Thursday 20 December 2012

This Fairytale Lives of the Brothers Grimm (200th Anniversary)

If you look on Google today you’ll find they’ve changed their logo (as they do for all geeky/awesome anniversaries and events). It features a little girl in a red riding cloak and if you scroll through the images on the logo you’ll get her complete story. It’s the story of little red riding cap, a French tale that can be traced as far back as 1697 that was included in the original first edition of Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Today (December 20th 2012) marks the 200th anniversary of the Brothers Grimm publishing their first collection of fairytales. The first of many.  Over the years the tales they collected have been warped and twisted so that you can barely see where it began but like any good story, there is a beginning to the tale of the Brothers Grimm.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Hanau, German in 1785 and 1786 respectively to Philipp and Dorothea Grimm who together had nine children (Jacob and Wilhelm being the second and third child) though only six survived: eight boys and one girl. By 1796 the boys had lost three of their brothers as well as their father, leaving the rest of the family in poverty – and Wilhelm with severe asthma. The boys moved in with their aunt in Kassel and attended secondary school there before moving on to attend the University of Marburg to study law.

     This                             compared to                       This? Hmm...

It was a law professor who first ignited the boy’s passion for folklore by opening his private library to the students and presenting them with a world of literature. It seemed their love of books could have been the only thing they had in common as the boys couldn’t have been more opposite in nature: Jacob was very much the introverted bookworm, choosing to spend his free time reading and immersing himself in literature over taking a stroll in the park with a lady on his arm as his brother did. He would live and die a confirmed bachelor. They both had a love of folklore and fairytales but it was Jacob who had a dedication and passion that rivaled none and it was he who was constantly learning and collecting fairytales.
After their mother died in 1808, Jacob began working at King Jerome’s private library after the French had invaded Kassel in order to support his siblings while Wilhelm remained at school, still struggling with asthma and a weak heart – though he did eventually join his brother at the library after the French withdrew from Germany. A writer, Clemens Brentano, asked the brothers to help him gather a collection of folklore for publication but it was never published and so the brothers began collecting tales on their own. They were gathered mostly from books and oral narrations from locals, one of them being an old family friend Dortchen Wild who would later marry Wilhelm.

In 1812, after years of collecting and translating fairytales, the brothers Grimm published the first edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) which did modestly in sales but they were still living on about one meal a day, working hard to support their family.

Both boys were against the French invasion of Germany and the Napoleonic Wars and supported German unification so when the French withdrew in 1813 they celebrated. But no matter their political views they still faced many social hardships because of their lower status and middle-lower class background. This became abundantly clear when Jacob was passed over for head librarian because of his poor connections and lower standing and so the boys both resigned in 1829, moving to Göttingen where they both became professors and librarians at the University there.
During the sixteen years between the war and the resignation, the brothers published two more editions of the Fairytale collection as well as five other fairytale collections and such works as German Grammar, Ancient German Law (both under just Jacob’s name) and German Heroic Legends (under Wilhelm’s name). While they taught, they continued to write and Jacob notably released a study called German Mythology but there was still political unrest and the 1830s saw many riots, particularly by a group of intellectuals known as ‘Young Germany’. While the brothers didn’t support the group, they supported the cause and so when King Ernest Augustus took power in 1937 in Germany and required all officeholders (including professors at Göttingen University) to renew their vow to the king, they – along with five others – refused. The king had them removed from their positions and Jacob was expelled for his hand in the protest.
The boys returned to Kassel and began working on a massive project: the German Dictionary; to occupy their time since their political affiliations made it difficult to procure another teaching position. They were both eventually offered teaching positions at the University of Berlin and began teaching there in 1841 but the revolution of 1848 caused Jacob to resign from his teach position because of his hand in the political uprising and his brother followed in 1852.
The brothers spent the rest of their lives devoted to completing the Dictionary but only got as far as the letter ‘F’ before Wilhelm died of an infection in 1859, leaving Jacob devastated and even more of a recluse until his own death in 1863 at the age of 78.
Jacob and Wilhelm never considered their works to be fairytales for children but rather a collection of history, fables and folklore to be studied and appreciated. Many of the tales they wrote down were rather dark and twisted and are definitely not suited for children (there's a story about a child who watches his father gut a pig and then practices on his brother, causing his mother to drown her other child and hang herself) but with Walt Disney’s presentation of Snow White in 1937, the retelling of Grimm’s Fairytales has taken on a sanitized, family-friendly approach.
Not to be forgotten, their last fairytale certainly didn’t have a happy ending – for the readers at least: it was never completed. ‘The Golden Key’ sits unfinished to this day except in the minds of readers the world over.
In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy

was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had

gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was so

frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and

warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he

was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny golden key.

Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be

also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. "If the

key does but fit it!" thought he; "no doubt there are precious

things in that little box." He searched, but no keyhole was

there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was

hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly.

Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has

quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn

what wonderful things were lying in that box.
 (That’s where it ends, I swear.)
The Brothers Grimm have become an icon of literature and history, providing Germany and the world with countless written treasures collected and worshipped as the ultimate anthology of over 200 fairytales written in their words for everyone to enjoy.

So now I want to know: what is your favourite Grimm fairytale? Can’t decide? Here you can read all 210 fairytales from the Children’s and Household Tales collection:
A favourite of mine (though certainly not my only favourite) is the Princess and the Frog. Remember that sweet, romantic scene in the Disney movie where she kisses him and they fall in love etcetera, etcetera? In the original tale told by the brothers Grimm, she threw the frog – hard­ – against a wall and he awoke a Prince. How awesome is that?

Let me know in the comments section what your favourites are.

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