This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The frightening fairytale world of the scholarly Brothers Grimm

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature on Thursday, 29 August 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the Brothers Grimm originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

Little Red riding Hood, picture, image, illustration

" 'What big eyes you have, grandmother!' said she"; an illustration for Little Red Riding Hood by William Henry Margetson

In 1809, a magistrate in the small German town of Hoxter received an unusual letter from a little-known scholar and librarian named Jacob Grimm. In the letter Grimm asked the magistrate, who was an old friend, if he would “pick the brains” of the thieves and criminals who came before his court. What he wanted to discover, said Grimm, was the rogues’ knowledge of fairy-tales and folk-songs. If enough material was gathered, it might be turned into a unique and fascinating book.

At first the magistrate, Paul Wigand, did not take the letter very seriously, and although he instructed his secretaries to keep their ears open for such yarns, and told them to quiz the local peasants and charcoal-burners, he soon forgot all about the matter. He thought that the songs might make an interesting book, but he didn’t believe anyone would want to read a collection of fairy-tales.

Then, in 1811, Jacob’s brother Wilhelm paid the first of two visits to Hoxter. He interviewed the nurse-maid employed by Wigand, and on his return to his home in the German city of Cassel, he and Jacob spoke to as many peasants as they could.

For the next few months, the brothers worked furiously at assembling and writing the stories which were to become world-famous as Grimms’ Fairy-Tales.

They got many of their best stories from an apothecary’s housekeeper called “Old Marie.” She told them the tales of Little Red Riding-Hood, the Robber Bridegroom, and Godfather Death.

But by far their most extraordinary collaborator was Johann Krause, a former sergeant-major in the Dragoons.

When the Grimm brothers asked Krause to supply such stories as The Three Snakeleaves, and The King of the Golden Mountain, the hard-up old soldier asked for some cast-off clothing by way of payment.

Despite the difficulties involved, the brothers pressed on with their painstaking labour of love. A “Flemming woman” brought forth the story of Snow-White; a stubborn old invalid reluctantly revealed her store of folklore; friends and relatives joined in the search, even though the people they questioned looked at them “in amazement.”

The fairy-tales, or Children’s and Household Tales as they were originally called, were published shortly before the Christmas of 1812. The volume of stories was enthusiastically received, and the Grimm brothers felt justified in congratulating themselves. They had defied the fashion of the time, which decreed that fairy-tales were out-of-date and too “romantic.”

During the next three years, thousands of children clamoured to read the book. In subsequent editions, some of the more gruesome stories were taken out, although Jacob stressed that the tales were also intended for the “oldest and most serious of people,” for whom they were a “source of poetry, mythology, and history.”

By 1815, Wilhelm was able to claim that “the fairy-tales have made us famous all over the world.”

The brothers’ success was in direct contrast to their earlier lives, which consisted largely of hardship, ill-health, and poverty.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in the little town of Hanau, near Frankfurt, in 1785 and 1786 respectively. Their father was the local town clerk, and with his death in 1796, the Grimm family was left destitute.

Apart from Jacob and Wilhelm, there were four younger children to provide for, and at the age of eleven Jacob found himself the head of the family. In 1805, he went to Paris to work as secretary to a scholar. But he soon became homesick and wanted to be back with Wilhelm again. These two were always extremely close, and for years Jacob looked after Wilhelm, who was the ailing one of the pair.

After the death of their mother in 1806, the brothers were left on their own. Jacob became librarian to Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, who was made the puppet king of Westphalia. The elder Grimm, however, did not care for his employer, and recorded with tactful understatement that, “These were not my most pleasant days.”

Meanwhile, when Wilhelm had recovered from pains that felt like “a red-hot arrow” piercing his heart, each of the brothers brought out a book of his own. Both volumes were published in 1811; Jacob’s was a study of early German mastersingers, while Wilhelm’s was a translation of some songs of Danish chivalry.

The following year saw the publication of their first joint work – a new version of some eighth-century German poems. The book was intended mainly for scholars and gave little indication of the popular fairy-tales which were to appear later that same year.

By now, the brothers had achieved a harmonious working method. The more robust Jacob obtained most of the material, while Wilhelm wrote the tales, polishing each phrase as though it were a precious stone.

Surprisingly, it was Wilhelm who broke the regular pattern of the brothers’ lives. In 1825, he married Dorothea Wild, an old family friend who had helped greatly in the quest for the fairy-tales. Jacob, however, was not entirely forgotten. He was invited to live with the newly-married couple, and their household proved to be a very happy one.

For the rest of their lives, the Grimm brothers concentrated on scholastic work. “My brother,” wrote Wilhelm proudly, “is working diligently on an historical grammar which will embrace every branch of the German language, and which is likely to be of no small importance.” The book, Jacob’s German Grammar, was published in 1838.

Then, after a dispute with the tyrannical King of Hanover, Jacob and Wilhelm found themselves dismissed from their posts as librarians to the University of Gottingen. This was compensated for by the honours which were bestowed upon them in Europe and America. They lived out their days in an atmosphere of peace and learning. Wilhelm was the first to die (in 1859) and Jacob followed him four years later.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.