“A still further step can and must be taken, however, before we still have reached the bounds of the problem. Myth, as the psychoanalysts declare, is not a mess of errors; myth is a picture language. But the language has to be studied to be read. In the first place, this language is the native speech of dream. But in the second place, it has been studied, clarified, and enriched by the poets, prophets, and visionaries of untold millenniums. Dante, Aquinas and Augustness, al-Ghazali and Mahomet, Zarathustra, Shankaracharya, Nagarjuna, and T’ai Tsung, were not bad scientists making misstatements about the weather, or neurotics reading dreams into the stars, but masters of the human spirit teaching a wisdom of death and life.”
The Grimm brothers terrifying tales have seized and haunted the imaginations of children for two centuries…..
…You will be aware here of the probing, adventurous spirit that wanted to push farther and farther back in time; it is the spirit that dug for ancient myths and fairy tales, the gold of the dwarfs in the forest. For farther back than primitive Germanic, farther back than Greek and latin and Sanskrit, was the mother of all Western languages- the speech of the ancient Aryan tribes, once called Indo-Germanic and now called Indo-European. Jacob Grimm recognized that the Latin and Greek tongues must have been close relatives of primitive Germanic; all three, as well as Sanskrit, were children of the lost Indo-European language. But Latin, Greek and Sanskrit were closer to each other then they were to primitive Germanic.
You had only to look at the various words for “father” begin with an “f” sound, sometimes disguised as a “v” – German “vater”, Dutch “vader”, Old Norse “fathir”- while Greek and Latin had “pater”, and Sanskrit had “pitar” . Primitive Germanic had broken away from the old “classical” languages, and one of the banners of its revolt was inscribed with the slogan “initial P is fead. Let’s have an F instead.”
Grimm’s law of linguistics stated that the consonants of primitive Germanic keep consistently to the same mouth areas as the corresponding consonants in the older Indo-European languages. But, and it is a big but, where you get a classical explosion, you get a Teutonic rub; where you get a classical rub, you get a teutonic explosion. There is a total consistency in this exchange. Occasionally, thing went wrong, and Jacob Grimm could not understand why; Jacob died unsure and a little puzzled, but a Dane, Karl Verner, explained the irregularities that justified Grimm’s law, then, and it has never ceased to hold.
This world of remote sound- changes may seem totally irrelevant to the “real” world of getting and spending and, for that matter, reading fairy tales, but any man who widens the vistas of knowledge deserves homage. Jacob Grimm asked a big question: how did the speech of the Teutons- the Americans, British, as well as the Germans- emerge from the lost language of the ancient Aryan wanderers? He got an answer, and he was able to encapsulate that answer in the nutshell of a law. All students of Teutonic languages are in his debt and Germany itself, of course, owes him most.
The first edition of the Grimm folk tales appeared during the last years of Napoleon,s imperial career. It was called “Children’s Tales and Household Tales”- and its reception was mixed. In Vienna the work was banned as a work of superstition; the aesthetes complained of a lack of style and grace, in an example of barking up the wrong tree. The staid complained of horror and impropriety; the newspaper reviewers were either condescending or frigid. But ordinary people seemed delighted: here in an era of often high and often pretentious literary contrivance, was a return to the very wells of literature- the tales told in the dim light of village evenings, in dim light or none at all, with work done and the fowls roosting. Moreover- and this was where Jacob the uncompromising scholar came in- the language of the tales had the freshness of well-water; it was honest dialect, with no high German sophistication. It was a vision of a good old innocent Germany.
What nobody saw was that it was not Germany or any other land, no matter how old: it was all lands and all people. The Grimm brothers, who had dared to watch primitive germanic arise out of ancient Indo-European, had reached in this compilation- by way of German rivers- the sea of universal myth. The stories are in various forms of German peasant language , and they contain German properties, like sausages and cheeses and beer, but there is nothing about them that we can call “echt deutsch”, “essentially German.”
“Among people who follow the old ways of life without change,” wrote Wilhelm Grimm in 1815, ” attachment to inherited patterns is stronger than we, impatient for variety can realize.” He mentioned one of his storytellers, Frau Katherina Viehmann, who lived outside Kassel, and he emphasized her delight in the accurate transmission of her ancient tales: “how close she always keeps to her story and how zealous she is for its accuracy; never does she alter any part in repitition, and she corrects a mistake herself, immediately she notices it.”
Conservation is of the essence in the old agricultural way of life; even the minimal innovation is resented. It is easy to accept that there is parallel between the German language and the tales told in it: both sprang out of a culture far older than Germany’s. The migrating Aryans brought their myths and gods and charms to northwestern Europe, where they were conserved in the tales of the folk. Names changed, devils became goblins, locales became familiar localities, but the stories remained the same.
But how do we explain why so many of the Grimm tales can be found, with appropriate differences in dress, all over the world? Freud said of folk tales that they contain “the dreams of the human race.” One of these dreams is about the simple good prevailing over the subtle wicked. Most of the stories that the Grimm brothers collected are lay moral sermons.
Joseph Campbell: Myths, therefore, as they now come to us, and as they break up to let their pregnant motifs scatter and settle into the materials of popular tale, are the purveyors of a wisdom that has borne the race of man through the long vicissitudes of his career. “The content of folklore,” writes Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “is metaphysics. Our inability to see this is due primarily to our abysmal ignorance of metaphysics and its technical terms.”
Therefore, in sum: The “monstrous, irrational and unnatural” motifs of folk tale and myth are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision. On the dream level such images represent the total state of the individual dreaming psyche. But clarified of personal distortions and profounded–by poets, prophets, visionaries–, they become symbolic of the spiritual norm for Man the Microcosm. They are thus phrases from an image-language, expressive of metaphysical, psychological, and sociological truth. And in the primitive, oriental, archaic, and medieval societies this vocabulary was pondered and more or less understood. Only in the wake of the Enlightenment has it suddenly lost its meaning and been pronounced insane.