You may have heard people talking about fairy tale classics and their seemingly dark content or themes. This is quite contrary to the “happily-ever-after” stigma attached to them. In fact, many fairy tale classics do not contain the words happily ever after. Some have an ending quite the opposite–a very bleak one–; or they leave the reader with a strong feeling of solemnity. But why should stories often adored by children be so “Grimm”? This post seeks to dispel some of the misconceptions about fairy tales while exploring the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
So where did these stories come from in the first place? Why were they written? What is their purpose? What were the circumstances behind their creation?
Fairy Tale Origins
The origins of fairy tales are quite obscure and date back hundreds–even thousands of years- for some of them. For many of them, they evolved over time through oral tradition, while some of the more recent ones can be pin-pointed more precisely and even possess declared authorship. The genre of fairy tales spans many cultures from Grimm’s fairy tales to Hans Christian Andersen’s (of Scandinavia) to the Greek and Roman legends and mythology–all popular in Western cultures–, to Chinese fairy tales of the East–Oh!–and don’t forget the Native American tales and legends of North and South America, etc. That brings us full circle–a global cornucopia of stories! Though not all of them are strictly fairy tales, I believe fairy tales can be found worldwide. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus on the Brother’s Grimm, who were quite influential in the popularization and preservation of fairy tales, particularly in the West.
Who Were the Grimm Brothers?
They are known as the collectors and preservers of folklore and fairy tales, but their purpose was much higher than that. They wanted to change the world. How, you might ask? To answer that I will need to share with you some of their story.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were brothers who came from a prosperous family. Their father was a lawyer and district magistrate; their mother a daughter of a councilman. Jacob and Wilhelm’s parents had 9 children, but only 6 of them survived. Jacob was 11 and Wilhelm 10 when their father died of pneumonia. It was, as you can imagine, a very hard thing, and life greatly changed for them after that.
From Riches to Rags
Though they were not considered part of elite society, the Grimm family was prosperous, influential, and certainly not in want; that is, not until their father died. After that, things drastically changed. They had to live much more frugally. Jacob took on great responsibility as head of the house. Must have been a great challenge, especially for a young boy. As Jacob grew, he got stronger and stronger, but his brother Wilhelm did not. Wilhelm suffered from scarlet fever and asthma, the results of which would affect him the rest of his life.
Study, Study, Study!
As they came of age they embarked on their journey to the university, and their life changes, many believe, would affect how they would later view the medieval manuscripts and folklore. They would come to view it as common folks as opposed to elitists with noses in the air. Both Jacob and Wilhelm made close friendships while at the university, and some of those friendships greatly influenced the Grimm Brothers in the area of folklore, folk songs, and folktales. Jacob even had the opportunity to research in Paris. While there, he discovered and explored German medieval manuscripts. Suddenly, their mother died and both Jacob and Wilhelm, with very little money and saddened hearts, had to return home to look after their younger siblings.
Three years later things looked brighter when Jacob received a job as director of Westphalian king’s private library. What a treasure for studying even more about fairy tales and folklore! Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s health declined, and he was not able to take a paying job. Therefore, he began studying Norse literature. This ironically gave him a scholarly reputation. So here they were–both studying ancient literature and folklore! They taught themselves several languages including Old English, Old Norse, Old Danish, Old High German, and Sanskrit. They could now study stories in the original languages.
Setting the Stage for Fairy Tale Writing and Collecting
The Grimm Brothers did not simply travel about Germany collecting stories among peasants. One goal was to glorify Germany as a people by “moralizing” the tales in order to impact German society–and the world–towards virtue and goodness. Wilhelm worked on a book of Danish folk and fairy tales. He also edited and translated Old Danish Heroic Songs, Ballads, and Fairy Tales. Jacob wrote an essay about old German troubadour tradition. Together their first success was the publication of The Boy’s Wonder Horn. Then something happened to influence these Grimm Brothers deeply: Philipp Otto Runge had published two German tales, “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Juniper Tree.” The story about the fisherman is well-known and teaches the harsh reality of the consequences of greed. “The Juniper Tree” is a story containing horrifying family antics. Within the publication of these stories was a letter urging readers to collect more stories. These words really impacted the Brothers Grimm and resounded in their minds long afterwards.
So How Did They Collect Their Stories?
The Grimm brothers did write down the stories, recording the tales as they were told and retold audibly; but that is not nearly where the bulk of the stories came. They were not merely recording on paper the folklore from peasant town storytellers. Actually, many of them were aristocratic tellers of high birth. And some of the tellers were not German at all: they were French Huguenots who had escaped France where they’d experienced much persecution. So you could say that a good many of the stories were French tales–not German! Others of the stories came from old manuscripts. So in actuality, the German peasant storytellers represented only a small bit of the stories these brothers recorded and preserved.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm invited storytellers to their home to tell their tales. Most of them were women who came and told their stories aloud. In fact, later on, Wilhelm married one of these storytellers. Her name was Dortchen Wild. The Grimm Brothers made notes that contained hundreds of stories, but many of them were without endings and included numerous versions of the tales. These brothers polished up the tales, revising them and rewriting some for their publication. This made the stories more literary. They also edited stories with elements that might offend.
But Why Were the Stories So “Grimm”?
Yes, why do so many of the original fairy tale classics have such heavy solemn details or themes? Were they simply wanting to terrify children? Of course not. Initially, they were not intended for children. The Grimm Brothers softened them for children in the editions from 1819 and onward. The originals evolved over time and were created, many of them, in the midst of much turmoil and hardship. Stories are not created out of thin air. No one creates a story from a blank slate. Stories are created–whether wittingly or unwittingly–from the context of our life experiences or the experiences of others. We as human beings are constantly influenced by our experiences, and we as social creatures, in turn, influence others. There is always an element of truth or realism within a story no matter how bizarre or far-fetched it may seem to be. And so, the fairy tales of long ago have passed down through the ages and evolved from some starting point of purpose.
The storytellers of long ago lived in a day when there were no televisions, computers, or smartphones; hence, these stories were not merely entertainment for children. The fantasy and intrigue appealed to all ages (children included), but the deeper and sometimes hidden elements, as well as the dark themes of life, have been placed there particularly for the adults to ponder. Fairy tales are actually quite realistic in a sense. They teach us the harsh reality of life and working through the conflict or difficulty woven into the story. Life is not simply a bed of roses. The roses contain thorns, and somewhere close by is a beast, wolf, or stepmother lurking in the dark world ready to teach us of that harsh yet sobering and often needed reality.
The fact is– life is hard, and stories help us to see the dark reality of life and press on. Songs do that too. The slave song “Go Down, Moses” comes to mind…”Down, down, down to Egypt land.” So with songs, folklore, and fairy tales man has been able to cope with those harsh realities of life and glean from them those gemstones of morality and truth sprinkled throughout them–even though the ominous clouds of darkness overshadow the landscape most of the time. This is what makes a good story. The dark themes and suspense move it along, and that sense of hope looks upward, longing for those clouds to roll away so that we can see the prince emerging from the rolling hills on his white horse. Someday, that prince will come.
After reading some of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I was inspired to create dolls of these classic tales. Here is one example. This could be a gnome or even dwarf–a creature described in several of the Grimm’s Fairy Tale stories. I had some leftover fake fur fabric, so I decided to make the beard of the doll from some almost discarded left-over plush fabric. I embroidered the face. I made the clothes from cotton blended fabrics, using felt for the suspenders. I had some red velvety fabric I used for the trousers and a medieval-looking hat!
Well, Reader, what do you think of the Grimm Brothers? Do you have a favorite fairy tale? What do you think about some of the darker themes of fairy tales? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
New York, NY: Barne’s and Noble, 2009