Grimm's tales: stepmothers or real mothers?
July 16, 2005 1:12 AM   Subscribe

Stepmothers in Grimm's fairy tales. Some claim that the Grimms altered mothers to step mothers lest the bourgeois reader be shocked.

I was told this at university, and I've since found several references online, but nothing that strikes me as authoritative or trustworthy. And I have an original Grimms Maerchen at home, and it's step-mothers all the way. I was about to "enlighten" someone, but now I'm worried I'm just perpetuating an untruth.

Is this story of the Grimms' redaction true, or just wishful thinking for step-parents?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
I don't know about any story alterations, but step mothers were quite common back in the mediaeval ages. Women frequently died in childbirth and were replaced. The replacement moms had more than the usual incentive for nastiness against the first kids due to the incredible importance of property and its natural flow to the first born male.
posted by caddis at 4:23 AM on July 16, 2005

What caddis said. That remains true right up into the nineteenth century, as well, even in the U. S.
posted by Miko at 5:37 AM on July 16, 2005

I've heard this as well, but every collection of world folk tales I've read contains stepparents or grandparents as the cruel or unreliable caregivers. While that could certainly reflect either changes in translation or an unconscious bias in my reading, the pervasiveness of the character gives me pause.

You might be interested in Bruno Bettelheim'sThe Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. If memory serves, he posits that the motif of "wicked stepmother" provides some emotional buffer space for the reader or audience, and particularly for the children at whom (Bettelheim suggests) these stories are aimed. That is, the idea of a mother as a cruel tormentor might be too intense to accommodate; distancing the figure by casting her as a stepparent allows the child to give reign to his or her feelings of anger and fear without guilt.

There is plenty in Bettelheim's work with which to take issue, and I certainly recommend reading in a fit of high skepticism, but this notion of an intentionally distanced archetype of caregiver makes a certain amount of sense.

Also, of course, caddis makes an excellent point.
posted by Elsa at 6:12 AM on July 16, 2005

From SurLaLune Fairy Tale's Annotated Cinderella:
    The stepmother is a common villain in fairy tales. The stepmother has been a villain since the earliest known versions of the Cinderella tale. The competition between the two women for the husband/father's affection provides a logical reason for the stepmother's cruelty. However, the stepmother has often replaced mothers in other tales, such as Snow White, when the image of a cruel mother was considered to be too harsh and terrifying for young audiences. The image of the evil stepmother occurs frequently in fairy tales. She is associated with jealousy and cruelty (Olderr 1986). "In masculine psychology, the stepmother is a symbol of the unconscious in a destructive role" (von Franz 1970). The stepmother figure is actually two sided, in that while she has destructive intentions, her actions often lead the protagonist into situations that identify and strengthen his or her best qualities. Perhaps one of the enduring elements of the Cinderella story comes from the politics of a family, usually a blended family. While many fairy tales have outside antagonists, Cinderella's trials are in her home and immediate family.
In the research I was doing on fairy tales for a writing project, my most favorite tidbit was that in the original Sleeping Beauty, Beauty was awakened not by a kiss from the handsome prince, but by labor pains as she gave birth to twins! In other words, the prince had done bit more than kiss her.
posted by youarejustalittleant at 6:26 AM on July 16, 2005

Making the story more palatable to children sounds more plausible to me (even though as someone pointed out, many children would have stepmothers, so presumably an evil stepmother would scare those children).

There were no "bourgeois readers" at the time the fairy tales were written and there probably wasn't much romanticization of motherhood yet, so no one would be outraged that mothers weren't presented as beacons of virtue.
posted by duck at 7:03 AM on July 16, 2005

Mod note: fixed typo & removed typo related comments
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:39 AM on July 16, 2005

I'm not sure that the brothers intended their tales for children, at least not original versions. We're used to the tamer translations; the originals were truly brutal. The Wikipedia isn't completely clear on this. Perhaps someone else has better information.
posted by tiny purple fishes at 8:00 AM on July 16, 2005

I'm not sure that the brothers intended their tales for children, at least not original versions. We're used to the tamer translations; the originals were truly brutal.

The Grimms were German linguists. The stories were originally collected to compare regional variations in the telling of folk tales, not to entertain children. One of the brothers (at least) was an important linguist-- Grimm's Law is the first sound shift that most linguistics students are exposed to.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:20 AM on July 16, 2005

What I meant to follow with is that as reputable scientists, it seems unlikely that they would have changed the content of the stories. But they also had many variations on most stories to work with-- anyone with even a bit of marketing sense, upon realizing that his research had value as children's entertainment, would probably choose the most palatable version. That could conceivably involve choosing the version that has the evil step-mother instead of evil mother. But that's probably only one diplomatic selection out of many.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:25 AM on July 16, 2005

I think this is an important point. There's definitely an evolutionary pressure on which stories are the better known. Those stories (like cat-Skin/Donkeyskin) which are more horrific will tend to be weeded out of the public conciousness over time. Then of course, there's the situation where stories slip out of the public conciousness for no good reason.
posted by seanyboy at 12:11 PM on July 16, 2005

That Cat Skin one was odd... Was that king in the end her father? Did she go back to her dad? What the hell?
posted by klangklangston at 9:39 PM on July 16, 2005

Yep. She married her Dad.
b.t.w. SurLaLune comes recommended as a good Fairy Tale resource. You can also ask your question there.
posted by seanyboy at 12:19 AM on July 17, 2005

Best answer: OK - hope you're still reading. I asked my fairytale friend and she said that Marina Warner asserts the stepmother hypothsis and she is authoritive.
posted by seanyboy at 11:48 PM on July 17, 2005

Yep. She married her Dad.

But only after playing pointless silly buggers for most of the story. WTF? I can detect no moral, no lesson, no reasons. Why bother with the story in the first place if there's nothing to it?
posted by five fresh fish at 6:01 AM on July 18, 2005

« Older Please help me with my trip to Australia and New...   |   Can I drink tonight?! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.