On December 20, 1812, the first edition of the Grimm brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales was published. Since that day, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and all the other characters have taken over the world – they were translated into 170 languages, and turned into five treacly Disney cartoons. And that original book, housed in the Brothers Grimm Museum in Kassel, Hesse, was declared a World Heritage document in 2005.
But why are these old folk tales about magic frogs and pumpkin coaches so popular? “Fairytales are the old stories of humanity,” said Holger Ehrhardt, a professor who specializes in the Brothers Grimm at Kassel University. “Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm tried to collect everything that relates to the old Germanic culture, and these stories reach back to the beginnings of our time. For example, you can find themes in the Grimm fairytales from old first-century Indian fables.”
He added that most of the stories point to a deeper meaning. “People have always told their children stories or myths for pedagogic reasons,” said Ehrhardt. “And often they offered adults an explanation for natural phenomena like thunder. Someone must have made that.”
The Grimm brothers, born in Hanau, Hesse, began their work in 1806 – though they didn’t start by roaming the countryside and eavesdropping on peasants’ talk. They simply wrote down the stories told by acquaintances. The first edition contains stories from the Wild and Hassenpflug families, while stories told to them by Dorothea Viehmann, a local tailor’s wife, were included in the second edition.
“The Grimms then changed these stories, and that’s how the Grimm fairytales came about,” said Ehrhardt.
But the original book was not a success. Horrific graphic details, combined with pedantic academic footnotes, did not exactly endear the books to younger readers. While Jacob was more interested in linguistic, political, and religious analysis, Wilhelm then re-worked the tales and gave them their characteristic sentimental style. “That was his most significant contribution,” said Bernhard Lauer, director of the Grimm museum.
“Evil mothers became evil step-mothers, naked princes were dressed up in fine clothes, and Rapunzel’s pregnancy was kept from both the evil witch and the well-disposed reader,” the website dedicated to the “Grimm Year” 2013 points out.
Some, like actor Ilja Richter, think the Grimms took too many of the double meanings out of the original folk tales. “Look at Red Riding Hood and the evil wolf,” he said. “That is a very erotic story. Or The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats. That’s just all exclusively about sex.” Also, Germany’s Family Minister Kristina Schröder this week dismissed some of the Grimm stories as “often sexist.”
Despite this year’s anniversary of the original book, 2013 has been dedicated as the “Grimm Year,” partly because it includes the 150th anniversaries of the deaths of Jacob (September 20) and the painter brother Ludwig Emil Grimm (April 4), who illustrated the second edition of the fairytales.
But, as Ehrhardt said, the brothers were also major linguists. “Compared to Goethe and Schiller, the Grimms get little attention,” he said, arguing that they initiated the study of Germanic culture, and pointing out that they began a German dictionary – even if they only made it to the word Frucht (fruit).
But they will forever be associated with the timeless tales that bear their name – even if only half of them, incidentally, begin with the phrase “Once upon a time…”