Brothers Grimm fairy tales were never meant for kids

The world's most famous collection of children's stories began as an academic study for adults, when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected German folklore in the 1800s.

By Isabel Hernández
Published 25 Sept 2019, 11:39 BST
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of German folktales, first published in 1812, were much edgier than ...
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of German folktales, first published in 1812, were much edgier than their modern day subversions – but were in many cases subversions of earlier folklore.

Folktales are as old as human civilisation itself. A synthesis of the spoken and the scripted, a fusion of different accounts of the same story. The story of Cinderella, for example, appeared in ancient China and in ancient Egypt. Details in the telling change depending on the storyteller’s cultural origins. In Egypt, her slippers are red leather, while in the West Indies, breadfruit, not a pumpkin, is the transformative object. The story of Cinderella that appears in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of German folktales, first published in 1812, might shock those familiar with today’s version of a scullery maid turned princess.

In the brothers Grimm telling, the heroine is called Aschenputtel, and her wishes come true not from the wave of a fairy godmother’s wand but from a hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave, which she waters with her flowing tears. When the prince comes to find the dainty foot that will match the single slipper (which is gold, not glass), the stepsisters do not shove and shriek but dismember, one cutting off her big toe to try and make the shoe fit, the other cutting off part of her heel. And at the story’s close, Cinderella’s wedding to the prince includes two white birds, which rather than cheerfully tweet Cinderella on her way to happily ever after, peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. 

Dorothea Viehmann shares her stories with the Grimms. 19th-century oil painting by Louis Katzenstein
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The brothers Grimm published what would become one of the most influential and famous collections of folklore in the world. Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder und Hausmärchen), later titled Grimm’s Fairy Tales, are childhood-defining stories. The Grimms, however, had curated the collection as an academic anthology for scholars of German culture, not as a collection of bedtime stories for young readers.

Amid the political and social turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), as France conquered Germanic lands, Jacob and Wilhelm were driven by nationalism to highlight their homeland and heritage. They were inspired by German Romantic authors and philosophers who believed that the purest forms of culture, those that bonded a community, could be found in stories shared from generation to generation. Storytelling expressed the essence of German culture and recalled the spirit and basic values of its people. By excavating Germany’s oral traditions, the brothers urgently sought to “preserve them from vanishing . . . to be forever silent in the tumult of our times.” 

Once upon a time

As their collection of stories gained popularity, the brothers Grimm drastically edited or even deleted more than 40 tales in subsequent editions to appeal to a wider—and younger—audience. The world-famous collection has been translated into more than 160 languages.
Photograph by North Wind Picture, Alamy, ACI

Like Cinderella and many of the characters in their folktales, the story of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is a rags-to-riches one. The brothers were born one year apart in Hanau, in the Holy Roman Empire’s state of Hesse-Kassel (in present-day Germany, near Frankfurt). In 1796, just a few days after Jacob, the eldest, turned 11, their father died suddenly of pneumonia, plunging the once middle-class family of six children into poverty. Two years later, Jacob and Wilhelm left home to attend high school in Kassel, a privilege made possible by their aunt’s financial support. The inseparable pair shared the same diligent work habits, studying for up to 12 hours a day.

After graduating, Jacob moved to Marburg in 1802 to study law at the university; Wilhelm followed a year later. Most of the students from wealthier families received a tuition stipend, but the Grimms’ drastic change in financial circumstance and thus social status meant that they had to pay for their own education. But this setback later proved fortuitous. As Jacob later wrote in his autobiography, “Sparseness spurs a person to industriousness and work.”

The pair had entered the university intending to echo their father’s career in law and civil service. But identifying with the hardworking “folk” whose language and stories they would later preserve and publish, they instead discovered a vocation that would define their lives and their legacy.

Finding folk tales

Friedrich Karl von Savigny, a professor at the University of Marburg, sparked Jacob and Wilhelm’s interest in German history and literature and the new field of philology, the study of language in historical texts. Savigny introduced the brothers to his scholarly circle of Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, German writers influenced by Johann Gottfried von Herder, a philosopher who called for a rediscovery and preservation of Volkspoesie, the people’s poetry.

Clemens Brentano, 19th-century portrait by Emilie Linder
Photograph by Akg, Album

In 1805 Jacob worked as Savigny’s assistant in Paris, collecting documents on German customs, law, and literature. Jacob and Wilhelm were prolific letter-writers during their rare times apart, and while in Paris, Jacob wrote to Wilhelm in Marburg of his desire to devote his life to the study of German literary history.

Arnim and Brentano had published a collection of old German folk songs, and Brentano, wanting to continue his philological pursuits, asked the Grimms for their help in combing library shelves for folktales. The brothers found some texts in books, but they also focused on oral traditions, seeking out storytellers in friends and acquaintances. Most of them were women, one of whom, Dorothea Wild, would later marry Wilhelm. The person who contributed the most to the Grimms’ collection was Dorothea Pierson Viehmann, whose father owned a popular inn near Kassel. She shared the many tales that travellers had told to her.

A happy ending

Brentano did not use the 54 tales that Jacob and Wilhelm sent him in 1810, but Arnim urged them to publish their collection nonetheless. Published in 1812, Children’s and Household Tales was not an immediate success. Even so, the brothers’ subsequent publications of philological research— two volumes of German legends and one of early German literary history, among others—cemented their reputation as innovative scholars in the field.

Over a 40-year span, seven editions of the folktale collection were published. The final edition, published in 1857, is the best known and is notably different from the first in both style and content. The brothers asserted that they collected the stories with “exactness and truth,” without adding embellishment or details of their own. In later editions, Wilhelm expanded the originally shorter, sparser prose and modified plots to make parts of the dark, tragic stories more accessible to children. (See also: Ten things you didn't know about Aladdin.)

Beginning in 1815, illustrations were added to the books. The stories in the first edition are thus more faithful to the oral tradition than those in the last, which, together with Wilhelm’s adaptations, offered a more literary approach.

The Evil Queen is a guest at Snow White’s wedding, as shown in a 1910 illustration by Franz Juttner. In the Grimm version of the tale, the queen is punished for her crimes against the princess by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and to dance until she drops down dead.
Photograph by Alamy, Cordon Press

The Grimms had not intended to publish a book of folktales. They wanted to resurrect the German oral tradition, but in the process, they ultimately curated a culturally encompassing collection of tales. Though the brothers became a household name because of it, Children’s and Household Tales was part of a bigger pursuit, to excavate and preserve the oral and written forms of German culture, to restore this treasure to the people.

As philologists, collectors, researchers, and editors, the brothers helped establish the methodology of collecting and documenting folklore. Their pioneering, scientific approach changed the course of historical linguistics, setting a standard worthy of imitation.


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