The Brothers Grimm

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. 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!


Beatrix Potter: Her Life and Works

I’ve always loved Beatrix Potter. In terms of children’s authors, she’s always been one of my literary heroes. The movie, Miss Potter, was also one of my favourite films growing up. Her persistence as an artist and as a woman is inspiring. She was, ultimately, more than an illustrator and an author. She was a woman who carved out a space for herself in a male dominated world, made independent choices and investments.

She was, in some ways, a classically Victorian writer. In others, she was far from it. Born in 1866 to a wealthy family, Helen Beatrix Potter lived a life of privilege. Nevertheless, her talents were evident from a young age as she was said to have been restless, keenly observant and like the rest of her family, somewhat nonconformist.

Family holidays were tbeatrix_potter3aken in the countryside where nature fuelled her imagination and inspired her art. Her fascination with small creatures and various plants manifested itself in more than just her artwork.

The mycological aspect of her life has been greatly ignored, though given more attention in recent few years.

Historian Linda Lear wrote that Beatrix Potter:

“was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.”

Her obsession developed beyond artistic interests and Potter’s investment in mycology (the study of fungi) led her to draw hundreds of specimens. By studying various specimens microscopically, Potter eventually became interested in spore germination. In 1897 she wrote a paper on germinating fungal spores. The paper was presented to the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest biological society.

So while Beatrix Potter is remembered as Jemima Puddleduck and Peter Rabbit’s creator, Potter was equally interested in the study of fungi. Historians and scientists have debated her contributions. Some claim that her contributions were subject to the patriarchal suppression commonly attributed to Victorian society while others described her work as ambitious, of lesser importance and given more credit than deserved. Her connections, in particular, gave her her standing. Nevertheless, she challenged the era’s gender stereotypes by developing and pursuing interests in the sciences.

p03jnc4gIn 1892, she met with Charles McIntosh, a naturalist she’d known since the age of four. With his support, Potter went on to produce some 350 accurate sketches of fungi and mosses. Later, McIntosh advised in a letter:

Since you have begun to study the physiology of the funguses you seem to see your drawings of them as defective in regard to the gills, but you can make them more perfect as botanical drawings by making separate sketches of sections showing the attachment of the gills, the stem, if it be hollow or otherwise, or any other details that would show the characteristics of the plant more distinctly.

Then, after being introduced to a mycologist at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, George Massee, Potter began to further experiment with spore germination, using her microscope to measure growth. She considered her work groundbreaking despite Massee’s skepticism and advice. He advised her to read the work of an older German mycologist but she paid him little attention. 

That said, in March 1897, Massee agreed to submit Potter’s paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society. As the Society didn’t admit females until 1905, Potter was absent when her paper was discussed. Despite comments that it was “well received,” she withdrew the paper. It was never published and no copy exists today.

Her work is fascinating and I advise anyone interested to read more elsewhere. For now, however, I loop back to Potter’s social and artistic life.

In addition to challenging gender stereotypes in the wold of science, Beatrix Potter sought financial independence through her art. She began by seeking a publisher. Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Four more of her books were published following Peter Rabbit’s story, including Potter’s personal favourite, The Tailor of Gloucester. What ensued was far more than the printing of a book. Within three years Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter fell madly in love. If you’re looking for a tear jerker, watch Miss Potter. The movie provides a heartfelt account of their love story and unless you have a heart of stone, you’re sure to feel moved.


Norman Warne

When Warne proposed in 1905, Potter accepted despite her family’s opposition. As a tradesman, Potter’s family scorned Warne and disapproved of their union. Their love, meanwhile, was a story unto itself, a love that was tragically cut short when Norman Warne died of Leukemia a month later. The following years of Potter’s life were thus characterized by intense grief, solitude and a flourishing of her creative side. In the wake of Warne’s death, Potter purchased a farm called Hill Top near Sawrey, Lancashire. She purchased the 34 acres as a single woman at 39 years old using the royalties from her books and a small inheritance from her aunt. It was the home she and Warne had planned to share. Thus, in purchasing Hill Top, Potter was, in a sense, memorializing their unfinished story.

Over the next years, Potter wrote and illustrated 13 new stories. The farm provided a sanctuary where she could write and paint in peace. As she embraced country life, The Tale of Tom Kitten, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers reflected joys derived from life on the farm. At Hill Top, though artistically productive, Potter’s endeavors were not limited to writing and painting. She’d become a woman of the countryside with a myriad of responsibilities such as tending to her many animals. Included in her initial stock were ducks and hens, sixteen Herwick sheep, collies, six dairy cows and some fourteen pigs. She’d later own sizeable flocks of turkeys and chickens.

Then, in 1909, Beatrix Potter purchased a second property. Aided by a local solicitor, William Heelis, Potter bought Castle Farm, a property across the road from Hill Top. In 1913, at the age of 47, Potter and Heelis married. Their relationship had developed companionably and steadily. Prior to their engagement, Heelis had become Potter’s principal legal advisor and managed her properties when she returned to London (for a period, she spent a significant amount of time in the city caring for her elderly parents.) Nevertheless, she married Heelis in 1913 and they would remain together for thirty years.

Linda Lear reflects on Potter’s two great loves:

She had loved Norman for his imagination and his humour, and she similarly delighted in William’s love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside and his zest for being out in it.

In 1914, Potter’s father passed away and she was further engaged with caring for her mother. Additionally, the onset of war added to her struggles. Labour and food shortages forced her to kill rabbits, something she particularly disliked having to do. Her favourite collie, Kep, also died and the loss added to her gloom. But of course the war came to a close and for the most part life at Hill Top reclaimed a normal pace. Over the course of her lifetime, Potter became committed to her community and various causes such as opposing hydroplanes on Lane Windermere or founding a nursing trust to improve local health care. Eventually her eyesight began to wear, making The Tale of Little Pig Robinson her last book.

Her contributions were enormous as her stories continue to thrill us today. Just last year I sat in my room making water colour paintings inspired by her characters. I feel delight upon revisiting her books and am certain they’ll continue to enchant following generations.


Sources/Further Reading:

Famous as Famous can Be

Ever wonder how Theodor Seuss Geisel became the eminent “Dr. Seuss?” I know I did. I’ve always been a fan of Seuss’ works but I never understood why he published under a pseudonym.

ted_headshotbigAt 18 Theodor Geisel left Massachusetts to attend Dartmouth College where he worked as editor in chief of the Jack-O-Lantern, the school’s humour magazine. As most students do, Geisel and his friends gathered for a night of social drinking. The catch? No, they were not slammed for underage drinking or public indecency. In fact, they were drinking in violation of New Hampshire’s prohibition law. While prohibition laws in the north-eastern state were erratic, the passing of the 18th amendment in 1920 witnessed the return of prohibition. Cracking down was no joke and thus Geisel and his pals were kicked off the magazine staff. But losing his position as editor in chief at the Jack-O-Lantern didn’t stop Geisel from submitting his work. Instead, he began to submit under the pseudonym “Seuss.”

After graduating from Dartmouth College, Seuss went on to study at the University of Oxford where he met his future wife, Helen Palmer. In 1927, they married and Seuss dropped out of school. Soon thereafter the newlyweds moved back to the United States.

Upon hearing “Dr. Seuss,” one might conjure images of green eggs and ham, truffula trees or the Grinch’s serpentine smile. This is because Dr. Seuss is a contemporary icon. Even after his death in 1991, people continue to revel in Seussical worlds. The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who and The Cat in the Hat are examples of films produced in the 21st century. The Lorax shocked box offices with a record-shattering debut of 70.7 million dollars.

the-loraxBut the beloved forest creature wasn’t born over night. After returning to the U.S. Seuss began working as a cartoonist, publishing with the likes of LIFE and Vanity Fair. Now get this, if all the writerly advice to “not give up” on publishing hasn’t got you convinced, Seuss’ first book And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street was rejected 27 times. Finally, in 1937, Vanguard Press introduced us to a man that changed the literary world.

What makes Dr. Seuss so special? He offers dichotomous worlds that appeal to children and adults alike. Seussical worlds are as magical as they are real, political statements masked by the sounds of Boom Bands and Hakken-Krak Howls. But his cartooning career saw more than Thing 1 and Thing 2. It is no wonder that his works are so politically or philosophically engaging. During the Second World War, Dr. Seuss contributed political cartoons to PM Magazine, a liberal NYC paper. In 1942 he was too old for the draft but, like any citizen living in the throes of war, Seuss contributed to the effort. He served under Frank Capra, the director of It’s a Wonderful Life. His duties? He composed propaganda posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board in addition to making animated training films.


(I suggest browsing his other cartoons)

In 1954, LIFE Magazine published an article that criticized the average child’s reading capabilities. The article was a stepping stone for Seuss who was commissioned to write an elementary textbook using 220 vocabulary words. Meet The Cat in the Hat! The ensuing publication secured Dr. Seuss’ position as one of America’s leading children’s authors and illustrators.

Although he has passed, Dr. Seuss continues to cast spells over us all. I am now 22 and yes I find myself in bed reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! whenever I feel down. Every Christmas I watch the Grinch and I dream about someday introducing my future children to yawning Van Vleck or Yertle the Turtle.

So Congratulations, Dr. Seuss. You went Great Places! You went off and away! Did you succeed? Yes! You did, indeed! In this case I claim with 100% guarantee. YOU MOVED MOUNTAINS.