‘Story, story, story!’ : ‘Grimm’s Last Fairytale’ by Haydn Middleton

‘Story,story, story!’ cried the little boys, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, to their mother in late 18th century Steinau, attempting to distract this weary woman from her never ending household tasks and cajole her into telling them a dark tale of innocent children, the impenetrable German forest, of witches and woodcutters and Good and Evil.  Haydn Middleton’s concise ‘fairytale’ takes as one of its narrative strands the early life of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the German brothers whom we remember for their collection of fairy tales such as Schneewittchen – Snow White, Aschenputtel- Cinderella, and many, many more. With deft economy Middleton relates the brothers’ close bond, the responsibility felt by Jacob to look after his family on the death of his father, but also their growing fascination for the German language which led to Jacob’s life project of compiling a dictionary of German as well as the collecting, editing and revising of the fairy tales. This scholarship is set against a backdrop of early 19th century Germany, its invasion and colonisation by the French under Napoleon and the movement for the unification of Germany and German nationalism which was, at least partly, a response to this. The main narrative is set in the 1860s at the end of Jacob’s life and describes a journey taken by Jacob Grimm with his niece, Augusta/ Gustchen to several places of significance in his early life. She is hoping that revisiting these places will trigger some personal memories which will explain some mysteries in her own biography and for the reader this journey of course lets us see Jacob as an older man, reflecting back on his life’s experiences, successes and regrets. The third narrative is a fairy tale: the oldest son of a poor woman leaves home, having been told he is a prince and should seek the daughter of the Rose King, who has been asleep for a hundred years. The tale mirrors initially Jacob’s Grimm’s own life, but then develops into the tale of Sleeping Beauty- Dornröschen- with other fairy tale elements along the way. And it cleverly illustrates a particular ending to the story which is discussed earlier in the book,when we learn of alternative endings to the story- the French ending with its marriage, but where Evil is not killed and therefore can still lurk and resurface at any time, and the German one , which ends simply when Sleeping Beauty is woken with a kiss. Now , the relationship between these three narrative strands can be at times confusing and I found myself looking for parallels between  them which then seemed not to stack  up; I was unsure whether this was deliberate or not on the part of the writer. Once I decided to be less forensic I was able to just go with the story and enjoy the looser associations and connections between the narratives. At times I thought the writer was trying a little too hard in his inclusion of aspects of German history and for me could have omitted the Jewish background of one of the characters and its associations of future catastrophe: the evil in the tales themselves is sufficient. But in spite of these minor quibbles I found this book a fascinating read on many levels: a moving account of the last few weeks of the venerable and tireless scholar, Jacob Grimm, a reflection on his youth and upbringing against the tumultuous societal and historical changes of that time and the engagement with the tale of Sleeping Beauty and its brutal ending. And this will be timely for readers of Neil MacGregor’s Germany, Memories of a Nation, or visitors to the British Museum exhibition of that name, or for those whose interest in the Grimm Brothers’ Fairytales has been reawakened by news of the publication of the darker first edition. Of course, the book is ‘The last Fairytale’- just a fiction, as Middleton reminds us- ending with ‘this is my story, I’ve told it and in your hands I leave it’. It’s for us, the readers, to ponder over, interpret,  make our own and pass on.

 

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