Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, commonly known as the Brothers Grimm, were not primarily writers but philologists whose names are still as well known in the field of linguistics as they are to readers of fairy tales. Grimm’s Law is a basic rule in the study of Indo-European languages, and the dictionary of the German language is largely their work. Although the fairy tales were always intended to be read by children, they were also meant to represent German culture at its most fundamental level. The Grimms thought that culture at the level of the common people exists in its purest form and is the least influenced by foreign traditions.
During the late eighteenth century, after centuries of cultural stagnation, Germany experienced a cultural renaissance, which brought with it a pride in all things German. The fairy tales were the Grimms’ contribution to that flowering. Theirs remains one of the largest, and certainly the most famous, of national collections. Among the best-known stories are “Hansel and Gretel,” “Snow White,” “The Golden Goose,” “The Goose Girl,” “Rumplestiltskin,” “The Frog Prince,” “The Juniper Tree,” and “Snow White and Rose Red,” and these and many others have become the unquestioned property of childhood in the Western world. In many instances, popular children’s books quickly become dated or are crowded into the background by more recent books, but Grimm’s Fairy Tales remains as popular as when it was first published. New editions of single stories or of the whole collection continue to appear every year.
The term fairy tale is used both for children’s stories that have been created and transmitted orally and for literary stories such as those by Hans Christian Andersen, which imitate the folktale form. The stories of the Brothers Grimm are genuine folktales and as such have certain characteristics. They are inevitably short, they involve obvious parallels and repetitions in structure and language, descriptions are brief and stylized, characters are obvious stereotypes, the setting in place and time is usually vague and generalized, animals can talk, and magic is commonplace. Because they are so stylized, very little practice is needed to learn to tell any folktale effectively. The Grimms refined the language of the stories extensively in the course of the seven editions that were published in their lifetimes, but the fact that the stories remain highly tellable shows their essentially oral nature.
The tales reveal little about the external world, history, culture, class, or politics. They are, however, close to the human unconscious, and they have much to say in symbolic terms about sibling rivalry, intergenerational hostility, human sexuality, ambivalence about the opposite sex, fear of parental desertion, and much else. Because fairy tales usually end happily, the term “fairy tale romance,” came into being, but even the prettiest of fairy tales touch on the darker sides of human nature. Snow White is menaced by her mother’s murderous sexual jealousy, and her triumphant marriage coincides with the mother’s death. It takes no great depth of psychological sophistication to see in the wicked witch, with her pretense of maternal concern covering treacherous intentions and her welcome house that proves to be a death trap, the malign image of the mother, or to see in the noisy, brutal, and stupid giant who seems always to be coming in from outdoors, the malign image of the father. It is this quality of psychological tension that gives the tales their power, not the quaint trappings of the story—castles, beautiful princesses, and talking frogs. It is this quality that also makes them a little uncomfortable. Literary imitations nearly always emphasize the quaintness and avoid the dangerous quality that underlies the...
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