Grimm Fairy Tales

8 Sep

Fairy tales—at least as we know them—are a childhood staple. We know the classics by heart, but our beloved Disney-diluted iterations couldn’t be further from their true, markedly more sinister origins. While Walt Disney brought us some of our most beloved children’s stories, the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales are definitely not for kids. The Grimm brothers, a pair of German siblings who created some of the original tales in the 19th century, didn’t shy away from any gory details and left an astounding legacy. Born in the city of Kassel in the 18th century, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm documented hundreds of folktales from all over Europe. They were linguists, scholars, and researchers of German language and mythology, yet they lived most of their lives as underpaid academics – and likely never realized their work would someday reach world fame. Despite the fact that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are often associated with Snow White and Rapunzel, the brothers didn’t actually write any of those stories. In fact, the stories existed long before the two men were born in Germany in the mid 1780s. The fairy tales, in fact, were part of a rich oral tradition − passed down from generation to generation, often by women seeking to pass the time during household chores. But as industrialization took root, local traditions changed and scholars, like Jacob and Wilhelm, began a quest to save the stories from extinction. They interviewed relatives and friends, collecting whatever tales they could, sometimes embellishing them (although they insisted they did not). In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm published the stories as part of a collection titled Nursery and Household Tales, or what is now referred to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Originally, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were not meant for children. The stories routinely included sex, violence, incest, and copious footnotes. Worse yet, they didn’t even have illustrations. Initially aimed at adults, the early editions of Nursery and Household Tales contained remarkably dark elements. In its original version, for example, Rapunzel gets pregnant by the prince after a casual fling. In Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to try to fit into the slipper. Another family favorite is the story of Snow White. Jealous of Snow White’s beauty, an evil queen orders a huntsman to bring back Snow’s heart, which is already rather gruesome in the first place. Again, the Grimms Brothers version fails to present a romanticized—let alone remotely appetizing—original. The queen, who is actually Snow White’s real mother, not only asks for her heart, but her liver and lungs for that evening’s supper. These sort of scenes (and many others) were eventually revised once the stories became popular among children. In contrast Little Red Riding Hood is one of the few folktales where for once the Brothers Grimm version isn’t the most macabre. Charles Perrault, the 17th century author of folklore, has the attractive young girl tricked into her granny’s bed by the wolf. She removes all of her clothing and is eaten without any courageous huntsman to save her. In other versions, she unwittingly cannibalizes her grandmother and drinks a wine glass of her blood that the wolf has left out. By comparison, the Grimm version—where the wolf is filled with heavy stones, skinned and killed by a huntsman—appears incredibly family-friendly.

University-trained philologists (the study of language in historical texts) and librarians, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published more than fairy tales. They wrote books about mythology, and published scholarly works on linguistics and medieval studies. They also worked on compiling an ambitious German dictionary, although both brothers died before they were able to finish the entry for the letter F. In 1830, King Ernest Augustus demanded oaths of allegiance from all professors in Gottingen, a university city where Jacob and Wilhelm taught Germanic studies. The brothers refused to pledge to the king and, along with five other professors, the “Gottingen Seven” were made to leave the city. Jobless and branded as political dissidents, the brothers were forced to borrow money from friends as they worked on their story collection. The Grimm’s collection of fairy tales was in its 7th edition when Wilhelm Grimm died in 1859. By that point, the collection had grown to 211 stories and included intricate illustrations. Jacob − who had lived with Wilhelm and his wife − died in 1863. According to biographers, Jacob was deeply distraught after the death of his brother, with whom he had held a close bond throughout his life. Many of Grimms’ folk tales have enjoyed enduring popularity after the brothers’ death. The tales are available today in more than 100 languages and have been adapted by filmmakers including Lotte Reiniger and Walt Disney, with films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. In fact, some claim their collection has only been outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible – quite a legacy for a pair of hapless academics who often struggled just to get by during their own lifetimes.

2 Responses to “Grimm Fairy Tales”

  1. Nathan September 8, 2019 at 3:44 am #

    From at least some of what I’ve read, the Grimms originally didn’t intend their collection for children, but when it turned out that a lot of copies were being sold expressly for reading to kids, they cleaned up the stories a bit in later editions. They removed sexual references, but kept in most of the violence and gore.

  2. Pendant & Ring September 8, 2019 at 5:35 am #

    Had not heard that the Grimm brother’s might be the third best seller of all time! That is an exciting possibility. 🙂 Also – the photo you featured is from my very favorite illustrator, Arthur Rackham. As a kid I had the Grimm + Rackham coloring book and spent many hours in those fairy worlds. Thank you for brightening my day.

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