The Brothers Grimm: Biographies & Fairy Tales

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Armed with a university education, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm set out to show the politically fragmented Germany of the early 19th century that it shared a meaningful past by recording its folktales.

The Brothers Grimm

Romanticism and Scholarship

Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm may not have looked like Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, but they were romantics in the truest sense of the word. Gifted and influential scholars, they were passionately convinced of the value - and importance - of the stories told by ordinary people. Jakob and Wilhelm were born in 1785 and 1786, respectively, in Hanau, just east of Frankfurt, in what is now Germany. The brothers remained close all their life, both going to school in Kassel, and taking up professorships at the University of Göttingen.

Double portrait of the brothers

Influenced by Romanticism, Jakob and Wilhelm believed that collective memory could be expressed in folktales. Germany's recent past was troubled and its future uncertain. The Grimms wanted to convince people - not just politicians - that Germany as a political unit could and should exist. They believed that the stories told by countryside fireplaces could demonstrate this. The Grimms were gifted linguists, and their project made them influential scholars. In later life, the Grimms were also part of the 'Götingen Seven', a group of professors who protested absolutist tendencies in the Kingdom of Hannover where they lived. Although under political censure, they went on to publish further. Their volumes of fairytales remain their most influential legacy.

The Brothers Grimm in the home of Dorothea Viehmann, who told them many stories.
story time

The Grimms had to fight for recognition of their groundbreaking project as 'true scholarship,' a bit like scholars today researching video games and fanfiction. Scholars have debated how much the Grimm brothers may have edited the tales they heard. Current consensus is that the original edition reflects fairly closely the tradition of oral transmission, handing down stories through recitation. The famous 'Once upon a time' suggests the style of a storyteller by a hearth, and so does the less frequently translated 'A mouse has run / My tale is done' (Es rennt ein Maus, die Geschicht' ist aus).

The Fairy Tales: Publication and Reception

Early Reception

The fairytales (or, in the original, 'children's and house stories') of the Brothers Grimm were first published in 1812 and have appeared in multiple versions since. The original version includes many stories not included in later editions. Even the most famous stories include graphic details that were removed from later publications. In the original Cinderella story, for instance, the stepmother tells the stepsisters to cut off their toes or a chunk of their heels, to fit into the dainty shoe. The prince only discovers the substitution when a bird sings 'Blood in the shoe! Blood in the shoe!' In a similarly gruesome vein, the frog prince is transformed not through a kiss, but when the princess throws him against the wall in rage!

Later Editions and Adaptations

The Brothers Grimm were the first to adapt their stories, publishing revised versions in the 1850s. When parts of what is now Germany came under French control, they decided to change the fairies in some of their stories (like ''Briar Rose,'' a version of ''Sleeping Beauty'') to wise women in order to be distinct from French traditions.

The tales of the Brothers Grimm have been frequently adapted and incorporated into other collections, like those of Andrew Lang, a Scottish anthropologist who collected fairytales from many cultures. The Grimms' stories have also seen numerous adaptations for television, including a popular East German version that put ordinary people and their hard work back at the heart of the stories, even when adapting the popular stories about princes and princesses.

The most famous adaptations of Grimms' fairytales, of course, have been made by Disney. These adaptations brought the fairytales to a wider audience than Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm could have imagined, but they removed a lot of sex and violence from the originals. According to the Brothers Grimm, Snow White's evil stepmother dances to her death in red-hot iron shoes. Additionally, Rapunzel is sent from her tower into a vast wilderness when the witch learns that she is pregnant by the prince, whom the witch then blinds.

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