Jacob Grimm

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

Since the mid-nineteenth century, generations of children and adults have associated the name Grimm with the enchanted world of the fairy tale. Collections of Grimm’s Fairy Tales are surpassed only by the Bible in volumes sold and breadth of influence throughout Germany and many other countries. Among the most popular of the Grimms’ tales are “The Frog King,” “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Bremen Town Musicians,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” Since fairy tales have been viewed primarily as children’s stories, many lovers of these tales are not aware that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were serious German scholars who devoted their lives to studying and preserving the language and lore of Germany, hoping to restore pride in their native folk culture.

Jacob and Wilhelm were born into a large middle-class family in their ancestral town of Hanau. Their harmonious and stable family life, Calvinist upbringing, and good schools prepared them for lives of arduous labor, unselfish collaboration, and public service. After their father’s sudden death in 1796, they worked especially hard at high school in Kassel and at the University of Marburg because they lacked the social advantages of wealthier students. Soon Jacob began supporting the family, while Wilhelm endured some years of ill health. They worked and lived together at school and throughout their lives, even after Wilhelm married a longtime family friend in 1825 and had three children.

Although the brothers followed their father’s example in studying law, by 1805 a law professor had influenced them to explore the roots of European law and society in ancient language, literature, and folklore. Romantic writers Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim encouraged the Grimms to help them collect folk literature. Then von Arnim urged them to publish their own folktales. Between 1812 and 1822, the Grimms produced three volumes of folktales and commentary, entitled Kinder-und Hausmärchen (literally translated as “nursery and household tales”). By 1816, the brothers had established together their methods of collecting and editing, and they introduced another extensive collection called German Legends.

Publication of Jacob’s Deutsch Grammatik (German grammar) began in 1819, as he devoted more time to the history of language and law. Wilhelm concentrated on revising the folktales and editing additional volumes of European medieval and folk literature. When political upheaval in Germany periodically disrupted their employment as librarians and professors, they moved from Kassel to Göttingen to Berlin. Yet they always continued their prodigious research with quiet diligence in their home. Over the years, they supported German unification and academic freedom, but their political activism during the Revolution of 1848 ended in disillusionment with the cause of democratic reform.

In 1848, Jacob’s influential Geschichte der deutschen Sprache (history of the German language) was published. Altogether the brothers produced more than forty scholarly books as well as voluminous essays, notes, and letters. Their later years were devoted to the enormous job of compiling a German dictionary based on historical principles. When Jacob died in 1863, he had reached the letter F, and the dictionary was not completed until a century later.

The seventh edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen (1857) is the source of most subsequent editions and translations. Over four decades, Wilhelm added, removed, and revised individual tales, creating the Large Edition for scholars and the Small Edition for general sales and educational purposes. While the collection of more than two hundred stories includes religious legends, anecdotes, fables, and jokes, the predominant and most popular tales are the märchen. They are also called fairy tales or wonder tales, but it is difficult to define the type’s distinctive combination of magic, clearly defined characters, lively and economical plot, patterns of traditional motif and symbolic detail, unpretentious style, and psychological insights.

Although the Grimms’ methods have been criticized and misrepresented, their writings explain that they often used middle-class and aristocratic friends as informants as well as peasants and some literary sources; they combined variants and revised content and style to create an ideal literary form for the oral folktale. Like storytellers before and after them, they altered tales to suit their purposes. They removed some earthy and sexual details, such as Rapunzel’s pregnancy, but the violence in many of their tales shocks readers accustomed to expurgated and “sugar-coated” versions found in Disney films and modern children’s books. Also, as Marxist and feminist critics have emphasized, the Grimms’ tales reflect the Christian, middle-class, patriarchal biases of their milieu.

The increasing sales of German and English editions after 1823 led to an explosion of folklore research that spread around the world in the twentieth century. Scholars extended and refined the Grimms’ methods of collecting and comparing literature from the world’s ancient oral traditions. Translations, adaptations, and interpretations of Grimms’ tales in many languages have influenced countless literary works for children and adults, as well as studies in psychology, sociology, folklore, education, and other disciplines. Prominent illustrators from Arthur Rackham to Maurice Sendak have added their diverse visual interpretations to English editions of the tales.

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