Brothers Grimm Grimm, Jacob Ludwig Karl (1785-1863) Grimm, Wilhelm Karl (1786-1859) - Essay

Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm


(Short Story Criticism)

Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm (1785-1863) Wilhelm Karl Grimm (1786-1859)

German philologists and collectors of folk tales.

Renowned for their collection of European fairy tales, entitled Kinder-und Hausmärchen (1812-1815; Grimms' Fairy Tales), the brothers Grimm are additionally celebrated for their study of the Germanic literary tradition. Distinguished philologists, they are credited with rediscovering the richness of Germany's medieval language, literature, and culture in the early nineteenth century. While both brothers individually produced significant works of scholarship, their most enduring literary efforts were produced in collaboration. These include the Deutsches Wörterbuch, a German dictionary, which is recognized as comparable in importance to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Grimms 'Fairy Tales, their world famous collection of folk tales. Transcribed from stories purportedly recounted by peasants in the German countryside, Grimms' Fairy Tales reflects the brothers' effort to preserve the oral tradition of folklore.

Biographical Information

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Hanau, Germany. The death of their father in 1788 and consequent lack of family income required that they be placed in the care of an aunt in Kassel, where they were educated at the Lyceum Fridericianum. Throughout their lives the Grimms shared a close intellectual and emotional relationship. Both studied law at Marburg University in Kassel and both were distracted from their studies by their interest in medieval German literature. Beginning in about 1806 the brothers began collecting oral folklore, which they revised and published as Kinder-und Hausmärchen, a work that Wilhelm considered of minor importance but which proved to be among their finest contributions to literature. In 1816 Wilhelm and Jacob accepted positions in the Library of King Jerome in Kassel. Their duties as librarians allowed them significant time to devote to scholarship and to complete their early collection of essays on folklore, published as Deutsche Sagen (German Legends) in 1816. Both men further established their academic reputations in the ensuing years with the publication of individual works, including Jacob's Deutsche Grammatik (1819-37) and Wilhelm's Die deutschen Heldensage (1829). In 1930 Jacob was offered a position as professor of law and linguistics at the University of Göttingen, while Wilhelm became a lecturer in medieval literature at Göttingen in 1831, acceding to a full professorship in 1835. The brothers' formal protest of the restrictive civil policies imposed by Ernest August of Cumberland, the new King of Hanover, led to their discharge and exile in 1837. Their subsequent financial difficulties following a return to Kassel were ended in 1840, when the Grimms were offered posts at the Berlin Academy of Sciences by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Both lectured on German politics, literature, and folklore, but their principal duty was the compilation of a German entymological dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, a sixteen-volume set that would not be completed until the mid-twentieth century. Jacob published the first volume of the Wörterbuch in 1854. Wilhelm's death in 1859 prevented him from completing his portion of the dictionary, though Jacob produced two more volumes before dying in 1863.

Major Works

The Grimms' two-volume Fairy Tales contains more than 200 folk stories transcribed from the oral tradition of the German peasantry. Among the best known of these tales are such recognizable stories as "The Frog Prince," "Hansel and Gretel," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Snow-White." The stories generally feature medieval settings and concern a variety of characters easily familiar to any schoolchild—beautiful princesses, fools, tricksters, witches, naïve heroes, talking beasts, bumbling craftsmen, fearless boys, and clever girls. Their principal technique is one of exaggeration and dramatic contrast between representations of good and evil, though the tales generally lack the harsh tone of moral didacticism. In large part, these stories preserve the simple, unadorned style of the peasant storyteller. While the core of the works come from Germany, specifically the region of Hesse, many of the tales derive from geographically broader sources and others are literary rather than oral in origin.

Critical Reception

Upon publication, Grimms' Fairy Tales became immediately popular with children. First intended for the student of folklore rather than as entertainment, the tales reflect the brothers' efforts to define their literary heritage. Critics have acknowledged that the Grimms' statements regarding the Fairy Tales indicate their belief that these were authentic expressions of peasant speech. However, modern analysis of Grimms' Fairy Tales has questioned some of the Grimms' methods in collecting and recording these stories. Several critics, including Jack Zipes and John M. Ellis, have contended that Wilhelm's extensive revisions fundamentally contradicted the stated purpose of literary preservation by overlaying the peasant tales with a bourgeois sensibility. Other folklorists have countered that the Grimms' embellishments simply indicate the process of evolutionary change that is fundamental to the oral tradition. While scholars continue to study the appropriate literary and oral significance of the tales, others have sought to formally analyze the individual stories using the techniques of psychoanalysis and cultural criticism. Such interpretations have attributed an assortment of psychosexual and socio-historical themes to the works. Overall, the Grimms' Fairy Tales have provided folklore scholars with valuable information regarding the art of storytelling, and children of every age with fantasy and delight.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Kinder-und Hausmärchen [Grimms' Fairy Tales', also published as Children's and Household Tales, Fairy Tales, and German Popular Stories] (fairy tales) 1812-15

Other Major Works

Altdänische Heldenlieder [by Wilhelm Grimm] (songs) 1811

Über den altdeutschen Meistergesang [by Jacob Grimm] (essay) 1811

Deutsche Sagen [German Legends] (literary history) 1816

Deutsche Grammatik [by Jacob Grimm] (grammar) 1819-37

Über deutsche Runen [by Wilhelm Grimm] (folklore) 1821

Die deutschen Heldensage [by Wilhelm Grimm] (folklore) 1829

Deutsche Mythologie [Teutonic Mythology; by Jacob Grimm] (folklore) 1835-54

Geschichte der deutschen Sprache [by Jacob Grimm] (history) 1848

* Deutsches Wörterbuch [editors] (dictionary) 1854-1961

*This work was completed by Hildebrand, Wiegand, and others.

Max Lüthi (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sleeping Beauty: The Meaning and Form of Fairy Tales," in Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970, pp. 21-34.

[In the following essay, Lüthi analyzes the Grimms' version of "Sleeping Beauty" and considers other variants of the tale.]

Our attitude toward fairy tales (Märchen) is ambivalent. "Don't tell me any fairy tales," we say, in the derogatory sense. Here, the term is only a politer expression for cleverly contrived lies. On the other hand, when we admire something especially beautiful, the word märchenhaft (i.e., like a fairy tale) almost spontaneously comes to mind. Here, it does not mean unreal in the sense of untrue, but in the sense of unearthy or divine. Thus, even in everyday usage, our language suggests both rejection of, and fascination by, the fairy tale.

For centuries, educated people have looked down on popular fairy tales as stories properly belonging in the nursery and the servants' quarters; yet great writers have repeatedly drawn inspiration from them. Great literature of all ages has borrowed from fairy-tale motifs and often exhibited an imaginativeness not unlike that of the fairy tale. In the life of the individual, there are periods when one is fascinated by fairy tales and periods of indifference. After the actual fairy-tale age (between five and ten), there follows a realistic stage during which one is ill-disposed toward fairy tales. Some people persist in this attitude all their lives. But in others, understanding and love for these once-coveted stories returns later in life, not only because now as mothers or grandfathers they themselves are called upon to tell fairy tales, but just as much because they again feel moved by their peculiar charm.

When something has the ability both to attract and repel one so forcefully, one may assume that it deals with fundamentals. One is challenged to take sides, explicitly or implicitly. The role fairy tales play in the lives of children, and the role they played in the lives of adults in the millennia prior to the coming of the printed word, strengthens us in the belief that we are dealing with a peculiar form of literature, one which concerns man directly.

When we speak of fairy tales today, we cannot help thinking of the collection by the Grimm brothers—and this applies not only to the region where German is spoken. Grimm's Fairy Tales, which first appeared in 1812 and 1815, is in many countries the most popular, the most oft-reprinted German book. Even among primitive folk they show their great effect: the Grimm tales missionaries have told to natives in some cases have the power to supplant indigenous tales. In the following passage from "Sleeping Beauty," one of the best-known tales in the Grimm collection, certain basic features of the fairy tale can be discovered. The introductory section reads as follows:

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen and every day they said, "O, if we only had a child!" But they never had one. Now it happened one day while the queen was sitting in her bath that a frog came out of the water, crept ashore and said to the queen, "Your wish will be fulfilled; before a year goes by you will give birth to a daughter." This happened just as the frog had said it would and the queen gave birth to a girl so beautiful that the king was beside himself with joy and ordered a great feast. He invited not only his relatives, friends and acquaintances, but also the Wise Women, so that they would be well-disposed and feel kindly toward the child. There were in his realm thirteen of them, but because he had only twelve golden plates for them to eat from, one of them had to stay at home. The feast was celebrated with great splendor, and when it was over the Wise Women presented the child with their magic gifts. One gave virtue, the next beauty, the third wealth, and thus everything desirable that there is in the world. Just as the eleventh had announced her gift the thirteenth suddenly walked in. She wanted her revenge because she had not been invited, and without a greeting or even a glance at anyone she cried in a loud voice, "The princess shall in her fifteenth year be pricked by a spindle and fall down dead." And without saying another word she turned around and left the hall. Everyone was dismayed. Then the twelfth Wise Woman who still had her wish came forward, and because she could not break the spell but only modify it, she said, "But it will not be death. The princess will fall into a deep sleep that will last for one hundred years."

Everyone knows how the tale goes on from here. The king's decree "that all spindles in the entire kingdom be burned" cannot save the child. When she is fifteen years old, she pricks herself with a spindle (which arouses her interest for the very reason that she has never seen one before), and at once falls asleep under the magic spell, together with the king, the queen, and the whole royal household. All around the palace there grows a dense hedge of thorns. The princes who try to force their way through are caught and held in the thorns, where they suffer greatly. After exactly 100 years, another prince ventures forth. Now, instead of thorns, there are only big, beautiful flowers which separate by themselves, permitting him to pass through unharmed, and then they close again behind him. The prince's kiss brings the sleeping princess back to life again, the whole household awakens with her, and a splendid wedding is celebrated.

The Grimm brothers themselves wondered about the meaning of this fairy tale, which appears in a similar form among other peoples. What is its core, its essence? What does it stand for? Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm saw in fairy tales remnants of ancient myths, playful descendants of an ancient intuitive vision of life and the world. Sleeping Beauty, wonderously endowed and mysteriously threatened, suffers death or a sleep similar to death. But she is awakened again and begins to flourish—and with her, the world about her. Our fairy tale tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of the new day. Processes which eternally recur have taken shape in "Sleeping Beauty"—processes in nature which surrounds man, but also processes in the human soul. Sleeping Beauty is fifteen years old when she comes under the spell: the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood. Every important turning point in development, every transition from one stage of life to another, is felt as a threat. At this age it is natural for the young man to be self-conscious and the young woman retiring, for both sexes to become for a period either shy and withdrawn or caustic, defiant, and unfriendly. A hedge of thorns seems to grow around young people and to shield them from the world. But in the protection such seclusion affords, the youth matures and will awaken to a new, larger, and brighter life.

The characters of the fairy tale are not personally delineated; the fairy tale is not concerned with individual destinies. Nor is it the unique process of maturation that is reflected in the fairy tale. The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than an imaginatively stylized love story portraying the withdrawal of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind. The soul of man again and again suffers convulsions and paralysis and, each time—with luck—it can be revived, healed, redeemed. With luck! The abnormal individual, of course, can also remain in the paralyzed condition, unable to rediscover the fountainhead of life in himself and to reestablish contact with his surroundings. But the fairy tale does not portray the abnormal case, but natural development, and it fills its hearers with the confidence that a new, larger life is to come after the deathlike sleep—that, after the isolation, a new form of contact and community will follow.

This mercy and threat is depicted in a number of variations in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The fairies are both a blessing and a curse for the child; the royal palace is for Sleeping Beauty both paradise and prison; the deathlike sleep both a spell cast upon her and a refuge. The hedge of thorns, which can kill but which finally bursts into bloom with magnificent flowers, expresses most vividly this all-pervading polarity of death and resurrection.

In the dominant image just mentioned (palace and tower, thorns and roses, humans and fairies), there is revealed another peculiar capability of the fairy tale, not just in "Sleeping Beauty," but in the popular fairy tale in general. Despite its brevity, it embraces in its own way the world: nature both dead and living, man and the works of man, and the supernatural. In the beginning of "Sleeping Beauty," the world in its essential elements is already present: animal, man, and material objects all together. Only plants are missing. Not until the later episodes and the development of the tale will trees, thorns, and leaves also grow and flowers burst into bloom. Of the visible elements (the fairy tale clings to what is visible), water and earth are already mentioned in the introductory section. The third, fire, will flare up later on; and wind and breath will also be mentioned. The human world is represented by man, woman, and child. Objects of the workday and those of the festive day will appear: spindles and golden plates. The precious metal, the figures of the king and queen, and the festivities indicate that matters of significance are involved. Human feelings—like privation, longing, grief, joy, horror, hope, bitterness, irritability, vindictiveness, and compassion—are expressed. Loud talk and startled or threatening silence stand side by side, yet words of consolation are also not wanting. Sorrow, mistakes, and helplessness testify to the peril in which even royalty stands. In the figures of the prophetic frog and the fairies who give their blessings and imprecations, a supernatural world, again clearly visible, is joined to the world of man. The fairy tale is a universe in miniature; and since every good work of literature displays its peculiar characteristics even in its individual parts, the tendency of the fairy tale to embody the world is strongly evident even in this brief introduction to "Sleeping Beauty."

We love the fairy tale not only for its wisdom, but the manner in which it is told; its external appearance, which varies from people to people and from narrator to narrator, also delights us. The Grimm brothers' genius for storytelling is likewise evident in the very first part of the fairy tale. The entire first section is based on the motif of prophecy. Once stated, the theme is varied and intensified. The birth of the little girl is heralded by a frog and the Wise Women bestow on her virtue, beauty, wealth, and other miraculous gifts, that is to say, they proclaim all this. But the thirteenth fairy—and here one anxiously holds his breath—prophesies that the princess will die in her fifteenth year. Following this climax—which is strongly underlined by the sudden bursting upon the scene of the fairy who had been neglected, by her short, loud words and her silent departure—the tension in the story gradually subsides. A final variation on the prophecy motif, the conversion of the death pronouncement into the proclamation of the 100-year sleep, relieves the inner tension, but at once gives rise to the question of how and whether the proclamation will come true and what will happen during and after the enchanted sleep. A truly dramatic exposition!

A comparison of the Grimm brothers' original notations with the final version of "Sleeping Beauty" shows what their poetic imagination and genius for language has added. No one familiar with the tale can forget the humorous description of the palace as it sinks into sleep and reawakens. The passage reads:

This sleep spread throughout the palace. The king and queen, who had returned home and had just entered the hall, began to fall asleep along with their entire royal household. The horses, too, fell asleep in their stables, as did the dogs in the courtyard, the pigeons on the roof, and the flies on the wall. Even...

(The entire section is 5204 words.)

M. Schmidt Ihms (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Brothers Grimm and Their Collection of Kinder und Hausmärchen," in Theoria, Vol. XLV, October, 1975, pp. 41-54.

[In the following essay, Ihms details the lives of the Grimm brothers and investigates the political and social dimensions of their fairy tales]

The stories now known as Grimm's Fairy Tales appeared in English translation during the nineteenth century as Popular Stories1 or Household Tales.2 These titles correspond closely to the original German Kinder-und Hausmärchen. When nowadays we refer to the Fairy Tales, or in German to the Märchen, we use...

(The entire section is 6145 words.)

Maria M. Tatar (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Born Yesterday: Heroes in the Grimms' Fairy Tales," in Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, edited by Ruth B. Bottigheimer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, pp. 95-114.

[In the following essay, Tatar discusses the common traits of the Grimms' fairy tale heroes: naiveté, compassion, fearlessness, and humility.]

There comes an old man with his three sons—
I could match this beginning with an old tale.

Shakespeare, As You Like It

Identifying fairy tale heroes by name is no mean feat. In the Grimms' collection, only one in every ten...

(The entire section is 9509 words.)

Ruth B. Bottigheimer (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prohibitions, Transgressions, and Punishments," in Grimms' Bad Girls & Bold Boys: The Moral & Social Vision of the Tales,' Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 81-94.

[In the following excerpt, Bottigheimer probes gender distinctions related to transgression and punishment in Grimms' Tales.]

A general pattern of exculpating men and incriminating women permeates Grimms' Tales. This pattern is clearly evident in the post-1819 versions of "Hansel and Gretel" (no. 15), "Snow-White" (no. 53) and "Cinderella" (no. 21), each of which provides a stepmother who assumes the burden of blame while the father, virtually absent, shoulders no share of the...

(The entire section is 6463 words.)

Joyce Thomas (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tales of the Brothers Grimm: In the Black Forest," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, Children's Literature Association, 1987, pp. 104-17.

[In the following essay, Thomas examines the nature and significance of the Grimms' fairy tales.]

As the great-grandparent of children's literature, fairy tales occupy a privileged place as touchstones for that literature. Basic as the peasant's crusty black bread, they nourish us upon essential sustenance—the fare of elemental story. Especially do the volhmarchen or folk fairy tales—those stories that were once part...

(The entire section is 6128 words.)

Linda Dégh (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Did the Grimm Brothers Give to and Take from the Folk?," in The Brothers Grimm and Folktale, edited by James M. McGlathery, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 66-90.

[In the following essay, Dégh assesses the influence of the Grimms' Kinder-und Hausmärchen.]

Are oral and literary tradition two separate entities which can be studied independently from each other or must their interdependence be taken into consideration when looking at a folklore genre, the Märchen in particular, as it evolved and developed through the ages?

This question touches upon essentials about the nature of folklore and its study. In view of a...

(The entire section is 9841 words.)

Donald Ward (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "New Misconceptions about Old Folktales: The Brothers Grimm," in The Brothers Grimm and Folktale, edited by James M. McGlathery, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 91-100.

[In the following essay, Ward decries the lack of an objective scholarly evaluation of the Grimms' fairy tales.]

One occasionally encounters the contention that the Brothers Grimm were guilty of manipulative deception when they added elements of cruelty to the tale of Cinderella that were not in their sources. The reference is typically to the bloody scene of the stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes in the attempt to make the slipper fit. I find this contention to be somewhat...

(The entire section is 3994 words.)

Jack Zipes (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exploring Historical Paths," in The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1988, pp. 43-61.

[In the following essay, Zipes offers a socio-historical perspective on the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales, examining the ways in which these stories depict the social customs and classes of the German people.]

Inevitably [the characters of Grimm's tales] find their way into the forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves. It is there that they gain a sense of what is to be done. The forest is always large, immense, great, and mysterious. No one ever gains power over the forest, but the forest...

(The entire section is 9395 words.)

Christa Kamenetsky (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Folktale Characters," in The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics: Folktales and the Quest for Meaning, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 81-97.

[In the following essay, Kamenetsky describes folktale character types in the Grimms' tales and presents Wilhelm Grimm's view of the significance of folk stories.]


Mythical and epic origins determined not only the deeper meaning of folktales but also the nature and dimensions of their characters, according to the Brothers Grimm. Folktale characters appeared in many forms, some human, some super-human, some in the shape of birds, fish, animals, plants, trees, or even...

(The entire section is 8087 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Michaelis-Jena, Ruth. The Brothers Grimm. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, 212 p.

Critical biography including an assessment of the Children's and Household Tales and its influence.


Dundes, Alan. "The Psychoanalytic Study of the Grimms' Tales with Special Reference to 'The Maiden Without Hands' (AT 706)." The Germanic Review 62, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 50-65.

Emphasizes the critical value of psychoanalytic readings of the Grimms' tales and offers a principally Freudian interpretation of "The Maiden Without Hands."...

(The entire section is 660 words.)