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Word of the Day: sprookje (fairy tale)

Once upon a time there were two wealthy giants who were having breakfast. One hot summer’s day they smelled a tiny young man who was hiding behind their coffeepot. He was after their gold and silver…

A SPROOKJE (fairy tale) usually starts: ‘Once upon a time…’ In Dutch: ‘Er was eens…’ And SPROOKJES all end the same: ‘En ze leefden nog lang en gelukkig. (And they lived happily ever after).

SPROOKJES and other folk tales usually recount fantastic events about witches, fairies, kings, queens, princes, dwarves, giants…

Children love SPROOKJES, but the real authentic SPROOKJES that were born in German folklore are not at all the sweet and romantic stories that Walt Disney americanized in his cartoons.

We all think we know the fairy tales which were recorded by the Grimm brothers in the beginning of the nineteenth century. But did you know that it was not the stepmother who wanted Sneeuwwitje (Snow White) killed but her real mother? And that in the original Assepoester (Cinderella), the nasty stepsisters cut off their toes and other parts of their feet to try to fit them into the lost shoe? And that the prince saw they were not the right girls when a dove told him there was blood dripping. And that doves pecked out the eyes of the stepsisters after the prince found Cinderella?

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863 and 1786-1859) were linguists who collected their fairy tales and religious tales, jokes and fables for the preservation of the true Germanic folk literature. These tales were not for children at all. After Edgar Taylor, an Englishman, had translated and published the stories in England in 1823, the Grimm brothers discovered that kids loved these stories so much. So the Grimm brothers then edited their collection for family reading and took out the sexy and grim bits. By 1857 they had made their collection of 210 stories fit for popular family reading.

If you’d like to have a taste of the authentic SPROOKJES read Philip Pullman’s ‘Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm’ (Penguin). Pullmann (1946) retells his fifty favourite stories, such as Cinderella and Rapunzel and analyses each of them. In the Netherlands several writers have made modern versions of these stories. ‘Sneeuwwitje, for instance, was retold by Wim Hofman (1941) in a wonderful short novel called ‘Zwart als inkt’ (As Black as Ink) Querido, 1997. Strongly recommended for students of Dutch.

The word SPROOKJE in the sense of fairy tale was first recorded in 1610 according to my favourite etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs. It is used in the title of the medieval tale ‘Sprookje van Reyntje de Vos’ in 1627 (see earlier posting on LAF). As the ‘je-ending’ indicates it is a diminutive of the word SPROOK which (like ‘meis’ in ‘meisje’, girl) does not exist anymore. SPROOK is a variation of SPREUK which means ‘saying’. Sprookje, spreuk, spreken… they all have to do with ‘speaking’. The German word ‘Märchen’ is also a diminutive (Maere) and goes back to a medieval word which is in Dutch ‘mare’ and in Old English ‘mǣre’ meaning ‘account’ or ‘message’. The Grimm brothers revived this ancient word in the 18th century.

Once upon a time there were two giants who were having breakfast. One hot summer’s day a tiny young man was hiding behind their coffeepot. He wanted to steal their gold and silver. ‘I smell a human’, one of the giants said. And the rest is SPROOKJE….

The sculpture in the photo was made by the Haarlemmer artist Jo Klingers (1933). Much of his work is in the Bauhaus style. His artistic construction on the Noordpolderkade in Den Haag dates from 1986 and is called ‘Koffiepot, de Echtelijke ruzie’ (Coffeepot, Marital Row).

However, I see Klingers’ artistic construction as an echo of a SPROOKJE that has long been forgotten. A SPROOKJE about two giants who had lived so long that theydid not know each other’s names anymore. They had a rich and quite life until a young man in want of a royal spouse visited their palace in order to steal their gold and silver. Lots of things happened after the youngster was discovered hiding on their breakfast table but in the end he and his princess ‘leefden lang en gelukkig’ (lived happily ever after).