Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms' Fairy Tales (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies) by Ann Schmiesing is a new release this month, part of the Series in Fairy-Tale Studies from Wayne State University Press.
As I perused this book, I realized again just how rich a topic it is although there isn't much scholarship on the subject of disability, deformity, and disease in fairy tales and folklore. As I studied the works cited, there were about 10-15 journal articles on the topic as well as two books that deal specifically with the subject, including The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity toward Social Liberation by Betty M. Adelson and Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile (Toronto Italian Studies) by Suzanne Magnanini.
Schmiesing's focus, obviously, is on the Grimms. She studied 77 of the brothers' tales and provides interesting discussion of the portrayals of the unusual in fairy tales. After all, what better method than folklore to help explain away the mysterious medical issues of centuries past? Or to help mark the marginalization of characters. Fairy tales are often unkind to the marginalized--if they are not the hero of the story, they are often the antagonist, with physical markers to explain their level of evilness. Or if they are the hero, their good works are usually rewarded with the cure for their physical ailments or limitations.
I myself have always been fascinated with the concept of changelings--what a comforting and frustrating way to try to explain the onset of autism or similar conditions in what was once a "normal" behaving child? Your once loving, affectionate child develops into a different being who abhors your touch and doesn't emote like you? Changeling! Blame the fairies.
So overall, a fascinating book on the topic, a needed book, that will hopefully trigger more thoughtful study and analysis.
Although dozens of disabled characters appear in the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales, the issue of disability in their collection has remained largely unexplored by scholars. In Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms' Fairy Tales, author Ann Schmiesing analyzes various representations of disability in the tales and also shows how the Grimms' editing (or "prostheticizing") of their tales over seven editions significantly influenced portrayals of disability and related manifestations of physical difference, both in many individual tales and in the collection overall.
Schmiesing begins by exploring instabilities in the Grimms' conception of the fairy tale as a healthy and robust genre that has nevertheless been damaged and needs to be restored to its organic state. In chapter 2, she extends this argument by examining tales such as "The Three Army Surgeons" and "Brother Lustig" that problematize, against the backdrop of war, characters' efforts to restore wholeness to the impaired or diseased body. She goes on in chapter 3 to study the gendering of disability in the Grimms' tales with particular emphasis on the Grimms' editing of "The Maiden Without Hands" and "The Frog King or Iron Henry." In chapter 4, Schmiesing considers contradictions in portrayals of characters such as Hans My Hedgehog and the Donkey as both cripple and "supercripple"-a figure who miraculously "overcomes" his disability and triumphs despite social stigma. Schmiesing examines in chapter 5 tales in which no magical erasure of disability occurs, but in which protagonists are depicted figuratively "overcoming" disability by means of other personal abilities or traits.
The Grimms described the fairy tale using metaphors of able-bodiedness and wholeness and espoused a Romantic view of their editorial process as organic restoration. Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms' Fairy Tales shows, however, the extent to which the Grimms' personal experience of disability and illness impacted the tales and reveals the many disability-related amendments that exist within them. Readers interested in fairy-tales studies and disability studies will appreciate this careful reading of the Grimms' tales.
Table of Contents:
1. Able-bodied Aesthetics? The Grimms’ Preface to the Kinder—und Hausmärchen
2. The Simulacrum of Wholeness: Prosthesis and Surgery in “The Three Army Surgeons” and “Brother Lustig”
3. Gender and Disability: The Grimms’ Prostheticizing of “The Maiden without Hands” and “The Frog King or Iron Henry”
4. Cripples and Supercripples: The Erasure of Disability in “Hans My Hedgehog,” “The Donkey,” and “Rumpelstiltskin”
5. “Overcoming” Disability in the Thumbling, Dummy, and Aging Animal Tales
Appendix: Table of KHM Tales Studied