The Brothers Grimm Brought German Folklore to the World

Not just Märchenonkel (Tellers of Fairy Tales)

Red riding hood running from large wolf
Just one of the many Grimm fairytales. Jonathan MCHugh-IkonImages@gettyimages.de

Almost every child knows fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty and not just because of the watered-down Disney movie versions. Those fairy tales are part of Germany's cultural heritage, most of them originating in Germany and recorded by two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Jacob and Wilhelm specialized in publishing the folklore, myths, and fairytales they had collected over many years.

Although most of their stories take place in a more or less medieval world, they were collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, and have long retained their grip on the imagination of children and adults all over the world.

Early Life of the Grimm Brothers

Jacob, born in 1785, and Wilhelm, born in 1786, were sons of a jurist, Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, and lived in Hanau in Hesse. Like many families at the time, this was a large family, with seven siblings, three of whom died in infancy.  

In 1795, Philipp Wilhelm Grimm died of pneumonia. Without him, the family's income and social status declined rapidly. Jacob and Wilhelm could no longer live with their siblings and their mother, but thanks to their aunt, they were sent to Kassel for a higher education

However, because of their social status, they were not treated fairly by the other students, an unfortunate situation that continued even at the university they attended in Marburg.

 Because of those circumstances, the two brothers became very close to one another and deeply absorbed in their studies. Their law professor awakened their interest in history and especially in German folklore. In the years following their graduation, the brothers had a hard time taking care of their mother and siblings.

Simultaneously, both started to collect German sayings, fairytales, and myths.

In order to collect those well-known and widely spread fairy tales and sayings, the brothers Grimm talked to many people in many places and transcribed the many stories they had learned over the years. Sometimes they even translated the stories from Old German into modern German and adapted them slightly.

German Folklore as "Collective National Identity"

The Grimm brothers were not only interested in history, but in uniting a disparate Germany into one country. At this time, "Germany" was more of a conglomeration of about 200 different kingdoms and principalities. With their collection of German folklore, Jacob and Wilhelm tried to give the German people something like a collective national identity. 

In 1812, the first volume of "Kinder- und Hausmärchen" was finally published. It contained many of the classic fairytales still known today like Hänsel and Gretel and Cinderella. In subsequent years, many other volumes of the well-known book were published, all of them with revised content. In this process of revision, the fairytales became more and more suitable for children, similar to the versions we know today.

 

Earlier versions of the tales were rather crude and filthy in content and form, containing explicit sexual content or harsh violence. Most of the stories originated in rural areas and had been shared by farmers and among lower classes. The Grimms' revisions made these written versions suitable for a more refined audience. Adding illustrations made the books more appealing to children.

Other Well Known Grimm Works

Besides the well-known Kinder-und Hausmärchen, the Grimms continued to publish other books about German mythology, sayings, and language. With their book "Die Deutsche Grammatik" (The German Grammar), they were the first two authors who researched the origin and development of the German dialects and their grammatical circumstances. Also, they worked on their most lavish project, the first German dictionary.

This "Das Deutsche Wörterbuch" was published in the 19th century but was really completed in the year 1961. It is still the largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the German language.

While living in Göttingen, at that time part of the Kingdom of Hannover, and fighting for a united Germany, the Grimm brothers published several polemics criticizing the king. They were dismissed from university along with five other professors and also kicked out of the kingdom. First, both lived again in Kassel but were invited to Berlin by the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, in order to continue their academic work there. They lived there for 20 years. Wilhelm died in 1859, his brother Jacob in 1863.

To this day, the Grimm brothers' literary contributions are known all over the world and their work is tightly bound to the German cultural heritage.  Until the European currency, the euro, was introduced in 2002, their visages could be seen on the 1.000 Deutsche Mark bill. 

The themes of Märchen are universal and enduring: good versus evil in which the good (Cinderella, Snow White) are rewarded and the wicked (stepmother) are punished. Our modern versions--Pretty Woman, Black Swan, Edward Scissorhands, Snow White and the Huntsman, etc. show just how relevant and powerful these tales remain today.