By Melanie Zimmer
When I first began telling stories, the ones I struggled with the most were the fairy tales. They were fascinating; they were plentiful; they were in the public domain, and yet, they eluded me. The difficulty for me was the same dilemma the entertainer faces when presenting a historical event. Many pieces of folk and fairy lore cannot be told as they are written. They must be changed or the presenter will loose the audience. And yet, changing a piece of folklore somehow seemed unethical. It seemed to me the very things that help define a fairy tale, are the very things that make it untellable - the lack of character names, the lack of a location, the lack of a specific time. The lack of the kind of detail that brings a story to life is the hallmark of a fairytale. So often these stories seem little more than skeletons that lack the flesh of character development, or a grounding in a place and time.
Because of these factors, I did not tell fairy tales for many years. Some people would say, “Oh, but these stories belong to the oral tradition, and therefore we are free to change them. It keeps them fresh and alive. These remain living stories through our changes,” but I did not feel entirely comfortable with the idea of “re-creating” age old stories. So perhaps because of this dilemma, the Brothers Grimm whom we recognize as two of the world’s most prolific folklorists have become figures of great interest for me.
here are many dilemmas a storyteller can have about a tale. I have occasionally sought answers to questions such as “are these stories intended for children”? Wilhelm Grimm writes “We really wished the “Fairy Tales” to be an educational book, since I know nothing that is more nourishing, more innocent and refreshing for childlike powers and nature.” Jacob Grimm writes that these stories are to be read by “adults and serious people.” Unfortunately, Jacob and Wilhelm were writing about the same book!
The Spartan simplicity of the language used by the Brothers Grimm seems to stem from their belief in the common people. They, especially Jacob, believed that profound thoughts must be conveyed simply. The tales, they believed, should be told in the same direct way they were told by the common people. They had no desire to add beautiful or complex language to the text. The stories were to be representative of “das Volk”. They attempted to convey the feelings of simplicity, nobility, greatness, innocence and virtue through the stories as they were told by the common people. This was a new concept in German writing and had great appeal to those who were influenced by Romanticism.
The Brothers Grimm became fine scholars early in life, paying meticulous attention to detail. They were formally educated, but also taught themselves to read a variety of languages on their own including Old High German, Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Sanskrit, Spanish and others. Their linguistic skills were such that they could read, perhaps a dozen languages, over hundreds of years’ of variations. Jacob believed in accuracy and attention to detail. He did not seem to understand why others may not harbor the same language abilities as they did, and Jacob could be found resistant to creating translations to make stories or poetry available for the general public. To not read a work in its original form, appeared to Jacob, to be the result of sloppy or lazy reading. Because of this belief, and the idea that works should not be altered, some of their contributions belonged more to the scholarly world than the general public. Wilhelm, however, was happy to translate works into German and seemed more willing to make works accessible to the main stream population.
Jacob and Wilhelm’s lives were intricately interwoven with folklore. Fortunately, both men left abundant letters describing their lives, work and beliefs, and because of this, we are able to gain a bit of insight into their lives and work.
Few have had such a great impact on literature as the Brothers Grimm who have left such works as “The Children’s Household Tales” (Kinder- und Hausmarchen) also known as “Fairy Tales” published in 1812, “German Heroic Tales” published in 1829, German Grammar (1819 and 1822), “German Mythology” published in 1835, and finally, the “German Dictionary.” The brothers collected and published over two hundred stories during their lives and their work has been published into more than 140 languages. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are known to the German people as great philologists, and to the world as great folklorists. The Brothers Grimm elevated the stories told by the common people to the level of literature, and made the common culture of the German people a subject of respectability and greatness at a time when the culture of the German peoples were thought to be sorely lacking in literary history. By popularizing the common German folklore, these stories, told around the world even today, became a source of pride and patriotism. The Brothers Grimm, it must be remembered, lived and worked through the French occupation and remained intensely patriotic to their own people as did many others. Their work arrived at a time when German speaking people desperately needed to hold German culture and “literature” (I use quotation marks as most of their folk and fairy tales stemmed from the oral tradition and not literary sources) as examples of what was good and worthy.
Jacob Grimm was born on January 4, 1785 in Hesse-Cassel (Kassel) not far from Frankfurt. His parents were Philipp Wilhelm Grimm and his mother was Dorothea Zimmer Grimm. Jacob was the second child. His elder brother was born and died in infancy the year before. The next year, on February 24, 1786 Wilhelm Carl Grimm was born. There were eventually other sons, Carl, Ferdinand, and Ludwig, and one daughter, Lotte, born to the Grimms, however only one other Grimm is noteworthy in the field of folklore. Ludwig Emil Grimm (Louis) was to make his living as an artist and many of his illustrations were used after the first publication of the “Fairy Tales” book. The first publication was criticized as lacking in illustrations. Oddly, there was an unrelated Grimm, Albert Ludwig Grimm, in 1809 who also collected folklore stories.
From their earliest days, Jacob and Wilhelm were inseparable although distinctly different in character. Jacob, the older of the two was strong, healthy and introverted. Wilhelm was sickly, poetic, and enjoyed company. In their youth they worked at the same desk together, later sharing desks in the same room. Even when Wilhelm married, they lived together sharing the same study until eventually, they worked in adjacent rooms.
Philipp Grimm, their father, was the town clerk of Hanau, and his father had been the pastor of the Reformed Church in Steinau. His grandfather had also been a clergyman. The family was Reformed Lutheran and when he was young, Jacob too, thought he would become a clergyman.
In 1791 Philipp Grimm became magistrate for Steinau and Schluchtern and the family moved to Steinau where they spent the next seven years.
When Jacob was eleven years old, and Wilhelm ten, their father died in 1796. Later that year, the family developed financial difficulties and had to leave their home and move into a rented house. Dorothea Grimm was a widow with little income to afford a proper education for her offspring. However, Aunt Henriette Philippine Zimmer (Sadly, no relation to the author of this article.) who was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Landgrave of Hesse offered assistance so both Jacob and Wilhelm were able to attend the Lyceum at Cassel in 1798. Jacob’s intellectual interests can be seen in his comment “wasted much time with geography, natural history, anthropology, morals, physics, logic and philosophy while the instruction in philology and history, which should be the soul of all education at the Gymnasium level, was neglected.” Here at the Gymnasium, Jacob and Wilhelm attended six hours of school, in addition to four more hours of private tutoring daily. Perhaps this rigorous course of study set the stage for the brothers’ fine scholarly work habits later in life.
Jacob entered the University of Marburg in 1802 to study law. Wilhelm was seriously ill at the time, but none-the-less was able to follow in 1803 also pursuing a course of study in law as their father had.
It was there at Marburg that Jacob made the connections that would change his life forever, and developed his fascination with folklore. Jacob formed a friendship with Friedrich Karl von Savigny, an instructor at Marburg. On one of his visits, Jacob found some medieval manuscripts in Savigny’s library which gave him his first taste of the type stories that would inspire him for the rest of his life. Both Jacob and Wilhelm became exceedingly well read on their own time during their stay at Marburg. They both developed a life long love of literature, especially of old German literature.
In the summer of 1805 Savigny, an instructor in old German law, invited Jacob to The University of Paris to work as his literary research assistant where he was dong a study on history of Roman Law in the Middle Ages. Jacob had not completed law school, but none-the-less accepted, and traveled to Paris to live with Savigny and his family. During this time, Jacob worked with Savigny and also began his own research, exploring medieval German manuscripts in the Bibliotheque Nationale. At the end of September of the same year, Jacob returned to Marburg with Savigny, and took his brother Wilhelm home for a visit. Jacob had not finished school, but once in Cassel, began to look for work to help support his family. At last, in part because of his French language skills, Jacob was able to secure a position as secretary to the War Ministry (Kriegskollegium) in Cassel, but with poor pay and dreary duties. During this time, Wilhelm continued his law studies at college, and Jacob served as the main provider for the family.
Also during this period, Napoleon created a new kingdom called Westphalia, out of portions of territories that had belonged to Prussian Brunswick, Hannover and Hesse, and Cassel was selected as its capital. Napoleon’s brother Jerome was installed as king. Wilhelm, having completed his examinations, and Jacob, both found themselves unemployed during the year1807 and they began to experience financial problems. At last, in desperation, Jacob applied to King Jerome as librarian at one of Cassel’s city libraries, but was not hired. The following year, Dorothea Grimm, who had had a small widow’s pension, died, and the entire family was without any form of income. At last, in 1808, Ludwig began working as an illustrator for the journal “Trosteinsamkeit,” and Jacob received a position as librarian for King Jerome’s private library at the castle in Wilhelmshohe, then called Napoleonshohe. The position, it turned out, provided Jacob with a decent salary while requiring little work from him. Typically, Jacob would spend only two hours a day cataloging books. The library itself was only open to the king and the occasional scholar. This situation allowed Jacob to spend time working on his old German literary interests for many hours a day. The following year, Jacob was appointed auditor to the Council of State and awarded a higher salary, bringing financial stability to the Grimms while still providing him with abundant leisure. That year, in 1808, Wilhelm was seriously ill, and still unemployed, but began studying Norse literature - work which would later bring him much acclaim as a scholar. At last, Wilhelm’s health deteriorated to such a level, that he was sent away for six months of expensive treatments, which created a great financial burden for the Grimms. The Grimms began corresponding with Scandinavian scholars and attempted unsuccessfully to obtain manuscripts of Old Norse poetry during this time. During this period, Wilhelm worked on editing the “Children’s Household Tales,” and translated Scottish and Danish folk tales. Wilhelm began corresponding with scholars as well as contributors to the “Children’s Household Tales.” Wilhelm had prolonged periods of illness, and would work on the collections when he was able to do so over a number of years. At the end of 1809, Wilhelm paid a visit to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the literary figure most admired by the brothers, to ask for support in the form of several forwards. Goethe never honored the request.
“Children’s and Household Tales” was originally published in at Christmastime in 1812 and included eighty-six tales. Many of the stories were collected in Cassel itself. The work of recording stories began with their family, and friends, but soon the Grimm’s reading circle was also involved in the process. The brothers or their helpers would meet with storytellers or simple people over a meal or a drink and record the stories as they heard them. The family of Rudolf Wild, a neighbor of the Grimms, was of significant help in contributing stories to the collection. The daughters of the family proved most helpful as well as their housekeeper called “Old Marie” who is thought to have been the source of one fourth of the stories in the book including the well known tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
The collection and sorting process was long and involved. Despite the help they were given by friends and family, often they would come across variations of literary works that had subsequently become part of the oral tradition. Frequently discovered were variations from “The Arabian Nights” and Perrault stories that were being retold by the peasants. The Grimms chose to include only a handful of literary stories in this collection, some of which they had discovered and copied from old manuscripts they had found in various libraries. It had become habit, that wherever the brothers traveled, they would seek out fairytales from those they met, and search the libraries for old manuscripts which they would then copied by hand. Despite the scholarly ethics of the Grimms, episodes of sexuality and violence that would have been considered offensive for household reading were omitted or instances of violence were altered so that the offender was taught a moral lesson in the end.
“Children’s and Household Tales” was released at a time of military devastation. The army of 600,000 men who had marched on Russia was all but completely annihilated. “Children’s and Household Tales” brought what little joy and happiness could be offered to families at their time of loss. The book was well received.
The next edition of “Children’s and Household Tales” included an additional seventy stories. The Grimms continued to contribute to the world of folklore and philology for the remainder of their lives. Most recently, the Brothers Grimm have been honored by the opening of the Bruder Grimm-museum in Cassel and visitors may now travel through the Marchenstrasse, the Fairy Tale Road.