat coarse, or if sacred persons were occasionally introduced with a daring familiarity, which to us seems almost to amount to profanity, they did not soften or omit these passages, for with them fidelity to tradition was a duty which admitted of no compromise-they were not providing amusement for children, hut storing up material for students of folk-lore. English translators have, as is not unnatural, hitherto had children most in their minds, and have thought it well to change the devil of the German stories into a less offensive ogre or black dwarf, and so on. In this translation I have endeavoured to give the stories as they are in the German original, and though I have slightly softened one or two passages, have always respected the principle which was paramount with the brothers Grimm themselves. The notes too are now translated for the first time. I have been in some difficulty about the spelling of proper names, but have tried to adhere to that form of each name for which the authors themselves showed the most preference. They adopt several, and their spelling frequently differs from that which is commonly received, and yet they are such high authorities that it seems presumptuous to alter what they thought right.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.

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Page created 10/15/06; Last updated 10/28/07