Monday, April 26, 2010

Once Upon a Time...

...there were two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They were born in the mid 1780's in Hanau. Little did they know that they would become two of the most influential storytellers of their time. The brothers wrote a German dictionary, studied linguistics--creating Grimm's Law--but most importantly, published a collection of folk and fairy tales that we still reference today. 

There are many elements common to most folk tales, like Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, and Rumpelstiltskin.  
  • Clearly defined good and bad characters. You always know who to cheer for.
  • Descriptions are quick and to the point.
  • A promise of some kind is made--for example, Rumpelstiltskin promises to spin straw into gold.
  • The number 3--This can be characters like the Three Little Pigs, or the Three Ugly Stepsisters, or a sequence of events. The princess has three nights to guess Rumpelstiltskin's name.
  • Magic-Jack has three magic beans that make a beanstalk grow.
  • Extraordinary animals, often talking animals, or magical creatures like giants.
  • Many are cumulative. Phrases are repeated throughout.
  • Happy endings. The good guys always win and live happily ever after.
Before the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog, the Brothers Grimm wrote The Frog Prince. The basic story, as many of us learned it as children, is that a beautiful princess is playing by a well with her favorite toy, a golden ball. The ball slips from her fingers and falls to the bottom of the deep well, making her cry, and getting the attention of a talking frog. The frog offers to retrieve the ball, but for a price. She must take him home with her and love him, let him eat from her plate, and sleep in her bed. After initially being repulsed by him, she eventually agrees to give him a kiss, which breaks the spell that had been cast on him by an evil witch, turns him into a prince and they live happily ever after.

What many don't realize, is that in the original version, there was no kissing. The princess broke the spell by throwing the frog against a wall, and in other versions, she must cut off his head in order to turn him back into a prince. In folklore, shapeshifting spells were often broken by acts of violence. In fact, Grimm's tales are exactly that... grim. Most parents don't want to tell their children that the ugly step sister cut off her toes to fit into the glass slipper, or that the handsome prince falls out of the tower into thorn bushes and is blinded by the witch in Rapunzel. This is how variations came about. Certain elements are altered to accommodate and make a story suitable for a certain age or culture, but the core story remains the same. In 1971, Jim Henson did a Muppet version of The Frog Prince that introduced us to Robin, the frog, and the monster, Sweetums, which to this day is my favorite version. 

Disney brought the story to New Orleans and the bayou, while our very own, Jackie Mims Hopkins gave us The Horned Toad Prince set in Texas.

"'Now what?' asked Reba Jo.
 'Would you give me a kiss, por favor?' asked the horned toad.
'You've gotta be kiddin'!' shrieked Reba Jo. 'You know dang well a kiss wasn't part of this deal, you low-life reptile.'
'If you do this one last thing for me, we'll call it even, and I'll be on my way pronto,' the horned toad said.
'You'll leave right away?' Reba Jo asked suspiciously. 'You promise?'
'Si, te lo prometo,' agreed the horned toad.
Reba Jo thought hard for a minute. She glared at the horned toad. 'I can't believe I'm even considerin' this,' she said, 'but if it means you'll leave right now... pucker up, Lizard Lips.'"

You can see, even from this short excerpt, how the dialog, slang, and use of Spanish words help to set a very specific tone for a Texan adventure... a far cry from the Grimm brother's native Germany. The princess in this story becomes a cowgirl who loses her brand new hat after it is blown off of her head in the arroyo. Lucky for her, she comes across a horned toad who will retrieve her hat for a bowl of chili, a song, and a siesta in her hat.

All of these changes update the story and make it more accessible to young kids. Do you have a favorite folk or fairy tale? Have you looked up other versions and adaptations? How would you change The Frog Prince to make it relate more to your kids or students?

Other Folktales from Peachtree:


  1. I love the variations that fairy tales go through! So fascinating to see what remains and what changes through each telling. Especially to see how so much can be changed but the essence is still there enough for us to recognize it.

  2. I know it's probably sad to say, but I don't actively look up other versions othe tales I hold near and dear...probably for the basic fear of ruining (or at the very least changing) the image I have in my minds eye. It is very true however that the Grimm's fairytale collection was much more "grim" than fairy. I was reading various ones as part of a daily email and just when you thought you knew what was about to happen the "real" story came about and you were blown back into your chair. It is amazing to see what changes occur to bring about a work of fiction to modern times.

  3. I tend to look up other versions out of curiosity. I completely understand not wanting to ruin a beloved version of a folk or fairy tale though. Believe me... I was crushed when I found out that the "real" Little Mermaid dies and turns into sea foam.

  4. Having studied ancient literature for an excessive number of years, I find myself consistently awed at the way stories have stayed the same for thousands of years. We owe so much of our modern notion of the fable to the brothers Grimm, who in turn owe so much to the tradition started by Aesop, who in turn owes so much to the same ancient oral tradition that influenced Homer...

  5. It has been a while since I've read/re-read the Grimm Bros. or Aesop, but I do find myself returning again and again to Native American myths & legends,especially the creation myths and those involving Coyote and North American folktales. I don't think many
    Americans realize we have a rich tradition of our own. Granted, it's still fairly nascent compared to older cultures but it's there. I think in some way the comic book became the new folk/fairy tale. What do you think. Thanks for another entertaining and informative entry.

  6. Comic books definitely are. I see video games as new version of the Hero's Journey as well. The stories are still there, they are just getting to kids in new and different ways, along with traditional storytelling and books.

  7. I wish I did have a favorite (wouldn't that be a great collection, versions of your fave fairy tale).

    Hmmm, are there only so many stories to be told, and authors put their own spin on them (knowingly or not)?

  8. I don't have a favorite but I do know there are indexes of motifs and themes of folktales from around the world -- it's so interesting to see the variations by culture and through time.

  9. SurLaLune Fairy Tales is a wonderful resource that discusses interpretations.

    When the The Princess and the Frog came out I searched for the original story to read to my daughter and finally found one I liked without the violent act. Very few of the picture book versions refer to the kiss.


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