Raphael Kadushin discovers one of Germany's most underrated destinations, the Fairy-Tale Road north of Frankfurt. On the bicentennial of the Brothers Grimm’s first volume of stories, he experiences the history of the authors and the inspiration behind their work.
Into the Woods
The first time I was introduced to the Brothers Grimm, at the age of four, I collapsed onto the floor of a movie theater. Bawling and clawing like some sloppy old drunk, I was peeled off the tiles and hauled out by two big ushers. "He's scaring the other kids, " the theater owner told my sister. And while my sister isn't the most reliable family historian, the incident does sound like a plausible start to my long and storied career as an alarmist, always the first to hit the ground.
The moment probably says more about the enduring power of the Grimms' fairy tales than any personal neuroses. What sent me into such a seizure was a Disney cartoon retrospective. My first shock came at the face of Snow White's stepmother—all arched boomerang eyebrows, cutting cheekbones, and unhinged fury. (Ultimately, of course, she is much more beautiful than the moonfaced Snow White.) But it was the Pied Piper who pushed me over the edge. The only lesson I took when I dropped and rolled was the haunting lesson every kid fears most: Some curses can't be lifted and some villains succeed. Children, it turns out, can simply disappear.
The fact that the sucker punch of the Grimms' stories could survive even Disney's neutered translation suggests the way the tales can still throw down their own kind of curse. Sure, there is usually a happy ending. But before the wedding comes a cavalcade of our fears, marching out like the seven pitiless dwarfs: abandonment, infanticide, boiling cauldrons, chopped limbs, witches warped and creaking like old wood. And those missing children. Where did they go?
The fear was still haunting enough to make me pause before opting to drive the official Fairy-Tale Road. The route, often dismissed as the gooey epicenter of Teutonic kitsch, is worth reconsidering. Twisting approximately 370 pastoral miles north of Frankfurt, mostly through the back roads of Hesse and Lower Saxony, before petering out in Bremen, it reveals one of the most underrated pockets of a German dreamscape. And there is no better time to go: 2012 is the bicentennial of volume one of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's and Household Tales, the collection that includes Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, The Pied Piper of Hameln, Snow White, and Rapunzel and which launched the Grimms' lifework as aggregators of fables. The route follows both the trail of the brothers' evolving careers and the tales themselves. If the villages and castles (some now converted, timed to the bicentennial, into chic schloss hotels) look twee enough to inspire fairy tales—the pitch made by every European pit stop boasting a thatched cottage or two—this time, at least, you know the claim is justified. That adds its own kind of gravitas. The winding backdrop for so many of our earliest shared stories and nightmares is an example of that thing travelers always hunt for: the place as bona fide muse.
So I set out, on a cloudless mid-July day, nerves steady. Behind me was Frankfurt, the shiny, largely rebuilt city, as anodyne and familiar as a strip mall, and ahead was the same scary trip all lost boys and girls make—and the proof you shouldn't leave home—into the bramble, the forest, the strange place. At least I was seasoned enough to know that every journey features its own bogeyman or two, even if it's just the stranger in the window seat next to you unwrapping a really big sub sandwich. My first stop, in Steinau, was an apt start to the route, because it began with the storytellers themselves.