Grimms' Fairy Tales Grimm, Jakob Ludwig Karl - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jakob Ludwig Karl Grimm 1785–1863 Wilhelm Karl Grimm 1786–1859

German philologists and collectors of folktales. The following entry presents criticism of their Kinder und Hausmärchen, Gesammelt Odurch die Brüder Grimm (1812-15; Children's and Household Fairy Tales, Collected by the Brothers Grimm; generally known as Grimm's Fairy Tales). For a discussion of the complete careers of the Grimm brothers, see NCLC, Volume 3.

The fairy tales of brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are among the most widely read and beloved works of literature in the world. The result of the Grimms' extensive studies in German folklore and philology, their Kinder- und Hausmärchen has gone through numerous German editions, including seven that were extensively revised or edited by the Grimms themselves, and has been translated into several foreign languages—a testament to the tales' longevity and universal appeal. Although the violence of some stories and the German nationalism of the Grimm brothers has given some readers pause, Kinder- und Hausmärchen has endured both early critical indifference and modern skepticism to become part of the Western collective consciousness.

Biographical Information

Scholarly partners all their lives, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm shared an interest in Germanic languages and literature and particularly in the preservation of their native culture. Both brothers studied at the Cassel lyceum beginning in the late 1790s, and a few years thereafter began collecting from friends and acquaintances the stories that would make up Kinder- und Hausmärchen. The Grimms then moved on to Marburg University to study law, although both were distracted from their studies by their interest in medieval German literature. The brothers studied closely with Roman law scholar Friedrich Karl von Savigny, from whom they learned the value of the historic method for their literary studies. It was as a guest in Savigny's home that Jakob became interested in a collection of the songs of German minnesingers; Jakob later reflected that this discovery would significantly influence the

direction of his scholarly career. Although Wilhelm remained in Cassel to finish his law degree, Jakob left with Savigny in 1805 to conduct research in Paris, then returned to work in the War Office, and in 1808, after the French occupation of German territory, in the library of the newly established king of Westphalia, Napoleon's brother Jerome Bonaparte. The humiliation of the French occupation gave the Grimms further impetus to collect stories of the German nation, and Jakob's position in the library offered him the opportunity and resources to do so. According to many critics, the Grimms hoped that the publication of the German tales would prove to be a unifying force among the German people and ignite in them feelings of national autonomy. Both Jakob and Wilhelm contributed materials to Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano's journal Zeitung für Einsiedler; other materials collected at this time eventually became part of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, the first volume of which was published in 1812. The brothers continued working together, publishing additional works on German folklore and philology and the folktales of other nations, but as early as 1815 they began taking separate scholarly directions. Following the withdrawal of the French from German territory in 1813, Jakob was named legation secretary for Hessian diplomats in France, and Wilhelm took a position as assistant librarian in the electoral library back at Cassel. Although the second volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1815) was attributed to both brothers, Wilhelm was the primary editor of that volume and most later editions; in fact, many scholars have found that, as evidenced in the many successive editions of the fairy tales, Wilhelm became an expert at polishing and altering text. Both brothers continued to have very successful and prominent scholarly careers after the publication of their most famous work, and became hallowed national figures due to the immense contribution to German culture contained in their collection of folktales.

Textual History

Until fairly recently, it was believed that the stories in Kinder- und Hausmärchen were collected primarily from the oral tradition of German peasants, mainly in Hesse and in the Main and Kinzig regions in the county of Hansau. However, according to many modern critics, including folktale scholar Jack Zipes, most of the tales were collected not from illiterate peasants and simple townspeople, but from educated members of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the reported primary source for the majority of tales in the second volume—a peasant woman named Frau Katherina Viehmännin—was later revealed not as a peasant but as the poor widow of a tailor. Although the brothers originally offered the tales as an accurate reproduction of authentic German folklore, the revisions the stories underwent over time—including substantial changes in plot and character—suggest that they are not as close to their originals as is often believed. Scholars have found evidence, too, of the Grimms' tendency to combine different versions of a story in order to produce the "best" account. The first seven editions of Kinder- und Hausmärchen are each textually significant, bearing the stamp of their editor, Wilhelm Grimm, and reflecting both the Grimms' intent in publishing the tales and the reception the tales received. The first edition was criticized, even by the Grimms' friends, as too accurate; Brentano complained that it was "on account of its fidelity exceedingly negligent and slovenly." Both the second (1819) and third (1837) editions contain significant changes provided by Wilhelm that appear to address that problem; more poetic descriptions are added, and in a few cases previously unnamed characters are given monikers. The seventh edition, called "Grosse Ausgabe" (definitive edition), was published in 1857. A planned third volume of tales never materialized.

Plot and Major Characters

The great variety of stories and characters contained within Kinder- und Hausmärchen is immense and almost impossible to survey fully. Among the best known and best loved of the 211 tales are "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding-Hood," "The Bremen-Town Musicians," "Snow White," "Hansel and Gretel," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Sleeping Beauty." The stories are populated not so much by fairies and elves, as their names might suggest, as by foolish younger brothers, wicked witches, beautiful and virtuous maidens, stolid kings, vain queens, and anthropomorphized roosters, mice, frogs, geese, and cats. Many of the tales feature trickster figures who embody at once both evil and the path to wisdom; heroes and heroines very often must solve a puzzle or trick the trickster in order to fulfill their destinies. The stories were not intended specifically for children, however; the Grimms intended their work as a cultural archive of German philology and mythology, and hoped sincerely that the work would serve as a resource for the study of German literature and history.

Major Themes

Many of the tales in Kinder- und Hausmärchen are coming-of-age stories: young girls must grow up and leave their parents behind for their husbands, young boys must prove themselves against the forces of nature or their overbearing older siblings. Often the stories suggest some notion of how a proper lady or gentleman should behave, emphasizing decorum, responsibility, and—especially—respect for and obedience to superiors. Closely related to the motif of obedience are the themes of love and reverence for the king and the honor and glory connected with serving him in the military. Loyalty to one's ruler and protection of one's community is also played out in the many stories stressing fear of the outsider, with the stranger representative of a force dangerous to the nationalistic spirit. Class separations are very distinct in the tales: although many heroes are of seemingly low social status, either they only interact with their own class or, on occasion, they turn out to be royalty after all. Compassion for the less fortunate is also a common theme, however; very often a foolish character who slights a poor old woman finds himself the victim of a debilitating magic spell, while the gentle hero who assists a wounded animal or an old hag finds himself rewarded with treasure or a beautiful bride. According to many critics, the Grimms themselves wanted their tales to serve as a moral education for children, demonstrating that virtue is rewarded while sin is punished.

Critical Reception

Among modern critics of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, a major theme of scholarship is the extent to which the Grimms altered their source material and the effect of these editorial alterations. Early scholarship generally accepted the Grimms' claim in their first edition that "we have endeavored to present these Märchen as exactly as possible … no detail is added or embellished and changed." Noting that in the first edition the Grimms claimed they were collectors, not writers, John M. Ellis has argued against this claim, contending that the changes made by the Grimms reflect their conscious efforts to promote German nationalism. Echoing this prominent thought in contemporary Grimm scholarship, Louis L. Snyder has asserted that the tales have become part of the German national tradition, displaying a genuine German spirit and marking a critical stage in the development of German romantic-nationalism. Other scholars have focused on the social messages implicit in the plots, often finding the brothers to be socially conservative and advocates of traditional class and gender hierarchies. Ruth B. Bottigheimer, for instance, has focused on the task of spinning and has found two separate attitudes toward the task—one describing it as a mean and harsh station in life, while the other heralding it as a vocation that leads to riches. Other scholars have looked at various literary aspects of the tales. Taking a thematic approach, Henry Carsch, for example, has studied the figure of the devil in the tales, claiming that the devil serves as a sort of "collective motivation" for readers who waver between morality and evil. Studying the characterization, Maria M. Tatar has focused on male heroes in particular, observing that though most of them are cowardly or "dull-witted," many of them do share the redeeming qualities of compassion and humility. And, exploring the tales as works of romantic literature, Alfred and Mary Elizabeth David have studied how the Grimms incorporated theories of art and nature into the tales.

Alfred and Mary Elizabeth David (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Literary Approach to the Brothers Grimm," in Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. 1, No. 3, December, 1964, pp. 180-96.

[In the following essay, the Davids advocate approaching the tales as imaginative literature rather than as folklore. Examining the Grimms' approach to nature and art, the critics consider the tales in the context of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century.]

Upon the hundredth anniversary of the death of Jacob Grimm, folklorists the world over have united to pay tribute to the memory of the Brothers Grimm. The Institute for Central European Folklife Research at Marburg has brought out a memorial volume of essays entitled...

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Henry Carsch (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Role of the Devil in Grimms' Tales: An Exploration of the Content and Function of Popular Tales," in Social Research: An International Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 466-99.

[In the following essay, Carsch considers both implicit and explicit references to the devil in the tales, arguing that the Grimms used the figure as a form of social control to "exemplif[yj the dangers which may accompany the violation of the basic belief system."]


This paper constitutes a part of a comprehensive report dealing with the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales.1 The Grimms had begun to collect these from a number of informants...

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Louis L. Snyder (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cultural Nationalism: The Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales," in Roots of German Nationalism, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 35-54.

[In the following essay, Snyder discusses the Fairy Tales in relation to German nationalism and the Romantic movement, focusing on how the tales present positive, praiseworthy traits common to the German people while at the same time promoting the idea of fear of the outsider, personified in the character of the Jew.]

All my works relate to the Fatherland, from whose soil they derive their strength.

Jakob Grimm

For generations the Grimm Fairy...

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Ruth B. Bottigheimer (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tale Spinners: Submerged Voices in Grimms' Fairy Tales," in New German Critique, No. 27, Fall, 1982, pp. 141-50.

[In the following essay, Bottigheimer, one of the tales' leading modern scholars, examines the role of spinning women in several of the stories, identifying two distinct viewpoints in the tales. According to the critic, one view, expressed by Wilhelm Grimm, extols the virtues of spinning, while the second viewpoint, representative of the original folk material, reveals the harsh and mean realities of the occupation.]

Each generation approaches old texts with new questions. One text which has shown itself to be a rich site for shifting readership...

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Jack Zipes (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Who's Afraid of the Brothers Grimm?: Socialization and Politicization through Fairy Tales," in Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization, Heinemann, 1983, pp. 45-70.

[In the following essay, Zipes examines both the social and political messages of the tales and the attempts of later German writers to adapt them according to their own political agendas. Zipes also compares three versions of such stories as "The Frog Prince" and "Snow White " to demonstrate how the Grimms edited the tales to reflect social norms and beliefs.]

The wolf, now piously old and good,

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John M. Ellis (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction: The Problem of the Status of the Tales," in One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales, University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 1-12.

[In the following excerpt, Ellis examines the changes the Grimm brothers made to their source material, arguing that the Grimms' nationalism motivated them to promote the tales as specifically German in origin, despite strong evidence to the contrary.]

The Grimms' fairy tales—Kinder- und Hausmärchen (KHM) constitute one of the best-known and most loved books in the world; translated into dozens of languages, they are read by children and adults everywhere.1 There are...

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Maria M. Tatar (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary 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 examines both heroes and heroines in Grimm's Fairy Tales, arguing that, contrary to "conventional wisdom," the protagonists (males in particular) are neither strong nor clever but rather "simple," "silly," "foolish," and "useless."]

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

—Shakespeare, As You Like It


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Christa Kamenetsky (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Marchenkritik in the Context of European Romanticism," in The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics: Folktales and the Quest for Meaning, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 181-214.

[In the following chapter from her book The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics, Kamenetsky considers the response to the tales in the context of the Romantic movement and the Grimms ' broader interest in folklore, including the folklore of other nations]

Folklore and the Middle Ages

During the Romantic movement, the critical reception of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen in Germany and abroad coincided with a new appreciation of nature, myths, and...

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Donald Haase (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Response and Responsibility in Reading Grimms' Fairy Tales," in The Reception of Grimms' Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions, edited by Donald Haase, Wayne State University Press, 1993, pp. 230-49.

[In the following essay, Haase discusses the importance of each individual reader's response to Grimms' Fairy Tales, suggesting that "the recipient and context of reception are as much a determinant of meaning as the text itself"]

The Engraver Responsible for the title page of the nineteenth-century American edition of Grimms' tales translated by Edgar Taylor evidently was given the original German text to work from. And he evidently had some trouble...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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

Traces the lives of the Grimms from the perspective of their accomplishments as leaders in the study of Germanic literature and language.


Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987, 211 p.

With a special attention to gender, examines motifs that appear frequently in the tales to determine the social and moral beliefs they reflect.


(The entire section is 478 words.)