Reviews 2015

Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Ann Schmiesing. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014. xii + 225 pages. $29.99 (paperback).

Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the new book by associate professor of German and Scandinavian literature at the University of Colorado Ann Schmiesing, is an innovative and illuminating study of the popular collection of tales edited by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales, 1812/15–1857, hereafter KHM). Situated at the intersection of fairy-tale studies and disability studies, this "breakthrough work of fairy-tale scholarship," to use the wording of Maria Tatar printed on the back cover, offers a fascinating new look at the extensively studied Grimms' collection by focusing on a topic that has so far received modest scholarly attention: representations of disability, deformity and illness. Schmiesing's meticulous close readings of select KHM tales are situated within the larger context of social and historical circumstances of the first half of the 19th century, the biographies of the Brothers Grimm, especially their experiences with illness (e.g. Wilhelm's asthma attacks and heart condition, their father's untimely death of pneumonia), and the editorial history of their collection.

By comparing the manuscript version of a given tale (when available) and its published versions over the seven editions of the KHM, the author notes numerous "disability-related additions and amendments that the Grimms made to the tales they collected" (3). Furthermore, the Grimms’ view of the fairy tale as an "able-bodied genre" (20), combined with their proclaimed attempts to restore its "wholeness," prompts Schmiesing to liken their editorial process to surgery, with editorial additions/amendments and deletions described as "aesthetic prostheses" and "surgical excisions," respectively (25).

The introductory chapter clarifies key terms (disability, ableism, the social model, complex embodiment) and provides an overview of dominant approaches to disability in the Grimms' tales: the diagnostic approach, which treats literary characters as patients, and the symbolic approach, which views disability as a metaphor. Schmiesing distances herself from both of these approaches, opting instead to focus on "narratological and thematic functions" of disability, as well as "the manner in which depictions of disability in folklore reflect and further influence social attitudes toward disability" (7).

The starting point for chapter one is the Grimms' preface to the first edition of the KHM, in which they present their view of "the fairy tale as a healthy and robust genre that has nevertheless been damaged and needs to be restored to its organic state" (20). The final results and principles governing the Grimms’ "editorial surgery" (46), aimed at restoring the supposed "wholeness" of the tales, are elaborated in the chapters that follow, each built around select case studies. Chapter two focuses on depictions of and attitudes toward surgery and prosthesis in "The Three Army Surgeons," "How Six Made Their Way in the World" and "Brother Lustig." Read against the backdrop of Napoleonic Wars, the history of German military medicine and Wilhelm Grimm's deteriorating health, these stories depict their (human) protagonists’ failed attempts to restore bodily wholeness.

The gendering of disability discussed in chapter three is explored through analyses of the editorial history of "The Maiden without Hands" and "The Frog King or Iron Henry." As the author persuasively demonstrates, disabilities typically add to the passivity of female characters, but do not significantly reduce the agency of male characters. In chapter four, Schmiesing turns her attention to so-called monstrous birth tales ("Hans My Hedgehog," "The Donkey") which feature deformed or disabled characters who ultimately "overcome" their disabilities and whose bodies are magically transformed at the end of the story. The happy endings bestowed upon these "supercripples," as Schmiesing calls them, are contrasted with the self-destruction of Rumpelstiltskin, who is seen as a representation of "psychological reactions to disability and illness" (144).

Unlike "supercripples," characters such as Dummy ("The Golden Goose," "The Three Feathers," "The Queen Bee"), Thumbling and elderly animals ("The Bremen Town Musicians," "Old Sultan") discussed in chapter five do not undergo magical transformations, but nevertheless manage to "figuratively 'overcome' disability by compensating for physical or intellectual impairment by means of other personal abilities or traits" (21). Although the literal and symbolic "overcoming" of disability in the KHM tales may seem as a means of enforcing the ideal of able-bodiedness, Schmiesing points out that, much like the Grimms’ attempts at reconstructing the "wholeness" of the tales, "bodily perfection" in the KHM remains elusive and is attainable only in the magical world of fairy tales (185).

Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms' Fairy Tales not only provides novel perspectives on and innovative approaches to the KHM but also brings fresh material into focus by discussing lesser known and understudied tales, as well as offering novel interpretations of "classics" such as "The Frog King." The only thing that is missing from this engaging and well-researched study is a discussion on genre, or at least more specific definitions of terms such as Schwank and fairy tale. These seem particularly needed as the author notes marked differences in the ways individual genres portray disability and treat the ideals of able-bodiedness and "normalcy."

With Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Wayne State University Press has made a most welcome and valuable addition to its series on fairy-tale studies, providing us with a comprehensive and intellectually invigorating volume which enriches the study of folk and fairy tales in general, and the Grimms’ tales in particular. Hopefully, the innovative theoretical approaches and intriguing interpretations of tales proffered by Schmiesing will serve as a starting point and inspiration for future research into this relatively new area of fairy-tale scholarship.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia