January 9, 2013

Stories Behind Stories in Grimm Exhibition at Cotsen Children’s Library


DO I REALLY HAVE TO KISS THAT THING? Apparently not. In the original version of “The Frog Prince” by the Brothers Grimm, all the princess had to do to break the spell and turn her frog into a prince was to throw it against a wall in disgust. In other early versions it was enough for the frog to spend the night on the princess’s pillow. Today she has to kiss the amphibian. English illustrator Walter Crane (1845–1915) is one of dozens who were inspired by the works of the Brothers Grimm. Here, his arts-and-crafts style maiden contemplates the frog.

The violent act of throwing an object (say a frog) against a wall (say by a princess), is commonly found in folk tales as a way of undoing shape-shifting spells. Today, the story of “The Frog Prince” requires the princess to kiss the frog. Not so in earlier times. These are the sorts of details to be gleaned from the tiny gem of an exhibit “Into the Woods: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Brothers Grimm” currently at the Cotsen Children’s Library tucked inside Princeton University’s Firestone Library.

It’s no secret nowadays that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are not exactly suitable for the faint of heart. But did you know that they were not originally meant for children? Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm gathered the stories in order to preserve the volkspoesie, or traditional oral literature of German speaking lands. They started compiling their masterwork in 1806. It was six years before it was published as Kinder-und Hausmärchen. Now considered a masterpiece of world literature, the three-volume collection is best known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales after the brothers selected 50 stories especially for children. That was in 1825 and the children’s version is known in Germany as the kleine Ausgabe (the “little edition”) to distinguish it from the original grosse Ausgabe.

The Cotsen exhibition was inspired by last year’s bicentennial and the current display focuses on two famous tales in two cases on the left as you enter the Library: “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Frog Prince;” six versions of the former and four of the latter. Both stories continue to inspire illustrators, as seen in the 1963 Lona: A Fairy Tale by author and photographer Dare Wright (1914-2001), best known for her Lonely Doll picture books. Lona is a brave princess who breaks the spell laid upon three kingdoms by a wicked wizard. Her only friend is a frog Rogaine, shown with a jewel on his head. In Walter Crane’s 1874 illustrations for “The Frog Prince,” the frog’s metamorphosis is indicated in a series of rapidly drawn, cartoon-like figures as frog and wall collide.

Contemporary artist Anthony Browne gives the Hansel and Gretel story an English setting with a clever take on the witch in 1981. Browne is the first British children’s book illustrator to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award and the second Children’s Laureate 2009-2011. As described by Cotsen Curator Andrea L. Immel, Browne’s witch is a “rheumy-eyed woman in a frumpy green cardigan peering through the window;” her house a “fruit cake roof and baguette ledges, is perhaps more stodgy than delectable.” It’s a far cry from the 1825 “little edition” illustrated by third Grimm brother, Ludwig Emil Grimm (1790-1863). “His representation of the witch’s cottage is much more modest than the architectural confection now standard in picture book versions,” comments Ms. Immel.

According to the curator, the books on display are a small fraction of Cotsen’s holdings of Grimm material. The items speak to the library’s scholarly purpose. Besides welcoming children with open arms and armchairs, the Cotsen is a major research collection of historical and rare illustrated children’s books, manuscripts, artwork, prints, even educational toys from the 15th century to the present day. And not just in English. In Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Russian.

Ms. Immel is particularly fond of the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel from the Märchen-Kalendar für 1910 with illustrations by architect Josef Urban (1872-1933) (who went on to design sets for the Metropolitan Opera) where the two children are shown in thin clothes trudging through deep snow drifts towards the witch’s cottage. “Being asked to choose is a little like favoritism with respect to offspring but I do like this one, perhaps because of the questions it raises: Is that snow or icing? And why are the children so inappropriately dressed for cold weather?” says Ms. Immel. “The house is constructed from slabs of lebkuchen, the German Christmas spice cookie, decorated with molded high-relief figures and it is surrounded by an equally fanciful fence. It’s a gingerbread house that only an architect like Urban could imagine.”

During the last 10 to 15 years, says Ms. Immel, “most of the interest has been in fairy tales in the French tradition, which have really come into their own. Perhaps it’s time now for the Brothers Grimm.”

Before “Hansel and Gretel,” was “Babes in the Wood,” which the exhibition suggests was based on an actual incident in seventeenth-century Norfolk, where an orphaned brother and sister were abandoned in the forest by their cruel uncle who was trying to secure their large inheritance for himself. In an illustration by Anton Weisgruber (1878-1915), Hansel and Gretel are shown as very young children asleep in the wood; the dangers they face indicated by what looks to be poisonous mushrooms growing nearby.

Be sure to check out the display case outside the library where there is a poster illustration by Rie Cramer for the Dutch translation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales as well as five soft sculptures of dwarves by Dorian McGowan a teacher from Northern Vermont.

As lovers of Shrek will know, the Frog Prince is the true identity of King Harold and the modern take on the story has prompted the rueful saying: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your handsome prince.”

“Into the Woods: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Brothers Grimm” continues through February. For more information, visit www.princeton.edu/cotsen or call (609) 258-1148.