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The Brothers Grimm - German scholars

Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859) Grimm were born in Hanau, near Frankfurt. They were bright German teenage stud­ents at the University of Marburg in 1802-6, following their lawyer father. But they were faced with financial issues and caring for their four younger siblings, for years after their par­ents died.

Their situation was aggravated by the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Wilhelm passed his law exams and found work as a librarian in the royal library, but Jacob interrupted his studies to serve the Hes­sian War Com­m­ission. And when the French occupied Kassel in 1807, Jacob lost his War Commission posit­ion and was hired as a librarian for Napoleon’s brother Jerome, Westph­alia’s new ruler.

 Jacob (standing) and Wilhelm Grimm, c1850.

Ironically the brothers were inspired by the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Amid the political and social turbulence, as France conquered Germanic lands, German speakers had to now live under French control. Only then were the Grimms driven to pursue their own national heritage.

The brothers were also inspired by German Romantic authors and philosophers who believed that the purest forms of culture could be found in stories shared between parents and children. Since story­telling expressed the authentic essence of Ger­man cul­t­ure, they had to reach as far back as possible to discover its true origins.

University of Marburg Prof Friedrich Karl von Savigny sparked the Grimms’ interest in German hist­ory, lit­erature and phil­ology i.e study of historical language. Savigny introduced the brothers to his scholarly circle of Clemens Brentano and Ach­im von Arnim who also wanted to redis­cov­er and preserve Volks poetry.

The Grimms published art­ic­les and books on med­iev­al liter­ature, linguistics and librarian­ship. Trained in historical texts, they also wrote books about mythology. In 1808, Clemens Brentano asked them to collect all types of folk tales, to use them in a book of liter­ary fairy tales. In 1810 they sent him 54 texts which they copied; alas Brentano then lost the manus­cr­ipt in Alsace’s Ölenberg Monastery.

As indus­t­rialisation emerged in Central Europe, local trad­itions changed. So the brothers decided to publish their own coll­ect­ion, recording whatever tales they could, some­times embell­ish­ing them, but NOT writing them de novo. In 1812 they published the 86 stories in a collection tit­l­ed Nursery and Household Tales, now Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812).

The most famous collection of children's stories actually be­gan as an academic study for adults, NOT meant for chil­dren. The stories often included sex, incest, violence and oth­er dark elem­ents. And they did not have any illust­rat­ions. The early editions, for example, contained a Rapunzel who be­came preg­nant by a prince after a casual fling. In fact the first stor­ies such as The Child­ren of Famine, had noth­ing to do with hap­py endings. Rather they were stark narratives about brutal living conditions in the early C19th!

Brentano again asked the Grimms for their help in combing library shelves for folk­­ tales. The brothers found some texts in books, but they also focused on oral traditions, seeking storytellers from their frien­ds. Most of them were women, in­c­luding Dorot­hea Wild who later married Wil­helm and had four children.

The Grimm brothers didn’t actually create their own famous stor­ies. There were many different accounts of the same story. Cind­er­ella, for example, appeared in ancient China, ancient Egypt and modern West Indies, although the details changed accord­ing to cultural origins. In the Grimm ver­s­ion, the step-sisters reacted very brutally when the prince came to find the dainty foot to fit his slipper.

Modern literature could not express the gen­uine essence of Volk culture that emanated naturally from German history. So the Grimms intended to trace cultural evolution and to demonstrate how natural language, stem­m­ing from the needs, customs and rituals of the common people, helped forge civilised communities. Their resulting Educat­ion­al Manual recalled the basic val­ues of the Germanic people and bequeathed their oral tales, creating German nationalism.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

The 2nd volume foll­owed in 1815 with famous stories that repeated Snow White, Hansel & Gretel, The Golden Goose, Little Red Rid­ing Hood and Cinderella. But now the brothers had made the coll­ection more suitable to ch­ild­ren by alt­er­ing the language of the stories. Wil­helm took over as editor on all fut­ure editions of Tales.

Certain tales were deleted or downgraded. Death and the Goose Boy was omitted because of its baroque literary quality; The Step­mother, because of its cruelty; Puss in Boots because the story was con­sid­ered too French to be included in a German collect­ion and Faith­ful Animals, because it came from a collection of Mongolian tales. The stories in the first edition were therefore closer to Germany’s oral tradition than the later editions.

By 1830 the brothers worked at Gött­ingen Uni, teach­ing Germanic Studies. Sadly King Ernest Augustus of Hanover demanded oaths of alleg­iance from all  Gottingen professors. The brot­hers refused to pledge to the king and, together with five other professors, the Gottingen Seven were made to leave the city, facing dep­ortat­ion and bankruptcy.

In 1840, the brothers decided to settle in Berlin where they became members of the Royal Academy of Science. They soon accepted an ambitious project, a compre­h­ensive dictionary of the German language.

Their collection was reaching its 7th edition in 1859 when Wilhelm died. By that point, the collection had grown to 211 stories and in­t­ric­ate ill­ustrations were now added to the books. Jacob, who had lived with Wilhelm and his wife, was heart­broken after the death of his beloved brother. Jacob died in 1863 and the brothers were bur­ied next to each other in St Matthäus Kirchhof Cemet­ery in Berlin-Schöneberg. As were two of Wilhem's sons.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm lived from 1791-8 in Steinau. 
Their former home is now a museum that presents their life and work. 

Over 40-years, 7 editions of the folktales were pub­lished, the final 1857 edition being the best known. By then they’d expanded the prose and mod­if­ied the plots to make parts of the tragic stories more acc­essible to children. Marking the bicentenary in 2012, the special events included the release of The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Maria Tatar ed).

Thanks to National Endowment for the Humanities, 2015 


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