German literature classics: Brothers Grimm and the fairy tales

German literature classics are a must in my tours in Munich. The utopia of fairy tales would never be the same if the Brothers Grimm didn’t come to rescue this magical kingdom. Be it the damsel in distress – Cinderella, or the magic-haired dream girl – Rapunzel, or every kid’s favorite – Little Red-Cap, all of the above stories along with a plethora of others are saved by none other than the Brothers Grimm.

Jacob Ludwig Carl and Wilhelm Carl, both were outstanding German linguists, scholars, academics, cultural researchers, and lexicographers. One of their core missions was to gather and publish fairy tales/folklore during the nineteenth century. They were not less than the saviors for the kids. Not only German but the original European tales are still in the best form, all credits to the Brothers Grimm.

Due to their heroic gestures, many people want to explore about them like who were the Brothers Grimm? What was their background? Why and how they gathered all the folk tales? Read on to get the answers.

Early Life and Childhood

Born to Philipp Wilhelm Grimm (1752-1796) and Dorothea Grimm nee Zimmer (1755-1808) in Hanau in Hesse-Kassel (Germany), the Brothers Grimm had lived an ordinary childhood with their extraordinary intelligence.

Philipp was a lawyer, while Dorothea was the daughter of a Kassel city councilman. They had nine children, but only six survived infancy. The Brothers Grimm were the oldest ones among their siblings.

Jacob Ludwig Carl was born on January 4, 1785, while Wilhelm came to this world on February 24, 1786. The birthplace of the duo was Hanau, and since then, they had never been apart from each other. The Brothers Grimm were not only the biological brothers, but they were attached emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, too.

The Father

Philipp moved to the countryside town of Steinau with his family in 1791. He got a new job there as district magistrate. After moving in, they quickly became a respectable name in the community. Their large home was the dream house of many kids at that time. Everything was perfect, and the life of the Grimm family was the symbol of happiness.

The children began to love their countryside residence. They acquired education at home by private tutors. Later, they went to local school for formal studies. However, everything has an expiry date. Philipp got died in 1796 due to pneumonia, and things changed rapidly for them after that tragedy.

To save her family from financial crises, Dorothea had to give up her servants and the beautiful residency. She was solely dependent on the support of her father and sister. Just because Jacob was the eldest son in the family, he had to manage his household affairs at the age of eleven years. However, Wilhelm was his right hand from the beginning. Their bond became stronger with every new challenge. Both of the young lads took great advantage of the pearls of wisdom, shared by their grandfather, who continuously advised them to be persistent and hardworking.

Educational Background

Jacob and Wilhelm left their family and residential town, Steinau, in 1798. They moved to Kassel to attend Friedrichsgymnasium, a reputable school in the city. All the educational expenses were paid by their aunt because they had no male supporter by then (their grandfather died in the same year). 

After grandfather, the Brothers Grimm had no one except for each other. Both of them always helped each other in almost everything. However, the nature of Jacob was quite different from his younger brother. He was an introvert, while on the other side, Wilhelm loved to make new friends. 

By sharing valuable work ethics, both excelled in their studies. Even though they were outstanding students, they still felt the discrimination between their inferior social status and high-born students. 

The behavior of school administration and the overall environment made them realize how stable financial status was mandatory, even in the education sector. However, Jacob and Wilhelm still graduated with distinction in 1803 and 1804, respectively.

Life at the University of Marburg

After graduation, they attended the University of Marburg, which was a small campus with merely 200 students at that time. However, the standard of education was exceptionally well. Like Friedrichsgymnasium, social status was important at Marburg, too. The university disqualified them from admission because of their rank. In the end, they had to request dispensation to study law. That kind of discrimination disheartened them, but they were determined to achieve their goals.

Due to their not-so-stable financial status, they had to avoid student activities and university social life. Regardless of all the hurdles, they kept moving towards their destination. Their lives took an interesting turn when they met their law professor, Friedrich von Savigny. He was the one who awakened in them a keen interest in philology and history. They planned to study medieval German literature.

It was all because of Savigny’s encouragement that the duo decided to dedicate most of their time to learn German literature and linguistics. They also loved the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder to revert complicated German literature into simpler forms. Their enthusiasm helped them in overcoming spiritual depression, too.

Early Professional Life in Kassel

Jacob, the breadwinner of his family, had to work hard, so he accepted the job of research assistant in Paris in 1805. Savigny gave this offer to him, and he did his work from the core of his heart. When he came back to Marburg, he had to quit his studies to support his mother and siblings. At that time, they were facing a severe financial crisis.

At last, Jacob found a permanent job in 1808 as a court librarian to the King of Westphalia, so he became a librarian in Kassel. However, it was the same year when the brothers lost their mother, too. Jacob became the unsung hero for not only Wilhelm but the younger siblings, too. He managed the expenses for the studies of his brother (Ludwig) at art school. Moreover, he also paid for Wilhelm’s extended visit to Halle to seek treatment for respiratory and heart diseases. Later, Wilhelm also joined Jacob as a librarian in Kassel.

At that time, the brothers started carelessly collecting fairy tales. They initiated the task only on Brentano’s request because Jacob and Wilhelm got new jobs, and they couldn’t spend plenty of time on folklore.

Daily work

They earned little as librarians, but their professions allowed them to spend more time on research work. Jacob and Wilhelm also published several books between 1812 and 1830. The first volume of their masterpiece, Kinder- und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales), comprised of eighty-six tales, was published in 1812. After that publication, two volumes of German legends and a single volume of early literary history became famous.

Keep in mind, the Brothers Grimm had never written the tales, and in reality, those existed long before the birth of the brothers. However, when they gathered them, they made sure to edit the stories up to modern standards. The brothers also took a bold step by publishing works about Irish and Danish traditional tales and Norse mythology.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm also received honorary doctorates from the universities in Berlin, Marburg, and Breslau (currently Wroclaw) for their work.

Brothers Grimm in Gottingen

Wilhelm got married in 1825 with a beautiful and long-time family friend, Henriette Dorothea (Dortchen) Wild. However, Jacob never married in his life, but he preferred to live with his brother and sister-in-law.

In 1830, both brothers had to quit their jobs, and they moved to Gottingen in the Kingdom of Hanover. Jacob got the position of a professor and head librarian, while on the other side, Wilhelm appointed as a professor at the University of Gottingen. For seven years, they continued their research work along with writing and publishing tasks.

Jacob introduced another masterpiece, German Mythology, in 1835, while Wilhelm continued to prepare and edit the third edition of Kinder- und Hausmarchen for publishing purpose. They also became famous among the students and other staff at the University of Gottingen. However, they lost their jobs in 1837 after joining in protest with the Gottingen Seven. Jacob went back to Kassel, and Wilhelm joined him with his family after a while.

In 1838, the financial status of the Grimm Brothers deteriorated severely, and they decided to start the writing of a definitive dictionary. However, they were still dependent on friends’ support for paying their expenses.

Berlin and Later Years

On the appeal of von Savigny to Frederick William IV of Prussia, the duo got the jobs at the University of Berlin. Along with the teaching posts, the Academy of Sciences offered them stipends to continue their research work. Eventually, they had established their home in Berlin. They started spending more time on the German dictionary, but they never forgot to publish their research work.

Jacob switched his attention to researching German legal traditions and The History of the German Language, which he published in the late 1840s and the early 50s. On the other side, Wilhelm developed his interest in researching medieval literature. He also continued editing new editions of Hausmarchen.

Later, after the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, both were elected to the civil parliament, but their political career was short. In the late1840s era, Jacob abdicated his university post and concentrated on the publication of The History of the German Language. However, Wilhelm continued his job until 1852. After they retired, the brothers devoted their lives to the German dictionary.

Wilhelm died of an infection on December 16, 1859, Berlin. It was the most disastrous time for Jacob. He lived only four years more after his brother’s demise, and he closed his eyes on September 20, 1863.

Children’s and Household Tales

With the increase in Romantic nationalism during the nineteenth century, the culture of fairy tales came back in trend. When the Brothers Grimm started collected folklore, they began their journey from their collections. They published many stories as a reflection of German culture identity, and they were quite successful in their attempts.

It was all started in the early nineteenth century when Jacob came back to Marburg from Paris in 1806. Brentano, their mutual friend, asked for their help in adding to his collection of fairy tales. It developed an enthusiasm in them, and they began to gather legends in an organized manner. By 1810, the brothers had already produced a manuscript collection of numerous tales. Moreover, they modified the stories to make them more appealing to the kids.

The brothers collected tales from peasants and middle-class acquaintances, but Wilhelm’s wife also helped them in gathering authentic legends such as Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty. They had gathered many anecdotes from friends of friends, and many of the storytellers were from France. The brothers showed unmatchable enthusiasm while collecting the stories that they developed a methodology for this process.

The framework

From the early era of the 1800s, Jacob established the framework and maintained it through different iterations. On the other side, Wilhelm’s prominent tasks were to edit and rewrite the stories. He made the folk tales similar to the original ones in style, but whenever he sensed the need for adding new dialogues, he included suitably. Moreover, he also added religious, spiritual, and psychological motifs to make them valuable for centuries. Wilhelm’s experience in prose writing and rewriting became terrific, and he often reduced or even eliminated the sexual and violent content from the stories to make them more children-friendly.

Kinder- und Hausmarchen was published seventeen times between 1812 and 1864. Seven were extended editions, while ten were small ones. The large editions consisted of all the legends gathered to date, scholarly notes were written by the Grimm Brothers, and comprehensive annotations were included, too.

The first volume was published in 1812 with only eighty-six stories, while a second edition with extra seventy tales was published in late 1814. However, a second expanded one launched in 1819, but a volume of scholarly commentary and annotations was published in 1822. The other five comprehensive publications were introduced in 1837, 1840, 1843, 1850, and 1857. In the final large edition, 211 stories were included.

Notable Fairy Tales Collection by the Brothers Grimm

Grimm Brothers have collected hundreds of folk tales in their lives. Some of the famous ones are:

  • Hansel and Gretel
  • The Frog King
  • Our Lady’s Child
  • The Seven Ravens
  • The Three Snake-Leaves
  • Cinderella
  • Little Red-Cap
  • The Girl Without Hands
  • The Singing Bone
  • The Devil with the Three Golden Hair
  • Rapunzel
  • The Good Bargain
  • Brother and Sister
  • The Story of a Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was
  • The Twelve Brothers
  • The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids
  • The Three Spinners
  • The Godfather
  • Old Sultan
  • The Wishing-Table, The Gold Ass, and The Cudgel in the Sack
  • The Riddle
  • The White Snake
  • The Robber Bridegroom
  • Faithful John
  • The Three Little Men in the Wood
  • Little Snow-White
  • The Golden Goose
  • The Twelve Huntsmen
  • The Three Sons of Fortune
  • The Goose Girl
  • The Water of Life
  • Sweet Porridge
  • The Raven
  • The Spirit in the Bottle
  • The Old Man and His Grandson
  • The Thief and His Master
  • The Knapsack, The Hat, and The Horn
  • The Young Giant
  • The King of the Golden Mountain
  • Gossip Wolf and the Fox
  • The Three Black Princesses
  • The Cunning Little Tailor
  • The Shepherd Boy
  • The Old Man Young Again
  • Brides on Their Trial
  • The Lambkin and the Little Fish
  • The Ungrateful Son
  • The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces
  • The Devil and His Grandmother
  • One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes
  • The King’s Son Who Feared Nothing
  • The Poor Boy in the Grave
  • Cat and Mouse in Partnership
  • The Wonderful Musician
  • The Spindle, The Shuttle, and The Needle
  • The Hut in the Forest
  • The Drummer
  • The Crystal Ball
  • The Ear of Corn
  • St. Joseph in the Forest
  • The Griffin
  • The Sparrow and His Four Children
  • The True Sweetheart
  • The Poor Man and The Rich Man
  • The Fox and the Horse
  • The Peasant in Heaven
  • The Wolf and the Man

Legacy of Brothers Grimm

Nobody could ever forget the services of the Grimm Brothers to preserve the priceless treasure of fairy tales for the youngsters of all ages. Their masterpiece, Kinder- und Hausmarchen, wasn’t an overnight achievement. In reality, the popularity grew with every new edition.

In the beginning, when the early editions were out, they attracted criticism. The reason was the children’s disapproval of stories because they (tales) were unappealing to them. However, the brothers took it as constructive criticism, and they immediately responded with rewrites and further modifications to enhance the appearance of the folk tales.

During the era of the 1870s, the fame of Kinder- und Hausmarchen was on peak. It was included in the teaching curriculum in Prussia. In the early twentieth century, the book was second to the Bible in popularity. The tales’ folkloric content in the context of socialism, psychological elements, and literary history made them high in standard. It happened because the brothers did exceptional research, and they made a science of the study of folklore. It formed a model of research that urged general fieldwork in many European countries. Their love for fairy tales and their research work made them founders in the field of folklore in the nineteenth century.

Grimms and the Third Reich

Later, the Third Reich also used the brothers’ tales to support nationalism. The Nazi Party made sure to distribute at least one copy of Kinder- und Hausmarchen in every house. However, the officials of Allied-occupied Germany suspended the book for a few years.

On the other side, in the United States, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) highlighted the triumph of innocence over oppression and good over evil. In 1959, during the era of the Cold War, Walt Disney repeated the theme with the release of Sleeping Beauty. Both the concepts were based on the Brothers Grimm’s stories. Disney built an empire on their ideas. Moreover, the theme that based on Cinderella has been repeated plenty of times in the form of The Princess DiariesPretty WomanEver AfterThe Princess Diaries II, Ella Enchanted, and Maid in Manhattan.

The twentieth-century educators were divided into two groups: advocates and critics. The former one encouraged educational, social, and spiritual elements in the stories. The critics believed that the themes and content of the tales were inappropriate for kids. The publication of The Uses of Enchantment (1976) by Bruno Bettelheim supported the concepts of Grimm tales in the relevant in children’s literature. Most of the tales emphasized on therapeutic values for children. Moreover, stories such as the Little Red-Cap and Hansel and Gretel presented in the form of coloring books, puppet shows, and cartoons.

The Sixties

In 1962, the film “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,” based on their lives, was a success. Many other films were produced on the Brothers Grimm and their work, such as Brothers GrimmEver AfterEver After High, and the 10th Kingdom.

Though the Grimm Brothers are popular because of their work to gathered folklore, however, their work wasn’t limited to tales only. They wrote several books about mythology, and along with them, they published scholarly work on linguistics and medieval studies. Moreover, they worked on compiling a German dictionary. However, they died even before they were able to finish the entry for the letter “F.” The university library at the Humboldt University of Berlin is positioned in the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center.

The German land is so blessed to have the evergreen presence of the Grimm Brothers in the form of their work, such as fairy tales, books, and a dictionary. After many decades, even their story of struggle seems to be a fairy tale to many. Their never-ending love and respect for each other and enthusiasm for work are not less than an inspiration for the existing ones as well as the upcoming generations.

Book Now