Lena Böse, our German House Tutor, has organized a series of events around the German Fairy Tale tradition. I asked her a few questions on how she came to be so interested in this topic:
Lena, what is your connection to fairy tales? When do you sit down with a book of fairy tales? Do you have a favorite?
Fairy tales were a big part of my childhood. I did not grow up in a house with a lot of books, and it was only when we were older that my brother and I owned a book fairy tales. I still remember being more interested in the colorful illustrations than actually reading the tales, which I knew by heart by then. The way I first experienced fairy tales was actually through the traditional way of oral storytelling. I can distinctly remember sitting at the dinner table one night and asking my grandmother to tell me the fairy tale Frau Holle. Whenever she got to the ending, I asked her to start over again. This is such a fond memory that Frau Holle is still my favorite fairy tale. I hope that I will get a chance to sit down and read some fairy tales over Thanksgiving. Princeton University published a new translation of the original Grimm fairy tale collection in 2014, which is beautifully illustrated in silhouette style, and I hope to finally sit down and fully enjoy reading some of the tales in English for the first time.
Have you explored the fairy tale tradition from an academic angle or from an artistic one?
Sadly, I have not yet had a chance to look at fairy tales from an academic perspective, even though I find them highly fascinating. There is a rich tradition in illustrating fairy tales, which I would love to explore. When I wrote a paper about an illustrated children’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I was struck by the similarities to fairy tales. Today, fairy tales are, similar to picture books, categorized foremost among books for children. However, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the fairy tales as recorded by the brothers Grimm in the first edition of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen are much more erotic and violent in content than the tales as we know them from our childhood. The publication history of fairy tales and the fact that there are so many versions of the same tale both within a language context like German and across cultures is highly intriguing to me as well. As for the artistic side – I am much looking forward to making a fairy tale themed board for German Studies at Washington Hall (3rd floor) soon!
How do you compare U.S. students’ take on fairy tales to you own or that of German students? When teaching with fairy tales here at W&M, have you experienced any unexpected reactions?
What I find striking about U.S. students’ experiences with fairy tales is that most students have only one or two points of exposure to fairy tales that they can recall. Many have seen Disney versions of fairy tales when they were younger, others have only come across fairy tales more recently in movies, TV series or musicals (such as Once Upon a Time, or Into the Woods). German students have a much broader experience with fairy tales because it is such a big part of growing up. Germany also has a long, ongoing tradition of making 60-minute long, live-action fairy tale films, which goes back to the 1950s. While tales like Frau Holle or Schneewittchen (Snow White) are well-known and most Germans would be able to tell these to their children at a moment’s notice, what the films accomplish is to popularize many of the lesser known fairy tales, such as Die Gänsemagd (The Goose Girl) or Das singende, klingende Bäumchen (The Singing Tree). When I showed clips of these kinds of films during an introduction to fairy tale event at the German House, the students were amazed at the films – both for the use of German, which does sound a bit antiquated in the older films, as well as for being much more liberal with nudity (as many German movies are). In fact, many of the older German fairy tale films that I remember watching as a child were quite dark and did not gloss over topics such as death or violent punishments. I think it is probably this stark contrast to the Disney versions that is the most interesting to students in the U.S.