I’ve been meaning to look into the Brothers Grimm for quite sometime now. Today, feeling tired and indecisive, I could not decide on a blog topic. Then, about twenty minutes ago, my professor made a comment about the Brothers Grimm and I thought “of course! I’ll write about them.” As a lover of both literature and Disney movies, I have to admit I’m curious about the depiction of these fairy tales in contemporary culture. In this same vein, the writing of these fairy tales was an attempt to capture elements of a dying popular culture.
I’ll begin with a brief biographical introduction. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, known conjointly as the Grimm Brothers, were the oldest siblings in a family of five brothers and one sister. Their father had been a lawyer and later a justiciary before passing away in 1796. Their father’s death brought social hardship to the family, which was further exacerbated by their mother’s passing in 1808. At this time, Jacob was 23 years old and left to care for his younger siblings.
With intentions of entering the world of civil service and following in the footsteps of their father, the brothers enrolled in law school at the University of Marburg. Here they were influenced by a number of figures who inspired their interest in folktales and folk poetry. Until 1816, and I won’t bother to go over the details, both brothers worked varying jobs ranging from private librarians to secretaries.
By this point the brothers decided to pursue a purely literary career, one they would pursue frugally and determinedly. Meanwhile, the 18th and 19th centuries were greatly shaped by Romanticism, primarily “Gothic” Romanticism, which as the name implies was deeply preoccupied with gloom and terror. They were not, it’s said, adherent to the fashions of their time and considered themselves more of realists than romantics. Their interests were therefore grounded less in their own era and more so in that of antiquity. Interestingly, their study of antiquity allowed them to form understandings and conclusions about the social institutions of their own day.
If you’re interested in their lives, you can read up on their later activities. While they are remembered for their collection of fairy tales they certainly made other contributions.
The Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, was published several times. The first edition came out in 1812 and contained 86 stories but was then revised and enlarged seven times before 1857. The final edition contained 211 stories. Now, while these stories are fantastical, it’s important to note that they were not entirely conjured by the Grimm Brothers. Instead, they relied on oral traditions and other modes of research to unpack and examine existing stories. The stories compiled in Grimm’s Fairy Tales are in fact the culmination of a rich oral history, one to which they paid close attention. As society grew more industrial, these folktales began to fade and thus Jacob and Wilhelm set off on a mission to preserve and revive disappearing tales, relying, especially, on interviews. If you ever find yourself questioning the importance of oral history, just remember the gift they’ve offered the world! On that note, the lasting influence of these tales is remarkable.
Biography.com questions our modern fascination with fairy tales (a fascination that isn’t exactly modern… but the living always seem to believe that the world revolves around them) and writes: “whatever the reason, it’s as clear as Cinderella’s glass slipper that our entertainment owes a lot to the Brothers Grimm.” This is true (the part about entertainment) but if you read Cinderella you’ll find that her shoes were in fact gold and not glass as was depicted in the Disney edition. Meanwhile, these stories offer a glimpse into popular culture before our time. I’ve compiled a few lines from Cinderella to give you a taste.
Be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect you.
Piety used to play a far more central role in the lives of lay people. I was ruminating on how religion is depicted in other fairy tales and would love to investigate the role of witches who were, historically, associated with the devil.
It happened, however, that the king gave orders for a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride.
I’m currently taking a course on religion and politics in early modern Europe and we’ve spent the past few days discussing the ways in which the Catholic Counter-Reformation attempted to “squash” various elements of popular culture, one of which was the presence of festivals. Festivals/carnivals were, to the Catholic Church, often associated with paganism, sloth and unscrupulous behaviour. Over time carnivals became less prevalent and so the enthusiasm exhibited by the characters in Cinderella is certainly reminiscent of medieval culture.
So her mother gave her a knife and said, cut a bit off your heel, when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot.
To put this strange quote in context… Unlike the movie, which simply depicts the evil stepsisters attempting to squeeze a foot into Cinderella’s glass shoe, the stepsisters in the text version actually, as shown above, mangle their feet in an attempt to make them fit. I picked this line because, other than making me laugh, I feel it accurately reflects the gore and violence commonly attributed to Grimm fairy tales (again, probably a result of their exposure to Gothic culture.)
I am certainly intrigued by these writers and feel inspired to research their work in the future. The topics to explore are innumerable and include obvious choices like the role of gender, power and violence in folklore. For now, however, I must redirect my attention to the world of contemporary literature and scurry off to another class. Thank you for reading and please feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section below!