We’ve all heard of the Brothers Grimm, haven’t we?
You know. They were those clever German academics, those collectors of folk and faerie tales who gathered and published many of the dark and twisty stories Disney has gone on to sanitise, romanticise and package in clean, neat merchandising-heavy boxes.
I wonder whether the brothers would recognise their characters in the theme park friendly tales Disney has produced over the years? I’m pretty sure there’s less chirpy cleaning with the help of woodland pals and more hacking up predatory strangers with axes in the originals.
I say ‘orginals’ quite wrongly, of course. I’ve mentioned here before how the brothers altered and edited the stories, omitting entire tales from later editions because their themes were deemed unsuitable for young readers. So, I shouldn’t really condemn Disney for responding to the times exactly as the Grimm’s did years ago.
And yet, as the global theme park mongers seem to be almost solely responsible for little girls wanting to be princesses more than they want to be physicists, neuro-surgeons, architects, democratically elected heads of state and anything else remotely useful, I still bear a grudge.
‘Never trust a movie studio empire that believes we should remove male nipples,’ as my old nan used to say.*
Well, almost two hundred years ago Wilhelm – the brother who shaped many of the stories’ structure and content – reckoned that some of them dated to the beginnings of Indo-European languages. Many theorists disagreed with this idea, saying the stories developed much later.
But a recent study by a Durham University anthropolgist and a folklorist from Lisbon suggests that Grimm may have been right. They’ve used a technique called phylogenetic analysis (no, me neither) which maps stories through language and geography.
I don’t know how the technique works. I’m no anthropologist and I’m no linguist like Wilhelm Grimm was. But I do know this is exciting stuff.
It means that the roots of Jack and the Beanstalk could stretch back over 5,000 years: that Rumplestilskin and Beauty and the Beast could be 4,000 years old. There’s a folk tale called The Smith and the Devil which could be as much as 6,000 years old.
I love this idea.
It means the best and strongest stories behave like genes, getting themselves passed through generations – orally for centuries until some bright spark thinks to write them down – spreading over time, perhaps mutating a little along the way, honing themselves into the perfect shape to be loved and remembered and handed on.
It shows these yarns are organic : it’s the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle applied to stories.
It’s a beautiful, elegant idea and gives us a direct link to our Bronze Age ancesters, sitting around the campfire, spinning tales that would scare and delight the listeners and reveal a little something about the world along the way.
Now, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
‘Once upon a time …’
*No, alright, she didn’t say that at all. But it’s true that Disney in their wisdom did not give Aladdin nipples. I know they’re useless, but are male nipples so threatening?