In this sense, there is to our knowledge no other collection of fairy tales in Germany. Either there were only a few tales, which were coincidentally passed on, or one considered them merely as raw material from which greater stories could be formed. We declare ourselves opposed to such treatments. It is doubtless that in every living feeling for literature there is a poetic formation and reformation without which even an oral tradition would be unfruitful and extinct. This is indeed one of the reasons every region, every mouth relates a story differently. But there is a great distinction between the sort of half-conscious simplicity which is infused with the unmediated life-source and resembles the silent reproduction of plant life, and a deliberate modification which arbitrarily throws everything together and probably trims it down as well – this is the sort of thing which we cannot approve. The sole guiding principle would be the all-powerful view of the individual writer, dependent upon his education [Bildung], whereas in every natural expansion [Fortbilden] the spirit of the people reigns in the individual and does not permit a special urge for one to push forward. If one ascribes a scholarly value to oral traditions, this means – one must admit – that mentalities and formations of earlier times are preserved in them. Thus it is self-evident that this scholarly value is destroyed by such revisions. Even the aesthetic dimension loses something with these sorts of revisions, for where is literature truly alive if not there where it reaches the soul, where it cools and refreshes or where it warms and strengthens? But every revision of these legends which takes away their simplicity, innocence, and plain purity removes them from the environment in which they belong and where one longs for them again and again without ever becoming weary. It can be, and this is the best case, that one replaces these things with elegance, spirit, humor (which brings with it the ridicule of the ages), a tender elaboration of the feelings, which is not so difficult to one schooled in the literatures of all peoples. But these gifts have more gloss than use, they remind one of the kind of single reading or hearing to which our age has become accustomed to, and for which its passion has sharpened. But when something is repeated, its humor tires us. What endures is something quiet, calm, and pure. A hand trained in such revisions can be compared with the unfortunate man in the legend whose touch turned everything – even food – into gold; in the midst of riches he could neither eat nor drink. Where should mythology be created when not in the images of pure imagination? How pale, how inwardly empty, how formless everything looks despite the best and strongest words! This, incidentally, is only said in opposition to the so-called revisions which seek to make fairy tales more literary and more attractive, not against the sort of free interpretation which transforms these tales into works of art which belong to our time – for who would care to set boundaries for art?
We present this book to well-wishing readers, conscious of the purifying power which it contains. We wish that it should remain concealed from those who do not allow these crumbs of poetry to the poor and the frugal.
Kassel. July 3, 1819.
Original German text reprinted in Kinder und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm [Fairy Tales Collected by the Brothers Grimm]. 3rd edition. Munich: Winkler Verlag, 1956, pp. 29-37.
Translation: Jonathan Skolnik