Featured Storytellers: Grimm Brothers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Germany in 1785 and 1786, respectively. They were one of the highest figures of the new intellectual enthusiasm in folk tales that advanced in their time. The first volume of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (‘Children’s and Household Tales’), published in 1812, contained 86 stories. The second, which came out in 1814, added 70 more. There were plentiful later editions, erasing some stories and enumerating others, of what became known in English as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. They have mesmerised  and scared many genesis of children in more than 70 languages and have motivated authors, artists, composers and film-makers as well as bringing about what has been construed  as a minor industry of criticism and interpretation, including Freudian and Jungian analysis.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s compilation of folktales incorporates some of the well known children’s characters in literary history, from Snow White and Rapunzel to Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Yet the brothers formerly filled their book, which became known as “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” with ghastly scenes. The Grimms never even set out to charm kids. The first edition of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” was scholarly in tone, with no illustrations. Only later, as children became their main congregation, did they take out some of the more adult content. Their stories were then further desolated as they were fitted by Walt Disney and others. 

 France Charles Perrault had published what would become classic fairy tales for children, including ‘Cinderellla’, ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, but his adaptations of the stories were meant for sophisticated aristocratic families. The Grimms’ attitude was entirely different. Their conviction was  that folk stories, handed down by word of mouth from one generation to another over centuries untold, preserved the fundamental concepts, beliefs and reactions to human experience of ‘the folk’. Communicating their hopes and joys, fears and sorrows, the tales were deeply significant for children and grown-ups alike. The brothers took stories from Perrault and many others, but their versions were quite so often very different.

An example is ‘Cinderella’, where the fairy godmother Perrault introduced does not appear. Demoted to the family’s kitchen maid after her own mother’s death and her father’s second marriage, the heroine is nicknamed Aschenputtel (‘Cinder-Fool’) by her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. She plants a hazel twig on her mother’s grave which, watered by her tears, grows into a tree. Two doves sent down from heaven by her mother come to the tree to help her when she prays for aid over the royal ball. They drop her a white gown and silk shoes for the ball’s first evening. For the second she has a far more splendid silver gown with silver shoes and on the third evening she is dressed in a magnificent golden gown and golden slippers. The prince has now fallen utterly in love with her and when she drops one of the golden slippers while running away he uses it to find her and identify her with the assistance of the heavenly doves, which also fly down and blind the evil stepsisters by pecking their eyeballs.

As in this case, many of the Grimms’ versions of the stories had a cruelty that was later frequently edited out as the stories became more and more popular as tales for children. Another change often made, incidentally, was turning an evil mother in a story into an evil stepmother, which was evidently considered more suitable.Snow White also has an evil mother, who at first wishes for and then become infuriated by her daughter’s beauty. The Grimms turned both of these characters into stepmothers in subsequent editions, and mothers have essentially remained off the hook ever since in the retelling of these stories.