The Brothers Grimm:
Of Facts and Faërie
By Gabriel Blanchard
From Poe to the Inklings to Disney, nearly all modern fiction with even a hint of magic in it descends in some degree from the Grimms.
In sense, it is odd to find the Brothers Grimm on our Author Bank, as they were definitely not the authors of the stories they published. However, this is quite normal for this genre. Fairy tales (like the myths of ancient Greece) tend to be folk literature: that is, traditional stories passed on primarily by word of mouth, usually in more than one version and almost always without a known original author, and typically both drawing on and imparting familiar images and themes from their native culture. They furnish people, especially children, with a kind of grammar of the imagination, through which to approach the wider world of both life and literature. When published in printed form, books of fairy tales are typically compilations; the names under which we remember them are not those of the authors, which are unknown, but those of the compilers—men like Andrew Lang, Charles Perrault, or Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. (Hans Christian Andersen is in fact rather unusual in that he composed most of his fairy tales himself.)
The Grimms lived in a pivotal age. When they were born in the mid-1780s, they lived in the Holy Roman Empire: in the worlds of philosophy and art, it was “the Age of Reason,” and the mathematical precision of the baroque and classical styles were international favorites; as for practical affairs, state pragmatics controlled diplomacy and warfare alike, most societies were heavily stratified according to hereditary class, and most of the major powers were colonial empires (though Great Britain had recently lost a good chunk of its North American territories, thanks to an idealistic revolt led by some self-important nerds). By the time they died, both close to 1860, the French Revolution and its consequences had ineffaceably altered the map of Europe. There was no Roman Empire any more, holy or otherwise, only a German Confederation. Poetry, music, theater, and painting all displayed a dramatic shift in favor of the Romantic movement, which celebrated liberty and passion, not infrequently at the expense of reason. Liberal, abolitionist, socialist, anarchist, and feminist movements challenged the Ancien Régime not just in France, but across the continent.
Times like these often drive people to look to the past for a feeling of connection and stability, and the nineteenth century was no exception. Sometimes this is little more than a hobby, but the Grimms had a strong intellectual bent by nature—appropriately, both spent most of their careers as librarians—and took an interest both in literature and in the language in which it appeared.
Jacob Grimm in particular, the elder of the two, was a prodigious linguist.* The Indo-European hypothesis—which states that most European and southwestern Asian languages** (like Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and Old Norse) share a common origin—was in its infancy at this time. Jacob revolutionized that field, and indeed linguistics in general, by advancing a theory known as Grimm’s Law, now universally accepted. Grimm’s Law states that changes in pronunciation over time do not occur randomly, but according to strict rules; this allows linguists to determine the history and development of language over thousands upon thousands of years, even without any written records.
But let us return to their common endeavor. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm spent decades collecting folk tales from all over the German-speaking world, and published them under the name Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or “Children’s and Household Stories.” The first edition, published in the December of 1812, featured eighty-six stories, many of which are acclaimed as classics to this day: Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all appeared in this collection. The second volume was completed in 1815, including another seventy (eventually expanded by forty-four more); these are less well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but a few are somewhat familiar, like The Devil and His Grandmother.
The Brothers Grimm are of course also known for altering many of the tales a good deal (as Walt Disney would do in turn). The redaction process often involved adding a happy ending or a moral, or both. We tend to think of fairy tales as repositories of simple and indeed simplistic morals, and sometimes this is true, but it is as much thanks to the Grimms as to the original versions of the stories they edited. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, started out as something more like a cautionary tale: the protagonist and her grandmother are eaten by the wolf, and that’s that; the woodcutter who saves them by chopping the wolf open is their addition. There are also a number of tales they later decided to remove, such as Bluebeard (a French story about a woman who discovers her husband has murdered six previous wives) and Wie Kinder Schlachtens Miteinander Gespielt Haben (omitted for reasons German speakers will doubtless understand from the title alone). It is a little surprising they troubled themselves with this, given that a great many tales from Kinder- un Hausmärchen are extremely dark and violent even after redaction. The changes to Cinderella are probably the best known. Disney’s version presents the wicked stepsisters trying merely to force their feet into the all-important glass slipper. In the Grimms’, not only does one stepsister cut off her toes and the other her heel in order to make the fraud convincing (they are betrayed by the blood; history does not relate how they expected this to be concealed by glass in the first place), but, at Cinderella’s wedding to the prince, a pair of birds peck out their eyes for good measure! Though again, here we at least find a happy ending. Contrast this with the unforgettable final line of The Death of the Little Hen: “And then everyone was dead.”
This makes more sense as a children’s book (!) if we realize that the Grimms thought of fairy tales as an expression of culture, both bad and good. And the legacy of the tales is mixed accordingly—for example, we are rightly disposed to be glad that few modern editions of the Grimms’ fairy tales include the handful of aggressively anti-Semitic stories from the corpus! But, although it requires careful handling, this mixture of light and darkness—like the checkered shade of a haunted forest under bright daylight—does have something to teach us. Few morals from Kinder- und Hausmärchen can be applied without qualification, any more than the fourth or fifth verses of Proverbs 26 can be applied without the context of the other. “The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom”; and wisdom largely means not only recognizing the right thing to do, but the right way and time to do it. That is a hard skill to acquire in a world we don’t control, such as this one—a fact symbolized and accented by the ubiquitous presence of magic (a power none of us possess) in these tales. It also stands out that shrewdness and humility are so often the moral of these tales, and not merely more appealing virtues like boldness; it takes wisdom to reckon with the fact that our decisions are neither insignificant nor omnipotent.
*Words like linguist and linguistics are often misunderstood. A linguist does not necessarily speak other languages; that is the role of a translator. Linguistics is the study of the various conceptual structures that underlie language. Linguistics thus occupies a fascinating middle point between neuroscience and philosophy, and is closely related to semiotics.
**There are a small number of languages in Europe that are not part of the Indo-European family: Basque, Finnish, Hungarian, and Turkish are all examples, as is the extinct language of the ancient Etruscans. Southwest Asia has many more, principally the Semitic languages of Arabic and Hebrew and the Dravidian languages of southern India.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and his house is absolutely not made of gingerbread.
Published on 12th December, 2022. Page image of the Dark Hedges in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.