Jack Zipes on From the Brothers Grimm
Jack Zipe's foreword to "From The Brothers Grimm: A Contemporary Retelling of American Folktales and Classic Stories", (published by Highsmith Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission)
About two hundred years ago the Brothers Grimm began collecting oral and literary tales and eventually published them in two volumes as Children and Household Tales in 1812 and 1815. The major purpose of their work was to provide the German people with a sense of their customs, beliefs, and history through a wide variety of fascinating tales. The Grimms kept revising these tales in seven different editions to make them relevant to the experiences of the German people, especially young readers, during the nineteenth century. To their credit, their artistic efforts were such that their tales transcended German culture to touch the hearts and minds of readers throughout the world. In fact, there is scarcely a child, storyteller, or folklorist in the twentieth century, who has not been influenced by the Grimms' tales in some way or another.
Yet, many writers and storytellers have endeavored to go beyond the Grimms, not so much because the tales have lost their appeal, but to modify, deepen, and sharpen this appeal for children of today. Such serious and stimulating revision has clearly been the purpose of Tom Davenport's work which has led to a significant "Americanization" of the Grimms' tales, enabling them to take root in our culture and to speak to the concerns and needs of American children.
Working very much in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm themselves, Davenport has collaborated with actors, technicians, storytellers, and writers to explore and bring out essential psychological and social features of the Grimms' tales in his film and printed versions that are directly related to American folklore. He has not "modernized" the tales in a slick, sensationalist manner. Rather he has historicized the tales carefully by giving them American settings from the seventeenth century to the 1940s. By introducing an American perspective, he has shown how such qualities as patience, cunning, and courage have helped his major protagonists overcome poverty, prejudice, and hardship during wars, famine, and depression. Indeed, the agrarian Appalachian background chosen for many of his tales lends them a special flavor that is different from and yet reminiscent of the difficult conditions faced by the German peasants during the Napoleonic Wars and throughout the nineteenth century.
Davenport is interested in how people survive oppression, particularly, how they survive with pride and a sense of their own dignity. Through film and print he conveys these "stories of survival" to give young people a sense of hope, especially at a time in American history when violence, poverty, and degradation appear to minimize their hope for a better future. his story of "Ashpet," based on "Cinderella," is a good example of how Davenport Americanizes a Grimms' fairy tale by retaining the universal struggle to prove one's self-worth, at the same time reshaping and re-invigorating the tale to respond to a contemporary context. Ashpet is about a young white woman's reclaiming her proper heritage through the help of a wise black woman, whose sense of history and knowledge of oppression empowers the "enslaved" Lily to pursue her dreams. The action takes place during World War II, when people were making sacrifices and separating, but Lily manages to find the strength to overcome isolation and exploitation by piecing together a sense of her own story. Consequently, Davenport's Cinderella story is no longer history in a traditional male sense, that is, no longer the Grimms' story, or a simple rags-to-riches story. Nor is it a didactic feminist interpretation of Cinderella. Instead, Davenport has turned it now into an American tale about conflicts within a matrilineal heritage in the South, and he shows how storytelling can lead a young woman to recover her sense of history and give her the strength to assert herself, as many woman are doing today. Such self-assertion on the part of women can also be found in Davenport's re-interpretation of "Goose Girl," "Rapunzel," and "The Frog King."
All of Davenport's protagonists want to prove themselves special by overcoming different kinds of adversity simultaneously marked by American history and our present-day struggles. For instance, the soldier figures in Bearskin and Soldier Jack hark back to the Civil War and World War II, but their use of magical gifts to re-integrate themselves into American society also points to the way many contemporary veterans have been obliged to adjust to American society after the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. The thief in Jack and the Dentist's Daughter redeems himself by exposing and undermining class prejudice. The tale of Hansel and Gretel raises the issue of poverty during the Depression, but it is also about child abandonment and abuse in our present-day America.
What makes Davenport's films and tales so compelling is that they contain many different socio-historical levels to them and, therefore, challenge young readers and viewers to review American history in light of their current situation. There is a stark simplicity to the images and language of Davenport's stories that recalls the direct manner of the traditional storytellers who have always remained in close touch with the common people. Davenport may use a camera and modern technology to retell the Grimms' tales with an American perspective, but he has not lost contact with the American folk as many filmmakers have done. Rather, his vision of survival and courage in America revives the spirit of the Brothers Grimm as part of our daily struggles. Indeed, his tales and films not only celebrate the creative art of revision that bridges two cultures but also contributes to a unique understanding of American society and history.