How the Brothers Grimm Saved Storytelling

Did you know the Brothers Grimm originally wanted to study law? Or that they began Germany’s largest dictionary? Today, let’s learn about the Brothers Grimm!

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Early Life

Jacob and Wilhelm, commonly known as the Brothers Grimm, were born in Hanau, Germany, in the late 1780s. They were the second and third oldest siblings of six children, and their father, Philipp Grimm, worked as a lawyer. This allowed the large family to live fairly comfortably until 1796 when Philipp Grimm died of pneumonia. This launched the Grimm family into poverty that would affect the brothers’ lives in college and haunt them into their careers.

Introduction to Folklore and Fairy Tales

When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began attending the University of Marburg in 1802, they originally intended to study law, not literature. However, the people that they would meet there are what would get them interested in folklore. Notably, Friedrich von Savigny, one of their law professors, sparked an interest in philology and oral histories. This relationship with Savigny would lead to the Brothers Grimm to begin studying medieval German literature. Savigny would also introduce them to other German romantics, including Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Jacob Grimm would even work as Savigny’s research assistant in Paris until he had to leave to financially support his family.

A portrait of Friedrich von Savigny
IMAGE VIA HUMBOLDT UNIVERSITÄT ZU BERLIN

This is when the Brothers Grimm began collecting folk tales and oral traditions. They would seek out these traditional stories not only to share them with friends but also to write them down as an act of preservation. Many of the tales that we credit to the Grimms have actually been around for centuries, passing from parent to child in an oral tradition. There are probably hundreds of different versions of Cinderella somewhere out there.

The Grimms are so notable because they took the time to collect, translate, edit, and, most importantly, write down, as many folk tales as they could. In their pursuit, the Grimms asked anyone and everyone they knew for stories, from peasants to aristocrats. Although some of the variations between retellings may have been lost when the tales were written, the Brothers Grimm effectively rescued countless stories from fading into obscurity.

Kinder-und Hausmärchen

If there are so many different versions of these fairy tales, why do we keep coming back to the Brothers Grimm? Probably because they made it nice and easy to find their tales, which are compiled into their 1812 anthology, Kinder-und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales. This book contained over 200 tales by its seventh and final 1857 edition, including classics like Cinderella, The Frog Prince, and Hansel and Gretel. The aim was to release the stories for the entertainment of both adults and children.

Children's and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm
IMAGE VIA DEUTSCHES HISTORISCHES MUSEUM

Most of the Grimm’s previous work had just been written to preserve the stories, so Children’s and Household Tales was their first time actually writing for children. However, several people found this anthology inappropriate for children, especially with sexual references like Rapunzels’ premarital pregnancy after she meets her prince. This and other references were removed in later editions.

What makes the Grimms’ versions of fairy tales really stand out is their emphasis on violence. Like other authors of fairy tales, the Grimms focused on morality by rewarding good behavior and ruthlessly punishing bad behavior. One of the most well-known examples is probably when Cinderella’s stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by her birds. The Grimms are also known for their cunning protagonists. Instead of writing about helpless damsels in distress, the Grimms wrote most of their protagonists with the brains to get out of the situations they got into.

Other Works

Although the Brothers Grimm are most well known for their fairy tales, they wrote much more between their first edition of Children’s and Household Tales and their deaths in 1859 and 1863. Deutsche Sagen, published in 1816 and again in 1818, was a collection of local history and legends. The brothers also translated Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland in 1826.

Three volumes of the Deutsches Wörterbuch by the Brothers Grimm
IMAGE VIA DW

One of the Grimms’ biggest contributions to literature was their work on the Deutsches Wörterbuch, an extensive and historical dictionary of the English language. The Grimms began this project in 1838 and published the first edition in 1854. After they died, the dictionary continued to be developed by others as late as the 2000s

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