Most mornings, I spend my first waking half-hour slogging on an exercise machine. For the first two-thirds of the workout I’m able to read, as long as the story does not require intense concentration. I’m also a cheap bastard, so I gravitate toward e-publications that are free.
Lately as I’ve slaved over the machine, I’ve been reading stories translated from the original texts of the Brothers Grimm. Honestly, they’re not that compelling. They’re like pop songs; each story has a hook and some are more successful than others. If there’s one thing the stories do well, it’s repetition. Escalating cycles. Humility and standing up to your word are paramount.
As I was pumping the exercise machine the other day, appreciating the closure of a particularly contrived parable, I asked myself, “Is this how short stories worked back then?”
In fact, that is how short stories worked back then. The whole idea of ‘short story’ as we think of it today had not been defined. And while we credit Poe and Doyle with inventing the short story, we have to give a respectful nod to Wilhelm Grimm as a progenitor of the form.
I’m smiling as I picture poor Wilhelm in a modern writers’ workshop. “So,” the perceptive critic starts, “the cat has sleeves.” The critic raises exactly one eyebrow as she pins her gaze on the writer. Wilhelm smiles sheepishly. “When you have sleeves it changes you,” he says. He’s right, but the helpful critic never buys it. The problem isn’t really the sleeves, it’s the structure.
Willy Grimm wrote stories, and they are short, but they are by no approximation short stories as we understand the form today. Mostly they are shaggy dog stories. There’s a cadence to the stories, complete with rhymes, as folks who do the right thing are rewarded, as long as they don’t get uppity afterward. But lacking is the development of an idea. Short stories today are the retroviruses of ideas. Somehow what you read injects itself into who you are.
The ideas in Bros. Grimm’s tales are pretty simple, if you can call them ideas at all. “You shouldn’t be greedy because greed is bad, m-kay?”
There are some points of interest. Many of the stories as we know them have been pretty seriously watered down from the original. The princess and the frog? Not the story I was given as a kid. The bitch makes a promise to a frog just to get her ball back, with no intention whatsoever of honoring her word. Later the frog shows up on her doorstep and her dad the king forced her to live up to her word. She resists the frog and makes a liar of herself all the way, until he turns into a handsome prince of some sort. Then she’s all over him. If I’m the prince getting my body back after all those years, I’m saying, “seeya, gold digger, you lied and whined and now suddenly you’re my friend? Methinks not.” and finding my own happy pond. Probably a reflection of the times, but women in these stories are rewards. Do right, you get yourself a hot princess. Her opinion doesn’t matter much, because obviously to get to that position where you deserve the reward you are a virtuous prince, and she’s not going to argue with that.
OK, so modern ideas of sexual roles in society can’t be used to indict Msrs. Grimm. How were they to know that women were relevant unto themselves? But still, the stories come off as clumsy. Not really stories at all, but anecdotes which sometimes have a conclusion but just as often don’t. The characters go through a series of events and at the end, they are finished with those events, and life goes on.
Which makes these fantastic tales surprisingly realistic.