The tales collected and edited by the Brothers Grimm are the defining instances of Märchen, a term only approximately translated by “fairy tale.” At a time when the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution threatened to make the traditions of oral storytelling disappear, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were able to preserve these tales in written form. Now, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, the tales recounted by the Brothers Grimm are more familiar than any stories except those of the Bible. The literary influence of the collection has been considerable: It has shaped much of subsequent children’s literature and has inspired a great many sophisticated fictions, particularly among the German Romantics, the English Victorians, and the so-called Fabulators of the mid-twentieth century. Most important, however, has been the direct human influence of the tales. The collection epitomizes the psychological wisdom of generations of storytellers, and the tales themselves provide for nearly every child in the West a first map of the territory of the imagination.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born to a rather well-to-do family in a small village in what is now central Germany. Their father was a lawyer, judge, and public servant; however, he died suddenly at the age of forty-four, leaving his widow and his eleven-year-old son Jacob to take care of the other five children. Though times were financially difficult, Jacob and Wilhelm advanced academically, and by 1803 they were both studying law at the University of Marburg. Under the influence of a professor of legal history, the Grimm brothers became interested in the origins of the law and its growth and development in a cultural context. They also took up the study of philology (the investigations of ancient languages and texts) and began a serious inquiry into German folklore and linguistics. In 1825 Wilhelm married Dortchen Wild (who, along with other members of her family, provided the brothers with many of the folktales they would later use in their collections); Jacob never married.
In 1813, after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, Jacob became a member of the local parliament. However, the local German princes regained their power, ending German reunification and democratization. The Grimm brothers took jobs as librarians and, from around 1815 to 1830, produced several books on German legends, legal history, and grammar. However, both brothers lost their librarianships and university teaching opportunities after failing to take loyalty oaths to the local monarchs. By 1840, however, their fortunes had changed, and both were appointed professors at the University of Berlin, where they continued the work they had already begun on their massive Deutsches Wörterbuch (1854; German dictionary). Both became involved in politics again during the German revolution of 1848 and were elected to the local legislature, only to resign when the revolutionary movement collapsed.
The work of the Grimm brothers cannot adequately be appreciated without some understanding of the intellectual and political climate of early nineteenth century Europe. By this time, most of the people and places of the world had been “discovered” by Westerners, though to be sure, much of the details still needed to be filled in. What European scholars at the time faced was a world of almost infinite variety in terms of cultural customs, races, languages, and religious beliefs. The task, then, was to try to put order into this apparent chaos: Why was the world so diverse? Why did people look so different? Why were there so many different languages? Previous answers, often based on biblical stories (such as the Tower of Babel to account for linguistic heterogeneity), were proving inadequate in light of new data coming in from ethnology, geology, and biology.
The American and French Revolutions had also called into question the notion of the monarch state, the role of the governor and the governed, and the nature of the political unit. Who should govern whom? What constitutes a “country”? Does every different group of language speakers deserve to be a separate nation? The work of the Grimm brothers was informed by all these questions.
In 1786 (the year of Wilhelm’s birth), the British legal scholar and Asian specialist William Jones shocked the world by claiming that Sanskrit (the ancient holy language of India) was related to Greek and Latin, having “sprung from a common source which, perhaps, no longer exists.” It had already been well known that many European languages shared a common ancestor in the past (for example, modern Romance languages such as French, Spanish, and Italian were derived from classical Roman Latin). What was startling about Jones’s hypothesis was that he claimed that most of the languages of Europe were also connected to many other languages hitherto thought to be quite dissimilar. This supposed common parent language was termed “Proto Indo-European,” and much of linguistic scholarship in the nineteenth century centered on trying to prove or disprove the Indo-European hypothesis. The Grimm brothers, particularly Jacob, made some important discoveries in this field and helped to establish the now commonly accepted view that the languages of today in the Indo-European family are actually all descendant from a common source.
The Indo-European hypothesis was one of the most critical issues of the nineteenth century. At stake were some of the deepest and strongest convictions held by Europeans: If linguistic affinity between Europe and India could be shown, notions of culture, race, and national identity would have to be reevaluated. Also, European scholars began to wonder just who these Indo-Europeans were, where they might have come from, and what some of their customs and beliefs might have been. It was an attempt to address some of these issues that prompted the Grimm brothers to begin their collection of fairy tales around 1806. They argued that the folktales they were finding had ancient Indo-European origins, and that the Märchen (magic fables or fairy tales) they were finding were survivals from old classical mythology. The characters in the folktales they gathered, then, were the modern remnants of old Teutonic gods and goddesses.
Also, the German Volk (people) in their folklore studies were always the primary focus for the Grimm brothers. In their time, the German-speaking people in northern and central Europe had not yet come together to form a nation-state. Thus, as one translator put it, “from the beginning [the Grimm brothers’] principal concern was to uncover the etymological and linguistic truths that bound the German people together and were expressed in their laws and customs.” In other words, people with a common tongue, a common mythology, and a common set of customs constituted a distinct culture or race deserving their own sovereignty; therefore, the Grimms sought to demonstrate the unity and origins of the Germans through their linguistic and folklore studies.
The Grimm brothers spent about forty years...
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Explain how the differing talents of the Brothers Grimm enabled them to work together effectively.
Offer an explanation of the Grimms’ successful admixture of linguistic study and the creation of fairy tales.
What besides gathering interesting folk material did the Grimms have to do to create fairy tales?
Implausibility does not seem to be a defect in fairy tales. Why not?
Examine the beginnings of several Grimm fairy tales to determine how they avoid clichés.
Do fairy tales need to have morals attached to them? If not, why not?
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Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Random House, 1976. Bettelheim’s book discusses the major motifs and themes of fairy tales from a Freudian psychological perspective, focusing on their meanings for the growing child. He discusses many of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and in part 2 examines in detail eight of the stories still popular today. He includes a useful bibliography, though many of the books listed are in German, and an index.
Dollerup, Cay. “Translation as a Creative Force in Literature: The Birth of the European Bourgeois Fairy-Tale.” The Modern...
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