Reviews 2012

Wit als sneeuw, zwart als inkt: De sprookjes van Grimm in de Nederlandstalige literatuur [White as Snow, Black as Ink: Grimm’s fairy tales in Dutch-language literature]

Wit als sneeuw, zwart als inkt: De sprookjes van Grimm in de Nederlandstalige literatuur [White as Snow, Black as Ink: Grimm’s fairy tales in Dutch-language literature]. Vanessa Joosen. Tielt: Lannoo Campus, 2012. 277 pages. €29.99 (paperback).

In White as Snow, Black as Ink, Vanessa Joosen tracks down the course of the Grimm’s fairy tales in the Dutch-speaking regions of Flanders and the Netherlands. Assmann’s concept of ‘written folklore’ serves as the theoretical framework for discussing the influence of the Grimm’s fairy tales on Dutch-language (children’s) literature. Joosen demonstrates how the fairy tales, although written down, retained several characteristics of the oral folklore tradition: both the stories and the collections of the stories are repeatedly published in new compilations, they are adapted to changing contexts, narrators and audiences, the author’s role is minimalized, new versions replace older ones and, for a long time, the stories were oriented towards a practical function, often a didactic or social one.

Joosen situates her research within the study of translations and adaptations as results of a mediating process between the cultural contexts of the source and the target culture. She adequately chooses from the extensive literature on translation theory, successfully combining the work of scholars, such as Eugene Nida, Gideon Toury, Zohar Shavit and Emer O’Sullivan and clearly explaining their theoretical concepts. She focusses on the intellectual, pedagogical and poetic reception of the fairy tales in Flanders and the Netherlands. Her clear style of writing combined with her erudition on the subject makes this an interesting book for experts and other readers alike. It is the first study in which the reception of Grimm’s fairy tales in Dutch-language literature is discussed from the first Grimm edition to recent free adaptations.

Joosen orders her material along chronological-thematic lines, starting with the Grimm brothers themselves. Chapter One, situates the brothers’ work within the birth of the romantic interest in popular literature, and so provides an introduction to the context of the source material. The significance of Joosen’s focus on the reception of the Grimms’ tales in Dutch-language regions is underlined by her finding that the Grimms maintained particularly close contact with Flanders and the Netherlands. Joosen gives a clear account of the sources of the fairy tales, the part the Grimms played in collecting the stories and the implied audience. To show how adaptation of the stories already started with the Grimms themselves, she demonstrates the ‘process of contamination’ involved in their compilation, based on the Grimm’s own preferences about the plot, the characters and the language.

Chapters Two and Three deal with the reception of the fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Joosen compares the reception of the stories in other Western European countries, especially Great Britain, to that in the Dutch-language regions, identifying deviant ideas and traditions that explain the differences in the appreciation of the Grimms’ work, which she complements with illuminative analyses of the compilations of several (translated) collections. In the Dutch-language regions, a turning point occurs in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Grimms’ fame grew and a romantic image of the child took over the poetics of children’s literature. Joosen manages to connect this with the growing interest in the pedagogical and psychological relation between children and fairy tales. Moreover, she enunciates the increasing scientific interest in fairy tales and the dubious resistance of fairy tales to the censured literary production during World War II.

The main strength of the book lies in the parts where Joosen discusses new versions of the fairy tales. Whereas her historical account of the Grimms’ work and its nineteenth and twentieth century reception was already largely known, Joosen is at her best when analyzing the translations and adaptations of the stories, using Snow White as their representative. Illustrating her argument with quotations of many translations, Joosen shows how translators adjusted the story to the prevailing poetics of their time and place, but also to their own preferences in Chapter Four. She explains the results by demonstrating an affiliation to popular genres, contemporary ideologies and former translations and adaptations, such as the Disney version of the 1930s.

Chapter Five builds on Joosen’s discussion of translations to show how Snow White was illustrated over the years. Joosen’s decision to discuss the illustrations separately from the translations is potentially risky, but turns out to be fruitful. It enables her to focus exclusively on the pictures, whereas discussing them alongside the texts and their contribution to the interpretation of the story could have easily diluted her analysis of the latter. Joosen helps the reader by frequently referring to the former chapter. She appropriately states that there is no linear development in the illustrations’ functions, although certain tendencies can be found. Making use of Nikolajeva and Scott’s functional typology of pictures in books, Joosen shows how illustrators contribute to the atmosphere of the story, add other ideologies, increase contrasts, give rebellious interpretations and guide the reader’s attention. Joosen provides a convincing and lively account of the illustrations, which arouses a desire for more images. Unfortunately, she only briefly mentions some illustrators who have put an erotic layer on the story, a theme too interesting to be discussed so fleetingly.

Chapter Six is the culmination of the book in which Joosen offers new and very exciting readings of several modern adaptations, showing the infinite possibilities to make thought provoking, multi-layered and multi-interpretable versions of the fairy tales by using their anchorage in the collective memories of adults and children alike. Her analyses show Joosen’s talent for an ingenious and meticulous reading of stories as well as the huge creativity of writers. They form the excellent finale of the book, showing how the inspiring influence of Grimm’s fairy tales on Dutch-language literature is far from finished.

Sanne Parlevliet
University of Groningen, Netherlands