The trees whisper as I tread through the forest by night, holding a lantern to avoid the roots snaking across the path. A full moon gleams through the gnarled branches, helping to light the way.
“Look at the forest,” the ancient oaks say softly in German. “Listen to the forest. Ssssssmell the forest.”
No, I haven’t been eating the wrong kind of mushrooms. The voices come from speakers attached to the trunks of oaks and this is “Schattenwald” (Shadow Forest), an open-air theater production marking the 200th anniversary of Grimms’ fairy tales.
Human ravens accompany a group of about 50 theater-goers through a forest peopled with giants and witches near the German city of Kassel. We leave no bread crumbs. Is that a mistake? The text is nonsensical, yet the experience is poetic. Everyone gasps when the trees around are suddenly illuminated with thousands of green, twinkling LED bulbs.
In honor of the anniversary of the fairy tales -- the most-published book originally written in German after Martin Luther’s bible -- many exhibitions and cultural events aim to lure visitors to the Grimms’ home country.
In Kassel, where Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm went to school and spent a good chunk of their adulthood, an exhibition called “Expedition Grimm” sheds light on their lives and extraordinary achievements.
As well as the fairy tales, the brothers compiled a collection of myths that went on to influence artists from Richard Wagner to J.R.R. Tolkien; rediscovered ancient Germanic texts; wrote a grammar of the Germanic languages; compiled animal fables and a legal history, and began the first German dictionary, still today the most comprehensive.
Collecting the fairy tales was an academic exercise, focused on preserving an oral tradition dating back to the Middle Ages for the benefit of scholars. During the Napoleonic occupation, the Grimms also wanted to save what they perceived as a national cultural history under threat.
The stories -- first published as “Household Tales” -- were narrated to them mainly by women. Sometimes gory, sometimes explicitly sexual, they were not intended for children. (The prince’s visits to Rapunzel became apparent when the girl with the golden plait fell pregnant in the first edition.)
That pictureless first edition was a flop. It was only after an English translation was a hit that a later German edition, this time with drawings by Ludwig Emil Grimm, became popular too.
Buried in Grammar
The younger brother’s portraits of Jacob and Wilhelm at various ages inject real life into the exhibition. One telling drawing shows Jacob hunched at his desk, nose buried in the pages of a huge book, more hefty volumes piled up beside him. He was working on the grammar reference book at the time.
A 3-D computer program recreates the Grimms’ Kassel apartment, strangely lacking a kitchen. They dined out a lot.
The Grimms moved to Berlin to compile the dictionary -- a mammoth task they underestimated. Wilhelm died after finishing “D” with the word “dwatsch” (stupid, absurd). Jacob was halfway through the entry for “Frucht” (fruit) when he put his pen down for the last time. It took 120 Germanists another century to complete the work.
The Grimm brothers’ home country in northern Hesse is a landscape of primeval forests, gentle rolling hills, medieval castles and towers and half-timbered villages. It seems a natural habitat for witches in gingerbread houses, wolves who stalk little girls, and princesses who fall asleep for a hundred years behind treacherous thorny hedges.
The region is waking up to the tourist potential and clawing back its heritage from Hollywood. The “Deutsche Maerchenstrasse” (German Fairytale Route) takes visitors 600 kilometers from Hanau near Frankfurt to Bremen on the northern coast. In Steinau, you can visit the house where the Grimms grew up; at Hofgeismar you can stay in Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Sababurg, by a forest of centuries-old oak trees and a pretty animal park.
It’s worth buying a copy of the tales. Most of us remember “Little Red Riding Hood,” yet the plots of others may have evaporated in the mist of memory. The Grimms collected 211 tales in total.
Taschen recalls “Little Brother and Little Sister” and other gems in a 2011 collection, with beautiful vintage illustrations from previous editions through the ages.
For more information on “Schattenwald,” go to http://www.schattenwald2013.de
For more information on “Expedition Grimm,” go to http://www.expedition-grimm.de/en/latest_news.html
For more information on the Deutsche Maerchenstrasse, go to http://www.grimm2013.nordhessen.de/en/index
For more information on the Taschen edition of “The Fairy Tales of the Grimm Brothers,” see http://www.taschen.com/
Muse highlights include Robert Heller on music, Richard Vines on food, Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.