The Brothers Grimm and a literary arms race

Booknotes looks at the great folklorists of the German nationalist movement.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Folklorists non pareil.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Folklorists non pareil.

Mike Selby

In the early 1800s, two brothers roamed the dark forests of Germany, collecting the ancient myths and folklore of the illiterate peasant class. Originally published as ‘Kinder- und Hausmärchen’ (Children’s and Household Tales), they are known today in the English-speaking world as ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales.’  The tales collected and organized by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are more popular today than ever (simply check one’s local movie listings), and continue to be the most translated text in history next only to the Bible.

Yet the brother’s story is almost as mythic as their collection.

Jacob and Wilhelm were the oldest of nine children, being raised in a large spacious home on the edge of forest in Northern Hesse. Their father practiced law for diplomats and princes, while their mother stayed at home to raise the children with her numerous servants. All this changed in 1796, when Jacob and Wilhelm’s father died suddenly at age 44.  The Grimm family found themselves destitute, living on handouts and relying on a variety of kind relatives for shelter. After three of the younger children perished, a distant aunt took them in, ensuring the children continued in school.

Jacob and Wilhelm were extremely bright, and both were accepted into the University of Marburg Law School. Jacob went alone though, as Wilhelm’s health was too poor. It was at Marburg were Jacob developed an intense interest in Germany’s ancient past. At the time, there was no Germany to speak of. The nation was split up into hundreds of principalities, governed more or less by half-a-dozen separate states, often at war with each other. Napoleon had also invaded, and German roots were being replaced by French culture.

All this combined with his chronic worry about his family caused Jacob to quit school and return home. He took various jobs to support everyone, but spent every single second of free time working on ancient German literature with his brother Wilhelm. Together they created what has been called their ‘grand plan,’ which was the recovery of “oral and ancient written sources of German legends, anonymous epics, chapbook stories, folk songs and verses in older forms of the language.”  While the greatest side-effect of their life’s work were the fairy tales, the more important aspect at the time was nationalism.  A common literary past was seen as the best bet to united Germany as a single country.

In this, the Grimms were not alone. Between the 17th and 19th centuries a type of literary arms race had exploded across Europe. It was seen that main qualification to be recognized as a country was to have ancient tales to back it up. Elias Lonnrot made the case for Finland with ‘The Kalevala’ ; Denmark’s N.S.F. Grundtvig produced ‘Danske Folkevisor’ and the ‘Nordens Mytologi’ ; Ireland’s Thomas Croker’s ‘Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland’ ; and Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Prose & Poetic Edda’ for Iceland.  (England, to quote a famous literary historian, “couldn’t have cared less.”)

No one could do this better than the Grimms though, especially Jacob. His ability to read Old German, and to recognize exactly when and were a word’s sound shift had occurred, made him a linguistic genius without peer. There still is a ‘Grimm’s Law’ used today which identifies Germanic words in Indo-European languages. The brothers combined their talents to launch the first phase of their work, the collection of the very oldest and orally passed down folktales.

The tales which come down to us today as ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ do indeed take place in enchanted forests, small cottages, and giant castles. Most of the stories feature nameless characters—a princess, a frog, a king, a stepmother, a witch, etc. It is more than comforting to know that the very first edition of their book begins with “Once upon a time…”.

Yet none of these stories came from the peasant class; nor did the Grimms travel anywhere to get them. The tales came from the wealthy and educated aristocracy, whom came to the Grimms to tell them the tales. The majority of the sources were highly literate females, who as often as not mixed up French folklore with German. This is why ‘Puss ‘n’ Boots’ appears in the first edition of ‘Grimms Fairy Tales,’ but is removed from all future ones. Also many of the fairy tales come from other books, albeit very old manuscripts.

None of that should take away any of the mystery, wonder and delight generations continue take away from them. The ageless tales of “Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Snow White,’ ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ and ‘Cinderella’ continue to help give meaning to the lives of children and adults alike.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

Just Posted

City council deferred moving forward on a proposed development in Wildstone, requesting a meeting with the developer to get clarification on project details. Photo submitted.
Cranbrook city council debates proposed Wildstone development

Cranbrook city council held off on moving forward with a proposed apartment… Continue reading

Interior Health is reporting a COVID-19 exposure at Selkirk Secondary in Kimberley. Bulletin file.
COVID-19 case identified at Selkirk Secondary in Kimberley

Interior Health is conducting contact tracing

Cranbrook Arts will finally open the doors to their brand new gallery space on Friday, June 18th, 2021 at 4pm. To see what is behind these doors, be sure to check out the exhibit, Kootenay's Best, running until Labour Day weekend. (Cranbrook Arts file)
Cranbrook Arts’ inaugural exhibit, Kootenay’s Best, opens this Friday

The exhibit features over 50 Kootenay-based artists and will run until Labour Day Weekend

The Kootenay International Junior Hockey League met for their AGM and announced a number of new initiatives, new awards and changes in their executive committee, as well as the starting date for the 2021-22 season. Paul Rodgers file.
KIJHL announces start dates for 2021-22 season

Season set to begin Oct. 1 with league still following all health guidelines

Calvin Dickson photo.
Severe thunderstorm watch in effect for East Kootenay

Conditions favourable for the development of thunderstorms, hail and heavy rain

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

(pixabay file shot)
B.C. ombudsperson labels youth confinement in jail ‘unsafe,’ calls for changes

Review states a maximum of 22 hours for youth, aged 12 from to 17, to be placed in solitary

Grace (left), a caribou that was born in a maternal pen north of Revelstoke, is alive and well said the province. It appears she even has a calf. Maternity pens aim to increase caribou calf survival by protecting them from predation until they are older and less vulnerable. (Contributed)
For the first time in years, caribou numbers increasing near Revelstoke

North herd growing but south herd still concerning

Eleonore Alamillo-Laberge, 6, reads a book in Ottawa on Monday, June 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Parents will need to fight ‘COVID learning slump’ over summer: B.C. literacy experts

Parents who play an active role in educating their children this summer can reverse the slump by nearly 80%, says Janet Mort

Kelowna General Hospital. (File photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital declared over

Three people tested positive for the virus — two patients and one staff — one of whom died

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

The B.C. government’s vaccine booking website is busy processing second-dose appointments, with more than 76 per cent of adults having received a first dose. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations stable for Tuesday

108 new confirmed cases, 139 in hospital, 39 in intensive care

A worker, at left, tends to a customer at a cosmetics shop amid the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Half of cosmetics sold in Canada, U.S. contain toxic chemicals: study

Researchers tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained high levels of fluorine

Most Read