By far the most heartening conclusion from the fiasco following the discovery — actual or concocted, to make a bundle — of the aborted manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird, decades after the fact, is that people yearn deeply to be nicer than we are. Many thousands who placed advance orders for Go Set A Watchman were disillusioned, and struggled miserably to reconcile their beloved Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Mockingbird, with the bitter, cynical racist he became in old age, in Watchman. By now, everyone knows that this transformation did not happen in the sequence in which Alabama’s most celebrated author imagined and wrote her story — the very reverse — but in which, you might say, the genie escaped its bottle.
William Wordsworth, despised by the militantly anti-sentimental for the sweet simplicity of ‘Daffodils,’ is probably disliked by them just as much for an aphorism not quite as well-known:
We live by Admiration, Hope and Love.
The public reaction to Watchman proves that Daffodil Willy was right. And this should hardly surprise us. You could see the figure at the centre of each of the monotheistic religions as a monumental elaboration of the first, inspiring Atticus.
Something funny leaps to mind as you mull over our apparent preference for idealisation.
The old Germanic folktales that the Brothers Grimm collected and wrote down in the 19th century — stories in some cases preserved for aeons, passed from generation to generation in the pre-Gutenberg oral tradition — were scrubbed clean of cruelty and violence in their revised versions, the ones most of us were read in our cots or bunk beds. Our ancestors clearly had stronger stomachs than we do — to hang onto, regurgitate and delight in the narrative equivalent of unsweetened, extra-strength, dark chocolate. Most of our palates can only be tempted by cocoa cut with sugar and cream. It is not easy to imagine the true Grimms’ fairy tales earning many ‘likes’ on Facebook.
On the current home page of the New York Review of Books, you can read a fine account by the novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner of how this purging came about. She blames — or credits — the English:
The [Grimm] brothers had been strongly encouraged to make their scholarship a bit more family-friendly by including … illustrations after they learned of the huge success in England of the first English translation by Edgar Taylor (1823 and 1826), with its quirky, joyous drawings by George Cruikshank. … [T]he tone of the English illustrations changed the tales’ reception, inspiring Dickens to write sentimentally about their innocence …
This is an example of how a technological shift — what appears to be a simple change from delivering stories by the spoken word to print — can be at least partly responsible for culture jumping tracks. Later, in Disney’s retellings in celluloid, the stories could define schmaltz.
Rapunzel, in the Warner exegesis, was knocked up by the valiant suitor who clambered up that astonishing hair. Here are some of her blood-curdling mentions of unhappy families in the Grimms’ compendium, yarns more terrible even than Snow White’s — whose would-be assassin was her own mother, and not her father’s second wife:
‘The Singing Bone’:
The Grimms also acknowledged that the wonderful, shivery tale of “The Singing Bone” bears a resemblance to the famous Scots ballad “The Twa Sisters” … In the Grimms’ tale, rivalry between brothers over a princess drives the plot. But the central, haunting motif of the bone that denounces the murderer recurs in both stories: a passing shepherd sees it sticking out of the riverbank where the murderer has buried the body of his or her victim. In the Scots ballad, it’s the breastbone—which the shepherd strings with the golden hair of the victim. In the Grimms’, it’s a femur or some such. He trims it for a mouthpiece for his pipe and then finds when he puts his lips to it that it sings of its own accord: “Dear shepherd, blowing on my bone…/My brothers killed me years ago!”
‘The Tale of the Juniper Tree’:
… another story that contains that “playful—and therefore paradoxically comforting—terror” of the very best Grimms tales. In this tale, an evil woman kills her stepson so that her daughter, Marlenikin, will inherit the family’s money. She then cooks the boy into a stew and serves him up to his father. When Marlenikin buries the boy’s bones under a juniper tree, he reemerges as a beautiful bird who sings his misfortunes […]
My mother, she smote me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, sweet Marlenikin,
Gathered all my little bonikins,
Bound them in a silken scarf,
And lay them under the juniper tree.
We also learn from Marina Warner that Wilhelm Grimm, thirteen months younger than his brother Jacob, tidied up some of the stories himself, meting out satisfying, poetic justice:
Dortchen Wild, later Grimm after she married Wilhelm, was one of nine children of neighbors who were close family friends; she is the first source of “The Singing Bone,” but later the brothers amended it, with the possible help of another woman narrator, and Wilhelm both elaborated and trimmed the story, adding an opening “Once upon a time” and tying up loose ends, such as the confession of the evil sibling: “After the fate of the murdered man was revealed, the wicked brother could not deny the deed, and he was sewn up in a sack and drowned.”
Question we have been discussing with a good friend: would children be better prepared for life as it can be — at its most frightful — with the older versions of these confections?