The History of The Brothers Grimm

By Francine McKenna on Email

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales, so said Albert Einstein. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were The Brothers Grimm, story tellers and publishers of European folk and fairy tales which were anything but sweet and gentle bedtime stories.

German linguistics professors, specializing in what became known as Grimm’s Law, the way sounds in words from related languages have developed over time such as German ‘Apfel’ and the English ‘Apple’, the brothers brought together age-old fairy tales which they published in collected editions. The tales portrayed life as it was known by generations of central Europeans, unpredictable and often cruel, and some of these were told to them by peasants, but many came from the middle and aristocratic classes who had heard them from their servants. Especially their nursery maids.

Jakob Ludwig Karl Grimm was born on January 4, 1785, in Hanau near Frankfurt in Germany, his brother Wilhelm Karl Grimm on February 24 1786, and they were the oldest surviving children of nine born to Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, a lawyer who served as Hanau’s town clerk, and his wife Dorothea Grimm.

Philipp Grimm died when Jakob was eleven. Close as children, as the brothers grew up they continued to spend most of their time together and, apart from a short time apart, remained together their entire lives, even after Wilhelm’s marriage, while as they both had placid temperaments it was easy for them to work as a team.

Their characters were also complementary because Wilhelm, with his warmer personality and a greater interest in music and literature, worked on the presentation of their fairytale collection, while Jakob, a pedantic workaholic, was in his element being responsible for most of the necessary research as well as developing their language and grammar theories.

Linguistic research was their main goal, however while studying they had been encouraged by one of their University of Marburg professors, Friedrich von Savigny, to take an interest in past cultures, and the collections of tales through which they became identified were a development from what they considered to be their ‘real’ work.

Once the brothers saw the tales had found an audience with young readers, even though this had not been the readership they had envisaged, they, but mainly Wilhelm, began to ‘fix’ things, and although the spirit of the stories remained Grimm fairy tales themselves changed, slowly becoming less graphic and cruel and instead more charming, humorous and moral.

Jacob Grimm was appointed court librarian to the King of Westphalia in Bad Wilhelmshoehe, Hesse, in 1808, and it was not until 1816 that he joined his brother in Kassel where William had been working at the library since 1814. The brothers stayed there until they moved, as a ‘double pack’, to the University of Goettingen, Lower Saxony, in 1830, and from there, seven years later, they were sacked and deported, because they had protested against a breach of the constitution by the new King of Hanover.

During their time of separation Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm had continued their interest in folktales, editing pieces of folklore and early literature, and produced a work that, alongside Luther’s Bible, is the most widely circulated of all German books and has been translated into 160 languages.

The first of what was to be many editions of Brothers Grimm tales was published in 1812, and ‘Kinder-und Hausmaerchen’, Tales of Children and the Home, is filled with stories passed down orally for generations and gathered from many different regions. Included in that world of fantasy are Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Rumpelstilzchen, The Brave Little Tailor, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, and Rapunzel.

In its preface was written ‘Perhaps it was just the right time to record these tales, as those who should have been preserving them are becoming rarer,’ and ‘All of these tales contain the essence of German myth, which was deemed forever lost.’

At the same time the Grimm brothers knew that their folktales existed in similar versions in other European countries, so were not wholly German, and in later editions of their book they added that the tales could be ‘at home everywhere’.  Nevertheless the German fairytale tradition has been created.

‘The Tales of Children and the Home’ was followed between 1816 and 1818 by two volumes of German Legends, ‘Deutsche Sagen’, as well as a study into the history of early literature, Old German Forests, ‘Altdeutsche Waelder’.

German Romanticism was popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As an arts movement which valued humor, wit and beauty and favored a return to nature and a focus on national culture, especially folk tales, this had awakened an interest in the past throughout the Germanic nations, so the Grimm brothers found a ready audience for their books and were amongst the most important, and influential, of the early language and folklore romantic historians.

They both loved their people and were determined through their work with linguistics and folktales to preserve their heritage, and they were also dedicated supporters of a united Germany. At the time there was no ‘Germany’, the Holy Roman Empire, of which much of what is now Germany had been the heart, had only recently been dissolved and the area consisted of 39 small to medium sized states, independently ruled by an assortment of Royal Families, where the only thing they all had in common was their language.

Researching forgotten roots, the brothers Grimm had originally immersed themselves in the study of Old German which had then developed in the direction of all things Germanic, anything that might help to forge a common German consciousness, hoping their writings would help towards creating a sense of German identity.

Their work on sagas, myths, ancient laws, the origin of words and grammar laid the foundation of German Studies, and another major undertaking,the Deutsche Woerterbuch. A complete dictionary of the German language, which they began in 1838, and was not completed until 1960, was in fact their most important project and their intention was to trace the origin of every word. ‘The force of language forms nations and holds them together, without such a bond they would fall apart’, was Jakob’s reasoning.

Both brothers had become professors at the University of Berlin, and died there while working on their dictionary: Wilhelm on December 16,1859, after completing the letter D; and Jacob four years later, on September 20, 1863, having completed A, B, C and E, and, it is said, he was working on ‘Frucht’ (fruit) when he collapsed at his desk.

They travelled widely, had a thorough grasp of other languages and literature, championed causes in and relating to other countries, belonged to foreign academies and concerned themselves with many things outside their own surroundings and experiences, and today Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Brothers Grimm, collectors of fairytales and protectors of Germanic culture, heritage and language, could easily be described as amongst the first ‘Europeans’.


Photos: The Brothers Grimm, 1855, by Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann 1819-1881, National Gallery in Berlin – ‘Ashputtel/Cinderella’ from Grimm’s Household Tales, Date 1912, New York Public Library, edited by Robert Anning Bell – Title page of first volume ‘Deutsches Woerterbuch’, by Brothers Grimm, 1854, scanned by Raimond Spekking – All courtesy de.Wikipedia.

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Francine McKenna