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.
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.
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.
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.