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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Book Review: The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

A striking and comprehensive edition of the iconic tales, canvassing nearly two centuries’ worth of illustrations - for art and story lovers of all ages.

Written by Caitlin Sinclair

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, someone realised that it had been 200 years since the original publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales, and over ten years since a major English translation had been completed. It was also Taschen’s 30th anniversary; time to release a book that would speak to their readers’ families – and so this book was born.

Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Divica Landrová 1959
Little Red Riding Hood illustration by Divica Landrová, 1959

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

It’s an exquisite collection that’s a delight to delve in to, whether you have minutes or hours at hand. In the former case, it comprises 27 of the stories – some well-known, others less so – which can be easily dipped in to as a short snippet before bedtime. In the latter, there’s space to explore the very appealing introduction which outlines the origins of the tales as being for anthropological and archival purposes, rather than as stories expressly devised for children.

The Goose Girl painting by Jessie Willcox Smith 1911
The Goose Girl painting by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Afterwards, the popular stories are laid out chronologically, interspersed with the lesser known tales. The whole collection ends with a thoughtful appendix containing the artists’ biographies, which also usefully operates as a concise history of illustration between the 1820s and 1950s.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

In 2005, UNESCO decided to include the Grimms’ fairy tales in their Memory of the World Register, which catalogues historical documents that are globally significant and carry universal value. Reading through this unabridged translation, which closely follows the original text, it’s easy to see why. These morality tales are entrenched in the way we read and think about storytelling, and had a major impact on children’s literature and the field of illustration generally. Reflective of the many regions they came from, the stories’ influence has been global – hence the international mix of illustrators on display here.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Older readers will recognise the familiar titles, but there are some which may yet be new, and in any case there is much to rediscover in the old classics. Each story is prefaced by an opulent double-page spread, with a symbolic white silhouette on the left, and on the right, perhaps in Grimm-Brothers mode, a page putting the tale in its cultural, geographic and linguistic context. For instance, did you know that the names Hansel and Gretel are diminutives of the German names Johannes (John) and Margarete (Margaret)?

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The content of the stories is largely expected and comforting in its familiarity, with shape-shifting creatures, conspiring animals, orphaned children, sorceresses and happily ever afters. The quality of the storytelling – the lively language and perfectly pitched dialogue – is superb, but really compelling are the twists in the tale where an unusual or darker take on the story has been used.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

In The Frog Prince, the frog is hurled against a wall rather than kissed, and in Cinderella, the evil stepsisters are gushing blood as they cut off their heels and toes to try and fit into the lost slipper. It’s a wonderful way of keeping our attention while highlighting the nuances in different versions of the stories.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The marvellous illustrations are another critical factor in our enjoyment of this book. Be sure to see Wanda Gág’s black and white folk art drawings in The Fisherman and His Wife, the fluorescent poster-art images from Herbert Leupin in Sleeping Beauty and Puss ‘n Boots, and the colour lithography from Hanns Anker, who helps Cinderella transform in to an Art Nouveau princess.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

And don’t miss Gustav Süs’s handcoloured lithographs for the hilarious story The Hare and the Hedgehog, about a race for a French gold coin and a bottle of brandy.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The book ends with The Golden Key, which has closed all Grimm tales since their second edition in 1815 – it leaves you craving more stories, and so it all begins again.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is edited by Noel Daniel, newly translated by Matthew R. Price with Noel Daniel, and published by Taschen.

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