Grimms’ Children’s and Household’s Tales
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1946
The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm made such outstanding contributions to German culture that the last 1000 DM bill was embellished with their faces. The brothers are known for initiating a definitive German dictionary (“Deutsches Wörterbuch”) and sometimes as the founders of German philology. But as the “Grimm brothers” who brought us so many beautiful tales they are at least as famous, even if they never referred to themselves with that title.
Folk tales are rooted in an oral tradition and it isn’t until the Middle Ages that they are collected and put down in writing, for instance by Charles Perrault in France. When the Grimms begin to publish their collected tales in the early 19th century, they express regret about the progressive decline of oral tradition in favour of the increasingly widespread use of written language. In that sense they consider the collection of folk tales an important contribution to preserving German cultural heritage. The irony inherent in this endeavour, preserving oral traditions by putting them down in writing, should not elude the attentive reader. The brothers also have different opinions on this matter. While Jacob, aiming for perceived scientific correctness, wants to preserve the tales in their unchanged, “original” version, Wilhelm, in accordance with the view held in contemporary literary scholarship, claims that there is no such thing as an “original” folk tale, but that tales only ever exist in their narrated form. Wilhelm comes out on top and modernizes the tales. They become more and more child-friendly with every edition (Rapunzel’s pregnancy, for instance, is censored), a move which secures them long-lasting commercial success.
Jacob’s desire for authenticity, however, extends not only to the content of the tales, but also to their language. One would like to preserve the tales in the respective vernacular in which they were recorded, the authors say in the preface, such as Low German. Unfortunately, they note with some dismay, “the Low Hessian dialect in the Kassel region is an indefinite and not purely comprehensible mixture of Low Saxon and High German” or, in other words, not as “pure” as they would have liked. This rhetoric of the “authentic” and the desire “to discern the simple, pure, and perfect from the adulterated” speaks less to the mindset of an objective researcher and more to the wish of forming a national character or “Volksgeist”. In the early 19th century, France is an overpowering neighbour to the declining Holy Roman Empire both in military and cultural terms. In this context, says cultural historian Lothar Bluhm, Grimms’ fairy tales can arguably be understood as an enterprise with a national-political and popular pedagogical agenda.
Here, too, numerous Grimm scholars have pointed out the irony that the fairy tales often neither come from peasants, nor have German origins. The oral sources mainly come from an educated bourgeois background, for instance from family friends of Clemens Brentano, and some of the most famous fairy tales from Perrault’s French collection: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood. Still, you’ve got to hand it to them: the Grimms actually reach people across all social classes with their tales. The fairy tale, after all, is a literary genre that is truly popular in the meaning of the word as “read by and known to many”. It is safe to assume that more German households possess a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales than a collection of poems by Brentanto...
by Teresa Teklić