For anyone who has never quite got the Brothers Grimm, or never heard their 'Märchen' (household tales) at a young age, here’s a great description of what they've been missing.
'The dictionary definitions – tale, fable, legend – are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say: “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I'll read you a Märchen,” Then, as I settled in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything may happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.'
These are the memories of Wanda Gág, an artist and writer who grew up in Minnesota at the end of the 19th century. She went on to create a series of classic children's books including Millions of Cats, the oldest American picture book still in print. She also published diaries, and wrote beautifully crisp introductions to books like Tales from Grimm. I can't really improve on her prose, so I'll let Wanda tell her story.
‘I was born in this country, but often feel as though I had spent my early years in Europe. My father was born in Bohemia, as were my mother's parents. My birthplace—New Ulm, Minnesota—was settled by Middle-Europeans, and I grew up in an atmosphere of Old World customs and legends, of Bavarian and Bohemian folk songs, of German Märchen and Turnverein activities. I spoke no English until I went to school. In our home artistic expression of all kinds was taken for granted. Our father, Anton Gág, was an artist; and in our mother's family the creative urge took the form of painting, modelling and fine cabinet work. We children—six girls and a boy—all drew and most of us wrote stories and poems.'
It's hard to imagine a more suitable environment in which to hear these tales. But Gág's life took a positively Grimm turn when her father died, leaving 15 year old Wanda the breadwinner.
'Only Mama and I knew what had happened that day in May when Papa, calling me to his bedside and taking my hand, had said faintly, “Was der Papa nicht thun konnt, muss die Wanda halt jertig machen” (What papa couldn't do, Wanda will have to finish).'
And like a character from Grimm, Wanda got up and did her father's bidding. But she did it her way, with 'youthful, rebellious resolve': “I have a right to go on drawing. I will not be a clerk. And we are all going through high school!”
Wanda managed this with gusto and more than a little style, attending art school in New York, landing lucrative advertising work and generally swanning around like a kidslit Louise Brooks.
By 1936, aged 43, Wanda had moved out to All Creation, a farm in rural New Jersey. It was here that she reconnected with Grimm, producing drawings for Hansel and Gretel.
'The old märchen magic gripped me again and I felt that I could not rest until I had expressed in pictures all that märchen meant to me. In order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories, I read them in the original german. I had no idea of writing my own text but I soon found that I wanted to do this also.'
I think Gág is probably unique in having both illustrated and translated Grimm into English. I doubt anyone has done either better. She just gets it.
'The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air – they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons.'
The joy of the Brothers Grimm is that, unless you've made a scholarly effort to read through every one of their 200 or so tales, you keep coming across new ones. In her first volume, Tales from Grimm, Wanda Gág offers up The Fisherman and his Wife, a tale which I faintly remember from childhood, and was thrilled to rediscover.
It's deeply satirical in its intent, telling the story of a poor couple whose lives are transformed when the husband snags a magical golden flounder. The enchanted prince provides them escape from their vinegar jar home and with the wife making a rapid ascent up the social scale, all the way from pauper to pope.
Gág too knew the story from very early in her life. 'I was familiar with this story before I could read and was enchanted with the fisherman's supplication to the fish… it was fraught with magic meaning for me. Here it is in dialect:
'Manntje, Manntje, Timpe Te, Buttje, Buttje in der See
Myne, Fru de Ilsebill Will nich so as ik wol will.'
'It was this lilting rhyme which made all things possible in the story for me and that is why I have preserved as many of its magic sounds as possible in my translation.'
Her translation is precise and perfect for reading aloud. Try it:
'Manye, Manye, Timpie Tee, Fishye, Fishye in the sea,
Ilsebill my wilful wife, does not want my way of life.'
When Gág tackles the more famous tales, she still manages to surprise. The version of Cinderella that we know so well, with its fairy godmother and pumpkin coach, never figured in any of the Grimm versions. Wanda sticks doggedly to the original, restoring some of the magic that has become tarnished over the years. Here it comes out as glistening as Cinders herself as she readys herself to dance under the magic tree. '
The Grimm tales were deeply unfashionable at the time of writing. Popular educational theory dictated that children should be reading realistic stories. There's a sense here that Gág is working hard to save some of these stories from obscurity. Six Servants is a particular labour of love, and a loose translation which trims much of the superfluous material and anticlimactic ending.
Despite the very familiar scenario of a prince challenging a witch for a princess's hand in marriage, it's utterly surprising. On his journey the prince encounters a cast of six proper mutants who prefigure the X-Men by a couple of hundred years. Among them are The Looker, with his super sight, The Listener with awesome ears, Shatter Eyes, with his deadly bandaged peepers and Frosty Hot who can enter an inferno and still come out shivering.
Gág's influence can be seen all over the place, notably in Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss and latterly in Carson Ellis and Jim Woodring. She marries an accessible cartoon quality with deep noirish shades that suit the Grimm tales perfectly.
In 1938 Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Wanda wasn't impressed, calling it 'trivialised, sterilised, and sentimentalised'. In reply she created her own version, arguably the definitive retelling of the famous tale. It's hugely witty and deeply disturbing in equal measure. The image of the wicked queen preparing her poisoned apple, face covered with a cloth and a box full of disguises at the ready, is fit for any serial killer movie.
The details are sublime – especially in the Dwarfs house, which viewers of the film will remember as being a right state until the little house-maker comes to stay. Here the opposite applies – they are practically OCD with their neatly laid table and perfectly turned down sheets. Snow White arrives, Goldilocks-like, and messes up all of their beds before finding the right one for a snooze.
What makes Wanda Gág's Grimm so successful is the marriage of an anarchic sense of humour with amazing attention to detail. It's something that can probably be traced back to her becoming breadwinner to a large family at the age of 15, and is present in everything she did, even the glossary.
And who couldn't fall in love with a book that seeks to explain with a straight face the meaning of words like Ach! Ei, Ei! and Hula!?