Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm | Biography


Youth and Education

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in the prosperous German town of Hanau, Jacob on January 4, 1785, and Wilhelm on February 24, 1786. Their father, Phillip, was Hanau's town clerk. Their mother, Dorothea, is believed to have come from a carpenter's family. The couple had nine children, of whom six survived. The boys learned to read from an aunt and were tutored at home by—according to Jacob's memoirs—a boring old man. Both boys loved the outdoors, especially plants, and both were fond of drawing.

Life was comfortable until 1796, when 44-year-old Phillip died of pneumonia, a bacterial lung infection. Almost immediately the family began to struggle financially. Two years after their father's death, the boys went to live with another aunt, who paid for their educations. Jacob was admitted to a private secondary school. William needed coaching before he could enter but flourished once he was there. Both boys felt a keen sense of responsibility to their impoverished family, whom they hoped to be able to support before too long. Both went to the tops of their classes. After secondary school they enrolled at the university in Marburg, Germany, where they shared a room and tried to live as frugally as possible. At college, the brothers discovered a shared love of medieval folksongs. They also began collecting medieval manuscripts.

Dorothea died in 1808, making 23-year-old Jacob head of the family. Two of the younger Grimm boys needed financial help to attend school, and the siblings who remained at home subsisted on one meal a day. Perhaps it was stress that began affecting Wilhelm's health at this point. He was diagnosed with a heart condition and journeyed to a distant spa to recuperate. It's not clear that the spa helped his heart—one of his treatments involved rubbing his neck with "black mercury"—but gradually his health improved.

Folklore Collecting

In the first years of the 19th century, folklore, literature, and music became topics of interest among the educated population. The brothers' collection of medieval songs was published in a three-volume collection of German folk poems and folksongs. Published in 1805 and titled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn), the books were very well received. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most influential figure in modern German literature, believed that every cultivated person should own these books.

Working on Wunderhorn triggered the brothers' interest in finding previously uncollected German folktales. Though they'd trained as lawyers, they decided instead to focus on German language and literature. Both were keenly interested in keeping the German oral tradition alive and began hunting for people who remembered old, undocumented stories well enough to dictate them. They reached out to friends and family for help with the project, and their sources ranged from the younger sisters' friends to an old woman in a poorhouse. Jacob circulated an "Invitation to all friends of German poetry and history" that asked for contributions. The brothers wanted local tales, especially ones for children, and they asked their contributors to write down the stories exactly as they heard them. No editing, no embellishing, no prettifying were allowed: the stories were to be written down exactly as they came from people's lips. The brothers would, however, shape the material later, and began to edit the stories more heavily as the decades passed.

As their collection grew, the brothers began to organize the stories for publication. At this point they hoped to compile a history of German literature, not a collection of tales. Though they knew the stories would appeal to children, they hoped for a wider adult audience. They therefore published their first collection of stories with the title Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales). The work was published in two volumes published in 1812 and 1815. From 1819 to 1857, the brothers would revise the work six more times. The seventh and final edition is considered authoritative.

Writing for Children

By the time they published the "Small Edition" of Hausmärchen in 1825, Jacob and Wilhelm had realized that children were a key segment of their audience. They therefore began to make the stories more child-friendly. They softened some of the coarser and more brutal tales, added some stories collected from the aristocracy (as opposed to the peasantry), and gave the stories a more educational focus. They also made some of the stories less frightening. Many mothers in the book were turned into stepmothers as it became clear that murderous mothers were too upsetting for child readers.

The stories were first translated into English in 1823 under the title German Popular Stories. Three more printings followed, and then a second volume was published in 1826 by a different publisher.

Although celebrated for their fairy tale collections, both Grimm brothers were renowned scholars and professors in their day. Jacob's specialties were philology and linguistics, Wilhelm's the heroic tradition in German literature. In 1819 Jacob's massive book about Germanic grammar was published. In 1830 the brothers moved to Göttingen, where both became university professors and librarians. Wilhelm was married in 1825. Jacob never married and always lived with his brother and sister-in-law. In 1840 they took university jobs in Berlin, where they stayed for the rest of their lives, compiling a huge German dictionary together.

Death and Legacy

When they died—Wilhelm on December 16, 1859, and Jacob on September 20, 1863—the Grimms had only reached the letter F in their German dictionary. But their classic fairy tales would be published in more countries, and translated into more languages, than any other works in the history of German literature.

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