The other day in a heated thread someone who should know better referred to Joseph Campbell as a “fiction writer”. I immediately sunk into despair about the state of our cultural amnesia ( see Clive Barnes) when the wikification of our reference base degrades to ever new lows. I had to draw on considerable time and energy to correct this, if for no other reason than to salvage some semblance of dignity for a man I regard as one of the greatest pioneers of the 20th Century and the intrepid founder and trailblazer for what he called: “the lineaments of a new science” ie. the scientific investigation of mythology, cultural anthropology and evolutionary psychology.
As a storyteller myself this particular field has been a lifelong area of dedication, research and study. In poring through the volumes of Campbell’s corpus I became intrigued by his regard for the Grimm Brothers not as writers of children’s books, but along with the ilk of Fraser, Edwardes, Frobenius, Levi-Strauss as great contributors to this burgeoning science. They were not writing children’s books, they were collecting oral traditions and folkloric memes passed down through generations of ethnic, regional and developing peoples. It is yet another deep disappointment that they too, like Campbell, have been relegated to pseudo history as “authors of books for children” with stories too barbaric for the gentle, if not, ever coddled minds of the soccer mom age.
While this is a whole other discussion, and as IIdy suggests, “a topic of heated debated” I would say we first have to establish solid ground for who the Grimm Brothers were, what they intended to do, and place in perspective the time in which they were excavating, archiving and recording these ancient folk traditions. The next thing I would suggest is a quick read of Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment for another perspective on the “paideumatic” and psychological values of these tales — they are not mere relics of the past, not simply cautionary old wives tales, but powerful doors into the human psyche, past and present, child and adult alike. To homogenize, abridge and sanitize them out of some misguided need to shelter the poor defenseless children is to discredit the Grimm Brothers, our children, our own psychology, and thusly cheat society of voices and memes deep within our human past.
As Thomas Mann wrote in Joseph and his Brothers: “Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless? The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its future history and culture reveal themselves unfathomable.”
I suspect the ingenious raconteur, ‘Uncle Walt’ , as opposed to Corporate Disney, knew this intrinsically to be so.