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It’s a Grimm world

Kevin Galea is led into a fantasy world of damsels in distress, Prince Charmings and world-weary wolves on the fairytale trail in Germany.

Castle of Steinau, tied to the fairytale Rapunzel.

Castle of Steinau, tied to the fairytale Rapunzel.

Imagine members of the MADC or Masquerade Theatre writhing around on stage, screaming in agony.

Imagine afternoon matinées of horrific sadism, torture and self-mutilation at the MFCC, or the Manoel Theatre.

The birthplace of the Brothers Grimm in Steinau an der Strasse, Hesse.The birthplace of the Brothers Grimm in Steinau an der Strasse, Hesse.

Imagine – if you don’t already – Christopher Biggins being made to dance to his death on stage. Or some ghastly soap star being put in a nail-studded barrel and rolled across stage. Or some useless, C-list reality TV non-entity and Strictly Come Dancing contestant having their eyes gouged out for your entertainment.

This is all just so everyone can live happily ever after, you understand.

It won’t ever happen. But it should. That’s what really should happen in pantomimes. Traditional pantos should carry PG classifications, if they were true to their gruesome Germanic, Grimm roots.

Germany is the original Panto-land, and Grimms’ Fairy Tales (Kinder und Hausmarchen ) was first published in 1812. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were scholars and, originally, collected their Children’s and Household Tales to preserve and define German cultural identity at a time when their country was under the suppression of Napoleon.

The Brothers Grimm collected over 200 stories.   Originally, they were X-rated, containing violence and sex scenes.  In the original story, Rapunzel had very close relations with the prince. Snow White, on the other hand, was stripped naked by the dwarves and given a bath.

Her stepmother had her feet set on fire and the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, who cut off their toes and heels so they could get into the slipper, had their eyes plucked out by pigeons.

When the stories were sanitised for children as “a manual for good manners”, they emphasised the virtues of thrift, loyalty and rustic simplicity. But, today, Pantos have been dumbed down. You learn all this in a former air raid shelter and beer cellar over a Celtic burial ground, in Grimm World.

Kassel’s Grimm Welt museum is dedicated to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who spent 30 years there working as librarians. It contains original, hand-written manuscripts, as well personal belongings such as the siblings’ favourite reading glasses, what was allegedly their favourite sofa and what was supposedly their favourite pair of scissors.

The metal rat, symbol of Hamelin as per the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.The metal rat, symbol of Hamelin as per the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Grimmwelt  also commemorates the talents of Ludwig Emil Grimm, who illustrated is brothers’  fairy tales and who was a gifted cartoonist. The museum displays his two-metre long comic script stories, one of which about a runaway pig.  It can be considered as a sort of 19 th-century version of Babe.

Beginning north of Frankfurt, Germany’s Fairy Tale Road connects 70 villages over 400 miles through the Hessen and Lower Saxony regions. En route is the half-timbered burger place Bruder Grimm Haus in Steinau, which has some first editions. They are reportedly insured for €30 million.

Sons of a clergyman who became a local magistrate, Jacob and Wilhelm’s birthplace in Hanau (bizarrely twinned with Dartford in Kent) was destroyed in the World War II. On its site there is a statue of the two brothers looking very scholarly; nope, they weren’t a bundle of laughs.

The fruit basket is complimentary. The apples are delicious

Serious academics, they wrote 40 books, including a German dictionary and the seminal work on German grammar. They were the founders of German linguistics. They are buried in Berlin.

The Grimms blended oral with literary traditions.  They stole stories from washerwomen and bought them from workmen. One of their biggest inspirations was publican’s daughter Dorothea Viehmann (born in 1755, 30 years before Jacob and Wilhelm). You can visit her family’s pub, the Brauhaus Knallhutte in Baunatal.

House of Little Red Cap in Oberammergau, Germany.House of Little Red Cap in Oberammergau, Germany.

The Grimms, were obsessed with collecting stories to aid their folkloristic studies. However, their famous tales did not become popular until the first English translation (titled German Popular Stories) appeared in 1823. The Disney cartoon version of Snow White was released in 1937.

The stories are not localised. Rapunzel may have let her hair down in Steinau Castle or any of the many castles – Hohenburg, Ludwigstein, Eisenbach – on the official  Fairy Tale Road map. Hansel and Gretel may have walked in the Psessart woods, or any other of the many dark woods boasted by the region.

A Hungarian may have been the original Cinderella (The Brothers Grimm named her Aschenputtel, which translates to ‘digging in the ashes’, ‘ash collector’, and hence, Cinders).  Elisabeth, a 13th-century Hungarian princess who married King Ludwig IV of Thuringia,  gave all her money to the poor and ended up – or so the story goes – living in a pigsty. The brothers themselves, after their father’s death, ended up in a poorhouse.

The Pied Piper of Hameln story is not make-believe.  In 1284, on  June 26, the Day of St John and St Paul, 130 children, born in Hameln were led out of town by a snazzily-dressed piper. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg, they disappeared forever. This is a historically true story – it may have been caused by the plague or a massacre of pagans, or it might just have been emigration. But it did happen, and it is not forgotten.

Hameln now has its own official piper who greets tourists dressed in suitably period curly shoes, tight green tights, a feathered cap and a plastic flute.  With its forests, cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, leaning gabled medieval buildings and roasted ham hocks hanging in butchers’ windows the region cannot help looking like a pantomime backdrop. And it is certainly making the most of it. Alsfeld claims to be where the story of Little Red Riding Hood originated. Girls in the Schwalm region still wear red caps.

Camp, kitsch and showbiz ate all part of panto. But now, along with  the ‘partner hotels’,  there  are ‘fairy tale events’,  open-air performances  and ‘opportunities to get to know enchanting fairy tale characters’.

Every Sunday at three throughout the summer, Rapunzel lets her hair down at Trendelburg Castle. Apparently, she has an understudy and a large wig wardrobe. You can also arranged a private audience with Prince Charming.

The only elves to be seen are in Lauterbach which is the centre of the German gnome manufacturing industry. Naturally, the road does boast its own Sleeping Beauty castle.

“We do have hungry wolves,” said Gunther Koseck. “And a thorny rose hedge.”

Gunther’s family owns the 1334 Sleeping Beauty castle in Sababurg.  Walt Disney’s castle was based on the one in Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

A statue of the Brothers Grimm in Kassel.A statue of the Brothers Grimm in Kassel.

“Sleeping Beauty may have been based on a true story of a noble girl with an evil step-mother, who was befriended by a group of iron ore miners,” Gunther informed me.

“Her father was a mirror manufacturer. The original talking mirror is on display in Lohr am Main.”

He led me up a spooky spiral staircase up into another spooky turret into my €230-a-night tower, overlooking the oldest animal park in the world. He gave me an eerie smile.

“The fruit basket is complimentary. The apples are delicious.”

www.grimmwelt.de

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