Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Context


German Nationalism

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were nationalists who worried that German culture was threatened and that the fundamental aspects of "German-ness" were disappearing. They were especially concerned that increasing literacy was erasing oral folklore in Germany. If the folk tales that had been passed down orally over the centuries were forgotten, a vital part of German identity might be lost. As the brothers wrote, "People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way ... This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous."

For the Grimms, folk tales illustrated many positive German traits: love of discipline, strong tribalism (revealed by distrust of the outsider), love of nature, and a strictly maintained social hierarchy. Though these qualities are not entirely positive, for the Grimms, they were essential to maintaining the strength of the "Fatherland." By preserving the old legends, they were helping to rescue the language and "pure customs" of olden times.

Jacob and Wilhelm claimed to have collected most of their stories from commoners and peasants. However, many of the tales had actually been passed along by their friends. (This is not to suggest that the stories themselves were inauthentic.) They wished to represent the stories as having been gathered on visits to long-forgotten corners of the countryside. Like many other scholars of the period, the Grimms cherished the idea that the country's volk, or common people, were the most important source of its strength. Peasants, woodchoppers, huntsmen, and farmers were believed to embody the values of a simpler, preindustrial era when people had lived close to nature. In the preface to the 1812 edition of the tales, the brothers compared stories from the volk to forgotten ears of corn: "Only late in summer, when the ears are ripe and heavy with grain, some poor humble hand will glean them ... The little bundles will be carried home, more cherished than big sheaves."

For modern readers, the word volk may be loaded with negative associations. German dictator Adolf Hitler, too, praised the volk. He also greatly admired the Grimm works. Hitler's Nazis gave several of the tales anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) revisions, turning villains and other unattractive characters into Jews. In a film released a few weeks after Germany had invaded Poland during World War II (1939–45), Snow White's father was transformed into a Nazi leader moving a vast army eastward. As one Nazi film producer said, "Every fairy tale is politically alignable without raping the poetry within." While this dreadful development should be noted, it doesn't detract from the Grimm tales as literature.

Hunger as a Backdrop

Wolves and stepmothers aren't the only danger in the Grimm brothers' books. Hunger lurks in the background as a constant threat. "Hansel and Gretel" specifically mentions a famine that forces the children's parents to abandon them. In other stories, famine is not explicitly mentioned, but food is scarce, hunger is never far from people's thoughts, and people given the chance to feast take advantage of it.

Hunger and starvation have been the focus of folktales globally, probably since telling folk tales began. Even now, getting enough to eat is beyond the reach of most of the world's children. In the 20th and 21st centuries, children in Europe have generally been well fed, but this wasn't always the case. Many tales the Grimms used had first been told in the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), when famine was a constant threat. Wars, unreliable harvests, epidemics, and disorganized food distribution caused malnutrition and starvation across much of Europe.

In England 95 famines occurred between 1200 and 1500 CE. Records of a 1235 British famine speak of Londoners forced to eat tree bark; 12,000 of the city's residents starved to death that year. During the Great Famine that afflicted Europe from 1315 through 1317 there were widespread reports of cannibalism (consumption of humans).

Nor did Continental famines end with the Middle Ages. Half a million Russians died of starvation in 1600. So did 41 percent of the East Prussian population from 1708 to 1711. Around the time the first edition of Children's and Household Tales was published, horrendous famines took place in Madrid and Norway. By the time the 6th edition was out, the Great Irish Famine of 1845–49 was decimating the Irish population.

During periods of famine even people who weren't literally starving had so little to eat that food became a constant obsession. For many peasants, the staple diet was bread and water stirred together to make a kind of gruel. Bread was the largest annual expense for many, and often it was mixed with grass, bark, or sawdust.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought authentic tales told by the uneducated classes. This meant that many of their stories had peasant origins—and peasants, who were not landowners, tended not to have reserve food supplies. In times of food scarcity, peasants were the first to suffer, and the effects of famine can destabilize nations for years. The Grimms included one story in their collection called "Children Living in a Time of Famine," in which two little girls lie down to die so their starving mother can eat them.

Marketing the Grimm Stories to Children

When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote the first edition of Household Tales, they intended it to appeal to adults as well as children. The brothers were serious scholars who believed folklore should educate as well as entertain. There's no doubt that their work accomplished this goal, but the Grimms quickly realized that most of their readers were young and this would remain so. From the second edition on, they shaped their material into stories they felt were suitable for children. They took out excessive violence and suggestive subplots, introduced moral themes, and made the characters more pious.

Before the 19th century, there were few books specifically for children, and the books that were available were mostly small black-and-white pamphlets called chapbooks. European book-printing methods underwent major changes around the first half of the 19th century, when six of the seven editions of Household Tales were published. Lithography, a cheap and easy technique to produce reproductions of art in quantity, was invented in Germany in 1796. Multicolor lithography, or chromolithography, was patented by a French printer in 1837. This enabled printers to reproduce color illustrations cheaply. Cheap color printing made it much more practical to publish brightly illustrated children's books.

The first English-language translation of the stories, titled German Popular Tales, was translated by British writer Edgar Taylor and published in 1823. Taylor picked the tales carefully. Feeling that secular and nonsecular stories shouldn't share the same book, he cut the religious language the Grimms had added and removed even more of the violence and sexual innuendo than they had. Taylor hired British caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792–1878) to illustrate the stories—a smart choice, since at that time Cruikshank was internationally popular. Cruikshank's fame would continue grow in later years as he illustrated several popular works by English novelist Charles Dickens.

Cruikshank's skill and cachet helped to popularize the fairy tales in England as the British Empire neared its zenith. The less costly lithographic method for reproducing art, and later chromolithography, led both publishers and artists to see the commercial possibilities in the Grimm stories. This combination of technology, popularity, and prosperity helped to launch the industry of illustrated children's publishing. For the first time, European artists could support themselves as illustrators.

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