Once upon a time, when most people were poor and illiterate, a common form of entertainment was listening to storytellers share tales that had first been told countless generations earlier.
A few centuries ago interest in memorizing long-ago tales began to wane, so scholars decided to write them down before the last of the storytellers died. The most famous compilers of folk tales were the Brothers Grimm, who may not have planned on their story collection being children’s entertainment.
Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863) and his brother Wilhelm (1786 – 1859) were born in – I hope I’ve got this right – the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, which was within the Kingdom of Germany, which was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. They were the eldest sons of the family’s six children who had not died in infancy.
Their father, Philipp Grimm, worked in the field of law, and the brothers’ early years were spent in a large country home. Education was a high priority, and they were taught by private tutors.
When Philipp Grimm died in 1796 the family had to move to a small house and get by on meager support from the mother’s extended family. A maternal aunt paid for Jacob and Wilhelm to attend the University of Marburg, but little assistance was provided beyond the cost of their tuition.
The young men were ostracized by fellow students due to their low social-status, but that helped them excel in their classes, for there were no outside distractions. They depended on each other for friendship and encouragement, and their close bond would last throughout their lives.
Jacob was the more scholarly and quiet brother, habitually working long hours without a break, and interested in most subjects that came to his attention. Wilhelm was outgoing and, though hard-working, was more easily distracted. He had few interests outside of his chosen fields of study. A childhood illness left him in poor health.
The brothers studied law, but became interested in history and literature. Throughout their adult lives they longed for a unified Germany. After the Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806 Germany consisted of dozens of states, each with a succession of rulers. The Brothers Grimm felt that the German national identity could be found in popular culture. Their interest in collecting and preserving folk tales was connected with their interest in unifying their country.
When Jacob first left school he – as the eldest son – was financially responsible for his impoverished family, so he took whatever work was available. He strove to keep his siblings from going hungry, and paid for his youngest brother to attend art school. Later on both Jacob and Wilhelm worked as librarians for many years. The pay was modest, but allowed them time to conduct their research.
Their first collection of folk tales was published in 1812. It’s not known who chose the dubious title of Children’s and Household Tales. The book drew criticism, for many families bought it to read to their children, though much of the content was not suitable for young ones.
For example, in the original version of Rapunzel the witch discovered the imprisoned damsel was being visited by a prince when Rapunzel’s expanding waistline showed that she was with child. One tale was about family members killing each other. There was no hero, and no happy ending.
The collection would go through seven editions, and with each one the stories were rewritten to make them more child-friendly. Some stories were eliminated. In those that remained babies weren’t born until nine months after the wedding, and evil mothers became evil step-mothers. The level of violence didn’t decrease, but painful deaths were usually reserved as punishment for the villains.
In 1825 40-year-old Wilhelm married Henriette Dorothea Wild, who had supplied the brothers with some of their folk tales. Jacob continued to live with Wilhelm and his family, which included three children who survived infancy.
The brothers wrote numerous books. Jacob did much of the work on the two-volume German Legends, which were based on stories of actual people and events. He also published 8th and 9th century German poems and songs, and translated folk tales from several European countries. (He could read about a dozen languages.)
Wilhelm took over most of the work on what would come to be known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and he edited such stories as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White into the written form that has come down to us through many generations.
The books provided academic recognition, but little extra income. For the most part they supported themselves and Wilhelm’s family on their salaries.
In about 1830 the brothers obtained employment at the University of Gottingen – Wilhelm as a professor, and Jacob as professor and head librarian. However, they lost their posts in 1837 after refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to King Ernest Augustus I, who was the ruler of the German state of Hanover.
During the time they were without employment the brothers moved to the German state of Hesse and began to work on what they hoped would be their masterpiece – a multi-volume German dictionary.
In 1840 the brothers obtained teaching posts at the University of Berlin, plus the Academy of Sciences offered them research stipends. With two steady sources of income Jacob and Wilhelm were able to live in middle-class comfort as they taught classes and published scholarly works. Wilhelm continued to rewrite Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The final revised edition was published in 1857.
After Wilhelm died in 1859, at the age of 73, Jacob became reclusive, spending his days working on his German dictionary. The elder brother died in 1863, at the age of 78, soon after writing the definition of the word “fruit.” Generations of scholars would continue to work on what would become a 32-volume dictionary, completed in 1960.
Since Grimms’ Fairy Tales did not become a best seller until after the brothers’ deaths it is unlikely that Jacob and Wilhelm imagined their project to preserve German culture would have such a lasting impact on the world. A billion copies of their rewritten traditional tales have been published in over 50 languages.
Stories that had been in danger of dying with the last oral storyteller have gone on to live happily ever after.