Grimms' legends at last in English; The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm, edited and translated by Donald Ward. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues. Two vols. $42

By , Bruce Allen is a free-lance writer.

I doubt that 1981 will produce a more delightful book than this clearly authoritative edition of the folk tales ("Deutsehe Sagen," 1816) gathered by the Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm. Though they considered it "complementary" to their universally beloved collection of fairy tales (1812), this work has never before been translated into English.

There are 585 stories here, ranging from brief anecdotal paragraphs to fully developed narratives several pages long. Vol. 1 contains legends associated with particular locales (mountains and lakes, most frequently); Vol. 2 is devoted to "historical" legends describing the conquests and culture-building of various Germanic peoples and celebrating the exploits of favorite heroes and kings.

Editor Donald Ward reprints the Grimm brothers' introduction to each volume. His own foreword sheds light on their methods of gathering materials (from earlier printed sources, or through oral transmission) and combining them (often two or more are rewoven into a single narrative), and describes his own editorial principles and "classification scheme." There follow the legends themselves; information on the origin of each (Sources and Addenda); meticulous analyses of meanings and associations (Commentary); a superb index; and a helpful Table of Legends. Ward also contributes an Epilogue replete with interesting remarks on the Grimms' career and the history of folklore scholarship. In short, this book's formal credentials are impeccable.

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To the legends. They are remarkable for their vigor and variety, their casual admixture of Christian and pagan elements, dramatic supernaturalism, and matter-of-fact quotidian routine. Tales of mines and miners reveal ominous forces lurking underground. This is a world where strollers through forests may encounter the munificent Mother Holla, the Snake Maiden, the Wild Huntsman (who slays innocent travelers), or the White Woman (whose appearance foretells a death); where the Devil changes shapes to confront and seduce foolish mortals. The suffering of the Thirty Years' War is reflected in tales of otherworldly figures offering wealth to the poor (or testing the nobility's right to retain it). Though there's a surprising scarcity of outright comedy, there are accounts of miracles (saints' legends) and of the selfless behavior of helpfulm spirits ("cobolds").

In fact, the thrust of these stories is that it's the human failure to acknowledge and trust people from other worlds which provokes their mischief, if not their vengeance. Inhabitants of "the Dwarf Kingdom," for example, "would lend their pewter dishes, utensils, and other items to villagers when they celebrated wedding feasts"; would "occasionally appear to humans and lead them inside their caves.... [and] present them with priceless treasures."

This interpenetration of different worlds is the subject of the long story "Hinzelmann," about a benevolent spirit who haunts a manor -- and shows "definite patriarchal and authoritarian traits" as the price of the prosperity he bestows. It's one of the very best of these tales; a partial listing of some of the others would include "The Ghostly Horseman," "The Miller's Wife," "Seeburg Lake," "An Invitation to Appear Before the Judgment of the Lord," and "The Swan Knight."

Of course this book will be of inestimable value to scholars. I think it can also be heartily recommended to the general reader -- who will find here a comfortable quota of old stories ("The Children of Hamelin," William Tell), analogues and sources (to Greek myths, Arthurian legends, English and Scottish popular ballads, Shakespearean drama, and Wagnerian opera), and -- best of all -- a great wealth of unfamiliar indigenous material. This is truly a book of wonders.

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