The Brothers Grimm (die Brüder Grimm or die Gebrüder Grimm), Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859), were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who together specialized in collecting and publishing folklore during the 19th century. They were among the best-known storytellers of folk tales, and popularized stories such as „Cinderella“, „The Frog Prince“, „The Goose-Girl“, „Hansel and Gretel“, „Rapunzel“, „Rumpelstiltskin“,“Sleeping Beauty“, and „Snow White“. Their first collection of folk tales, Children’s and Household Tales was published in 1812.
The brothers spent their formative years in the German town of Hanau. Their father’s death in 1796 caused great poverty for the family and affected the brothers for many years after. They both attended the University of Marburg where they developed a curiosity about German folklore, which grew into a lifelong dedication to collecting German folk tales. The rise of romanticism during the 19th century revived interest in traditional folk stories, which to the brothers represented a pure form of national literature and culture. With the goal of researching a scholarly treatise on folk tales, they established a methodology for collecting and recording folk stories that became the basis for folklore studies. Between 1812 and 1857, their first collection was revised and republished many times, growing from 86 stories to more than 200. In addition to writing and modifying folk tales, the brothers wrote collections of well-respected German and Scandinavian mythologies, and in 1838 they began writing a definitive German dictionary, which they were unable to finish during their lifetime.
The popularity of the Grimms‘ best folk tales has endured well. The tales are available in more than 100 languages and have been later adapted by filmmakers including Lotte Reiniger and Walt Disney, with films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. In the mid-20th century, the tales were used as propaganda by the Third Reich; later in the 20th century psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim reaffirmed the value of the work, in spite of the cruelty and violence in original versions of some of the tales, which the Grimms eventually sanitized.
Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm was born on 4 January 1785 and his brother Wilhelm Carl Grimm on 24 February 1786. Both boys were born in Hanau, Germany, to Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, a jurist, and Dorothea Grimm née Zimmer, daughter of a Kassel city councilman. They were the second- and third-eldest surviving siblings in a family of nine children, three of whom died in infancy. In 1791, the family moved to the countryside town of Steinau, when Philipp was employed there as district magistrate (Amtmann). The family became prominent members of the community, residing in a large home surrounded by fields. Biographer Jack Zipes writes that the brothers were happy in Steinau and „clearly fond of country life“. The children were educated at home by private tutors, receiving strict instruction as Lutherans that instilled in both a lifelong religious faith. Later, they attended local schools.
In 1796, Philipp Grimm died of pneumonia, which caused sudden and severe financial hardship for the large family, and they were forced to relinquish their servants and large house. Dorothea depended on financial support from her father and sister, first lady-in-waiting at the court of William I, Elector of Hesse. Jacob was the eldest living son, and he was forced at age 11 to assume adult responsibilities (shared with Wilhelm) for the next two years. The two boys adhered to the advice of their grandfather, who continually exhorted them to be industrious.
The brothers left Steinau and their family in 1798 to attend the Friedrichsgymnasium in Kassel, which had been arranged and paid for by their aunt. By then, they were without a male provider (their grandfather died that year), forcing them to rely entirely on each other, and they became exceptionally close. The two brothers differed in temperament; Jacob was introspective and Wilhelm was outgoing (although he often suffered from ill-health). But they shared a strong work ethic and excelled in their studies. In Kassel, they became acutely aware of their inferior social status relative to „high-born“ students who received more attention. Each brother graduated at the head of his class: Jacob in 1803 and Wilhelm in 1804 (he missed a year of school due to scarlet fever).
After graduation from the Friedrichsgymnasium, the brothers attended the University of Marburg. The university was small with about 200 students and there they became painfully aware that students of lower social status were not treated equally. They were disqualified from admission because of their social standing and had to request dispensation to study law. Wealthier students received stipends, but the brothers were excluded even from tuition aid. Their poverty kept them from student activities or university social life; ironically, however, their outsider status worked in their favor, and they pursued their studies with extra vigor.
The brothers were inspired by their law professor Friedrich von Savigny, who awakened in them an interest in history and philology, and they turned to studying medieval German literature. They shared Savigny’s desire to see unification of the 200 German principalities into a single state. Through Savigny and his circle of friends—German romantics such as Clemens Brentano and Ludwig Achim von Arnim—the Grimms were introduced to the ideas of Johann Gottfried Herder, who thought that German literature should revert to simpler forms, which he defined as Volkspoesie (natural poetry) as opposed to Kunstpoesie (artistic poetry). The brothers dedicated themselves with great enthusiasm to their studies, about which Wilhelm wrote in his autobiography, „the ardor with which we studied Old German helped us overcome the spiritual depression of those days.“
Jacob was still financially responsible for his mother, brother, and younger siblings in 1805, so he accepted a post in Paris as research assistant to von Savigny. On his return to Marburg, he was forced to abandon his studies to support the family, whose poverty was so extreme that food was often scarce. He took a job with the Hessian War Commission. In a letter written to his aunt at this time, Wilhelm wrote of their circumstances, „We five people eat only three portions and only once a day“.
Jacob found full-time employment in 1808 when he was appointed court librarian to the King of Westphalia and went on to become librarian in Kassel. After their mother’s death that year, he became fully responsible for his younger siblings. He arranged and paid for his brother Ludwig’s studies at art school and for Wilhelm’s extended visit to Halle to seek treatment for heart and respiratory ailments, following which Wilhelm joined Jacob as librarian in Kassel. The brothers also began collecting folk tales at about this time, in a cursory manner and on Brentano’s request. According to Jack Zipes, at this point „the Grimms were unable to devote all their energies to their research and did not have a clear idea about the significance of collecting folk tales in this initial phase.“
During their employment as librarians—which paid little but afforded them ample time for research—the brothers experienced a productive period of scholarship, publishing a number of books between 1812 and 1830. In 1812, they published their first volume of 86 folk tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, followed quickly by two volumes of German legends and a volume of early literary history. They went on to publish works about Danish and Irish folk tales and Norse mythology, while continuing to edit the German folk tale collection. These works became so widely recognized that the brothers received honorary doctorates from universities in Marburg, Berlin, and Breslau (now Wrocław).
In 1825, Wilhelm married Henriette Dorothea (Dortchen) Wild, a long-time family friend and one of a group who supplied them with stories. Jacob never married but continued to live in the household with Wilhelm and Dortchen. In 1830, both brothers were overlooked when the post of chief librarian came available, which disappointed them greatly. They moved the household to Göttingen in the Kingdom of Hanover where they took employment at the University of Göttingen, Jacob as a professor and head librarian and Wilhelm as professor.
During the next seven years, the brothers continued to research, write, and publish. In 1835, Jacob published the well-regarded German Mythology (Deutsche Mythologie); Wilhelm continued to edit and prepare the third edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen for publication. The two brothers taught German studies at the university, becoming well-respected in the newly established discipline.
In 1837, they lost their university posts after joining in protest with the Göttingen Seven. The 1830s were a period of political upheaval and peasant revolt in Germany, leading to the movement for democratic reform known as Young Germany. The Grimm brothers were not directly aligned with the Young Germans, but five of their colleagues reacted against the demands of King Ernest Augustus I, who dissolved the parliament of Hanover in 1837 and demanded oaths of allegiance from civil servants—including professors at the University of Göttingen. For refusing to sign the oath, the seven professors were dismissed and three were deported from Hanover, including Jacob who went to Kassel. He was later joined there by Wilhelm, Dortchen, and their four children.
The brothers were without income in 1838 and again in extreme financial difficulty, so they began what became a lifelong project: the writing of a definitive dictionary. The first volume of their German Dictionary was not published until 1854. The brothers again depended on friends and supporters for financial assistance and influence in finding employment.
In 1840, von Savigny and Bettina von Arnim appealed successfully to Frederick William IV of Prussia on behalf of the brothers who were offered posts at the University of Berlin. In addition to teaching posts, the Academy of Sciences offered them stipends to continue their research. Once they had established the household in Berlin, they directed their efforts towards the work on the German dictionary and continued to publish their research. Jacob turned his attention to researching German legal traditions and the history of the German language, which was published in the late 1840s and early 1850s; meanwhile, Wilhelm began researching medieval literature while editing new editions of Hausmärchen.
After the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, the brothers were elected to the civil parliament. Jacob became a prominent member of the National Assembly at Mainz. Their political activities were short-lived, as their hope dwindled for a unified Germany and their disenchantment grew. In the late 1840s, Jacob resigned his university position and saw the publication of The History of the German Language (Geschichte der deutschen Sprache). Wilhelm continued at his university post until 1852. After retiring from teaching, the brothers devoted themselves to the German Dictionary for the rest of their lives. Wilhelm died of an infection in Berlin in 1859, and Jacob became increasingly reclusive, deeply upset at his brother’s death. He continued work on the dictionary until his own death in 1863. Zipes writes of the Grimm brothers‘ dictionary and of their very large body of work: „Symbolically the last word was Frucht (fruit).“
Children’s and Household Tales
The rise of romanticism, Romantic nationalism, and trends in valuing popular culture in the early 19th century revived interest in fairy tales, which had declined since their late-17th century peak. Johann Karl August Musäus published a popular collection of tales between 1782 and 1787; the Grimms aided the revival with their folklore collection, built on the conviction that a national identity could be found in popular culture and with the common folk (Volk). They collected and published tales as a reflection of German cultural identity. In the first collection, though, they included Charles Perrault’s tales, published in Paris in 1697 and written for the literary salons of an aristocratic French audience. Scholar Lydie Jean explains that a myth was created that Perrault’s tales came from the common people and reflected existing folklore in order to justify their inclusion—even though many of them were original.
The brothers were directly influenced by Brentano and von Arnim, who edited and adapted the folk songs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn or cornucopia). They began the collection with the purpose of creating a scholarly treatise of traditional stories and of preserving the stories as they had been handed from generation to generation—a practice that was threatened by increased industrialization. Maria Tatar, professor of German studies at Harvard University, explains that it is precisely the handing from generation to generation and the genesis in the oral tradition that gives folk tales an important mutability. Versions of tales differ from region to region, „picking up bits and pieces of local culture and lore, drawing a turn of phrase from a song or another story and fleshing out characters with features taken from the audience witnessing their performance.“
However, as Tatar explains, the Grimms appropriated stories as being uniquely German, such as „Little Red Riding Hood“, which had existed in many versions and regions throughout Europe, because they believed that such stories were reflections of Germanic culture. Furthermore, the brothers saw fragments of old religions and faiths reflected in the stories which they thought continued to exist and survive through the telling of stories.
When Jacob returned to Marburg from Paris in 1806, their friend Brentano sought the brothers‘ help in adding to his collection of folk tales, at which time the brothers began to gather tales in an organized fashion. By 1810, they had produced a manuscript collection of several dozen tales, written after inviting storytellers to their home and transcribing what they heard. These tales were heavily modified in transcription, and many had roots in previously written sources. At Brentano’s request, they printed and sent him copies of the 53 tales that they collected for inclusion in his third volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Brentano either ignored or forgot about the tales, leaving the copies in a church in Alsace where they were found in 1920 and became known as the Ölenberg manuscript. It is the earliest extant version of the Grimms‘ collection and has become a valuable source to scholars studying the development of the Grimms‘ collection from the time of its inception. The manuscript was published in 1927 and again in 1975.
The brothers gained a reputation for collecting tales from peasants, although many tales came from middle-class or aristocratic acquaintances. Wilhelm’s wife Dortchen Wild and her family, with their nursery maid, told the brothers some of the more well-known tales, such as „Hansel and Gretel“ and „Sleeping Beauty“. Wilhelm collected a number of tales after befriending August von Haxthausen, whom he visited in 1811 in Westphalia where he heard stories from von Haxthausen’s circle of friends. Several of the storytellers were of Huguenot ancestry, telling tales of French origin such as those told to the Grimms by Marie Hassenpflug, an educated woman of French Huguenot ancestry, and it is probable that these informants were familiar with Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories from Past Times). Other tales were collected from Dorothea Viehmann, the wife of a middle-class tailor and also of French descent. Despite her middle-class background, in the first English translation she was characterized as a peasant and given the name Gammer Gretel.
According to scholars such as Ruth Bottigheimer and Maria Tatar, some of the tales probably originated in written form during the medieval period with writers such as Straparola and Boccaccio, but were modified in the 17th century and again rewritten by the Grimms. Moreover, Tatar writes that the brothers‘ goal of preserving and shaping the tales as something uniquely German at a time of French occupation was a form of „intellectual resistance“ and, in so doing, they established a methodology for collecting and preserving folklore that set the model to be followed later by writers throughout Europe during periods of occupation.
From 1807 onward, the brothers added to the collection. Jacob established the framework, maintained through many iterations; from 1815 until his death, Wilhelm assumed sole responsibility for editing and rewriting the tales. He made the tales stylistically similar, added dialogue, removed pieces „that might detract from a rustic tone“, improved the plots, and incorporated psychological motifs. Ronald Murphy writes in The Owl, the Raven and the Dove that the brothers—and in particular Wilhelm—also added religious and spiritual motifs to the tales. He believes that Wilhelm „gleaned“ bits from old Germanic faiths, Norse mythology, Roman and Greek mythology, and biblical stories that he reshaped.
Over the years, Wilhelm worked extensively on the prose, expanded and added detail to the stories to the point that many grew to be twice the length of those in the earliest published editions. In the later editions, Wilhelm polished the language to make it more enticing to a bourgeois audience, eliminated sexual elements, and added Christian elements. After 1819, he began writing for children (children were not initially considered the primary audience), adding entirely new tales or adding new elements to existing tales, elements that were often strongly didactic.
Some changes were made in light of unfavorable reviews, particularly from those who objected that not all the tales were suitable for children because of scenes of violence and sexuality. He worked to modify plots for many stories; for example, „Rapunzel“ in the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen clearly shows a sexual relationship between the prince and the girl in the tower, which he edited out in subsequent editions. Tatar writes that morals were added (in the second edition, a king’s regret was added to the scene in which his wife is to be burned at the stake) and often the characters in the tale were amended to appear more German.