Grim, grimmer, Brothers Grimm: German traditional fairy-tales and their secret backgrounds

There are fairy-tales all around the world, and quite a few of them have been made into Disney movies, but no cultural heritage has been as successfully disneyfied as the German. Everybody knows Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, and most modern kids that re-tell the stories will go for the animated version.

The one that, understandably, is cleaned of sexual harassment, teenage pregnancies, mothers trying to eat their own kids, pigeons pecking out the eyes of young women and other nasty occurrences. The original stories tend to be brutal and straightforward nightmarish.

A fact that the two most famous fairy-tellers in Germany were well aware of. Between the first edition of 1815 and the latest edition of 1857, their revolutionary collection of more than 200 German folk tales, the “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (children- and household tales) changed from a bare-bone collection of traditional tales into an actual reading book for well-off, bourgeois families all over Germany.

The lifetimes of the brothers Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) occurred in one of the most dramatic periods in German history. The country didn’t exist as a nation, but was splintered in literally hundreds of small states that were ruled by tiny aristocracies of very different character. 1848 saw a massive attempt to unify the nation as a republic, which saw a lot of royalist and conservative counter-movements. One of them was essential to the success of the Grimm’s fairy-tale collection: The very strong Biedermeier era between 1815 and 1848. After the Napoleonic wars, the growing urban middle class grew wealthier and more influential, creating a climate in which art, literature and music flourished. They, however, did look for uplifting, moralising entertainment and despised political statements. Artists and writers took care to stay clear of controversial topics.

A collection of traditional, wholesome and educating fairy-tales was a perfect fit. The original editions, dominated by the rather rational, scientific mindset of Jacob Grimm, were far too rough around the edges. His brother Wilhelm changed the tonality, smoothed the language and deleted tales that were likely to touch middle-class sensitivities or disturb religious feelings.

“How the children played slaughter” is one of these stories: Two children watch their father butcher a pig and replay the action as a child’s game. One brother actually murders the other, witnessed by the mother who is bathing her baby in the house. The mother rushes out to punish her murderous son, stabbing him in the process. Shocked and distressed she hurries back into the house, where her baby drowned in the bath water. A nightmare!

In the original version of Snow White the girl is just 7 years old when not her stepmother, but her actual mother orders the huntsman to “stab her to death and bring me back her lungs and liver as proof of your deed. After that I’ll cook them with salt and eat them”. Cannibalism is a rather common topic for the first edition of “Grimm’s children and household tales”, and most of it vanished from the later editions. Most evil mothers were switched to be stepmothers, which surely resonated more positively with the Biedermeier audience, but also reflected on the times, when women had a high risk of death during child birth and quite often the fathers would indeed bring a stepmother into the household. It was not uncommon that the new stepmother would be so young that she might have been close in age to the older daughters, so conflicts of all sorts had to happen.

In the older editions Rapunzel complains to Mother Gothel, after repeated visits of her prince: “Why are my clothes becoming too tight? They don’t fit me any more.” This, as well, is censored in later versions and of course has no space in the Disney version “Tangled”, where a frying pan, not any sexual intercourse, dominates the relationship between long haired maiden and saviour.

While Wilhelm Grimm was willing to adjust their famous publication to the common taste of the audience (and fight this through with his reluctant brother), the reason Jacob gave in was probably the origin of the collection in the first place.

While the foreword of the first books suggests that the two academics went on a research trip, listening to grandmothers and other original sources, this was far from the truth. Both of the brothers were far from adventurous, so much that Wilhelm Grimm once exclaimed “if I want to go for a walk, I do it in literature, not in the forest.”

The actual collectors were acquaintances that sent tales they knew in letters. Many of these contributors were famous scholars and authors, among them names like Clemens Brentano, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff or Achim von Arnim. Most of these people were highly educated, imaginative and talented writers, so there are reasons to assume that the fairy-tales that made it into the Grimm’s book in the end were not quite as authentic as they seemed. This might have made the rather pedantic Jacob Grimm willing to compromise.

For English speakers interested in the first edition, featuring the comprehensive bloodshed and horror, the 2014 translation by Jack Zipes, professor at the University of Minnesota, is the right one. The Guardian had an interesting interview with him.

For those who want even more action, blood and maybe a little gore, the American TV show “Grimm” might be the right choice. It turns the two quiet academics into monster hunters and follows their descendants in modern American cities, fighting supernatural crime and the attacks by gruesome creatures called “Wesen”. Nothing better than a good German word to make something very normal sound horrific. “Wesen” indeed means nothing but “being”.

The Grimmwelt in Kassel

The city of Kassel in Central Germany was hometown to the Grimm Brothers for a long time, although they did not like it all too much. “Boring, uninspiring and village-like” they called it in letters to friends – but Jacob held a good income as the librarian of King Jerome, who ruled in Kassel after being installed by Napoleon. Wilhelm, of ill health, couldn’t hold down a steady job. The brothers looked after each other and worked together on their academic projects.

Today, Kassel claims to be “the Grimm city”. They honour their former residents with an extraordinary museum, the “Grimmwelt”. A fascinating exhibition shows the whole world of the two brothers, and it manages to at the same point disappoint and inspire visitors who come because of the fairy-tales.

Jacob and Wilhelm are the fathers of German studies as we know it today. Their methodological and highly structured approach to language as cultural heritage was an achievement that may well have contributed to Germany finding together as one nation in the 19th century. The passion of the two brothers went far beyond fairy-tales to language as a whole, and their less famous, but very likely even more influential work as scientists led to the first comprehensive German dictionary, the “Deutsches Wörterbuch”. The Grimms started working on it in 1838, from 1840 they were employed and sponsored by the Prussian King, who put great emphasis on creating unified rules for the German language.

The dictionary was an effort worth of Sisyphos, finally finished in 1963 (!), leading to the start of the next edition right away. Language changes, and the DWB (Deutsches Wörterbuch) aims to be comprehensive – featuring language from medieval times as well as modern terms, including etymology, word history and local dialects.

The Grimmwelt in Kassel focuses on this side of the Brothers Grimm. The DWB found 10,000 buyers in the very first print run 1854 and right away caused massive controversy. The reason? The Grimm brothers were keen on delivering a comprehensive collection of German vocabulary. That included colourful swearwords and vulgar terms that the educated classes did not expect in a work of science. “This dictionary is not an immoral book, but a scientific undertaking”, Jacob Grimm responded in the foreword of the first edition. “Even the Bible does not lack for words that are frowned upon in fine society.”

The Grimms kept working on the dictionary until their dying day. Jacob died 1863 while working on the entry for “Frucht” (fruit). His death makes it impossible for me to finish this article with the traditional ending of German fairy-tales, which is sad, because it is so wonderfully poetic. “Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind”, are these words, “dann leben sie noch heute.” Translation: And if they haven’t died, they are still alive today. What’s “and they lived happily ever after” compared to that?

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