An explorable forest of Grimm fairystories
This a 360 video of a 3D forest in which each tree represents one of the folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm in their 'Household Tales'. Attached to each tree is a snippet of audio from the stories, so as you walk through the forest you are surrounded by the tales.
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The forest is built on an analysis of the language in the stories. The height of the ground is determined by the uniquely Grimm words used in the story, the type of tree by the trope classification of the story, the life of the tree by that story's popularity.
Below is a much simpler visualisation to give some idea of the shape and data of the forest.
A Grimm vocabulary
We all have some sense of what constitutes a fairy story: princesses, dragons, castle, forests, wolves. But any reader of Grimm's stories will tell you that the actual tales are often very different. What is it about them that makes them distinctive to modern readers? And do they match our preconceived ideas?
A word count easily tells you the most frequently occurring words in the Grimm folktales. By then removing the most common words in English we are left with a list of words that stand out as particularly Grimm to modern ears.
These are the top fifty Grimm words (sized by count, verbs & duplications removed):
King, forest, gold, maiden, castle, fox, huntsman, wolf, princess. The list reads like a Grimm story in precis. All the usual suspects are there. But what is just as interesting is what is not there.
There are no fairies in these fairy stories:
There are, in fact, very few purely supernatural beings or concepts in these top 50 words. Even beings who often appear in the stories in supernatural roles, like 'witch' (with a count of 67) and 'dwarf' (62), fail to make the cut. Although it should be noted that a fair number of those wolves, fish and foxes - in fact most of the animals - can talk, both with each other and with humans. Not to mention get married, play instruments and dispense worldly wisdom.
However, the world of the stories is very human. While the human protagonists might journey through the wilderness encountering talking animals and magical events, their concerns are with the world they have come from, the civilised world of little kingdoms and peasant farmers. Above all the stories are about the social, economic and relationship concerns of human society.
The clichés of the fairy story are fully in place. These are frequently stories in which low status protagonists, often male, undergo adventures that raise them to the pinnacle of society.
But there is little in between. The only bourgeois profession here is the tailor - often a trickster figure of mischief. These are stories of a peasant agricultural society of petty kingdoms where only the working and ruling classes exist.
In fact, in reading the stories, it becomes evident that, for all the kings, even the aristocrats barely exist. Castles and palaces often seem to be farmhouses on a grand scale - just kitchens and halls - their business curiously humdrum and small scale. These are stories told by peasants to peasants about peasants.
And this becomes even more evident as you explore the forest.
Walking between the trees, catching words and phrases as you pass, you begin to become aware of the stories not as individual tales but as parts of a broader landscape of story. These tales are all linked by tropes and themes, subjects and shape. They are expressions that come from a very particular place - that nineteenth century rural German life. But in their fantasy they reach beyond that specific to the wider general.
These strange and unexpected stories are the product of very ordinary people - they are their attempts to think about and prepare for the strange and unexpected events of ordinary life. It is because of this, because they deal with subjects we all have to deal with, but with insight and wonder and glee and deep weirdness, that we still read them, ponder them and tell them, two centuries later.