Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Grimms' Fairy Tales, composed by German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, have been passed down for generations, adapted countless times, and have become staples of childhood literature. The first collection of Grimms' Fairy Tales was published in 1812 and contained 86 stories. Some of these tales, such as "Hansel and Gretel" and "Rapunzel," have become extremely popular around the world, while others, such as "The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage," remain fairly unknown. The Grimms were prolific and produced more than 200 different fairy tales by 1857.

The Grimms turned to various sources to collect their literature: ancient stories told around campfires, classic parables used to scare naughty children, and romantic tales based on true events. Many of these works were later adapted by other media outlets—particularly Disney. Animated Disney films such as Sleeping Beauty were inspired by the Grimms' collection, and Disney's first full-length animated film, the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, is also a retelling of a Grimm classic. Although these adaptations popularized the fairy tales for recent generations, anyone who's read the originals will attest that the Grimm versions often feature darker and more violent themes.

1. "Hansel and Gretel" may have been inspired by a terrible famine in Europe.

"Hansel and Gretel" is one of the Grimms' best-known stories—but it likely reflects a terrible period in European history. In 1314 the rains across Britain and mainland Europe were so persistent that crops couldn't grow, fields flooded, and a widespread food shortage ensued. This led to the Great Famine from 1315–16, during which all of Europe suffered. In "Hansel and Gretel," the children are abandoned in the woods, left to fend for themselves. This seemingly cruel parental gesture may have been quite common at the time, however, as families that couldn't feed their children during the famine often simply abandoned them in the wilderness, knowing they'd die either way. The damaging rains soon stopped, and by 1317 the worst of the famine had passed, but Europe's food supply didn't recover until 1322.

2. The Grimms' fairy tales influenced German nationalism—and Nazism.

The Grimms' stories have been loved by children for generations, but they also carry a darker modern connotation—their link to the rise of Nazism in Germany. Although the Grimm brothers wrote long before the 20th-century rise of Nazi Germany, the authors did support German nationalism and wrote specifically to make readers "feel more German." When the Nazis rose to power, they carefully used the Grimms' works to represent German culture, often invoking the fairy tales to sway young Germans to their nationalist cause. Scholar Jack Zipes describes the Nazis' promotion of the Grimms' children's literature as a way "to uphold the racist and nationalist supremacy of the German people." Even though many of the stories that the Grimms compiled weren't even German in origin (several were French), the Grimms had been fervent German nationalists themselves—a fact the Nazis knew and exploited heavily.

3. The Grimm brothers lost their jobs and were sent into exile by a spiteful king.

Before compiling fairy tales, the Grimms were academics, teaching and working as librarians at the University of Göttingen, Germany. It was here they made a political enemy—Ernest Augustus, the king of the German state of Hanover—against whom they protested when he repealed their constitution. The king was outraged, and he exiled the brothers from Hanover, firing them from their positions at the university. Luckily, the Grimms had built up an academic reputation for themselves and received many invitations from universities across Europe. The brothers accepted a post in Berlin at the request of the king of Prussia, where they spent most of their time conducting linguistic studies of the German language.

4. The Grimms' version of "Cinderella" is very different than Disney's—and includes foot mutilation.

Many of the Grimms' fairy tales have been adapted by media outlets such as Disney, and most of these adaptations have been far less violent and dark than the Grimms' originals. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of "Cinderella," a Grimm fairy tale that was popularized by the 1950 Disney animated film. While the Disney version is a romantic tale of an oppressed servant girl finding a better life, the Grimms' version has some grotesque elements that might not be considered acceptable for young audiences. For example, the evil stepsisters mutilate their own feet in a desperate attempt to make the glass slipper fit, thereby winning the heart of the prince. Scholars liken this element of the story to a similar Chinese folktale, which bases itself on the controversial ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding, in which a girl's toes would be broken and her feet wrapped so that the feet would remain small.

5. "Snow White" was based on the tragic tale of a German countess who was poisoned.

"Snow White" is another tale that was made popular by a Disney adaptation. However, the story may have its roots in a very sad, true story of a lovestruck countess. The countess Margarete von Waldeck, born in 1533, was sent away by her hateful stepmother to Brussels, where she met and fell in love with the prince of Spain. However, her father and stepmother forbade the marriage, as they wished to wed her to someone more politically convenient. Tragically, Margarete was poisoned—although historians believe it was under the orders of the Spanish prince's father, not her own family. The young countess never met any dwarves during her travels, although some believe this element of the story may have been inspired by her father's use of child labor in mines, which caused the workers' stunted growth and raspy voices.

6. A medical condition is named after the Grimms' "Rapunzel," in which people eat their own hair.

In "Rapunzel" a princess is imprisoned by a witch in a tower and uses her extremely long hair to receive help from a prince. The medical condition known as Rapunzel syndrome, however, is far less romantic. The rare disorder occurs when a subject uncontrollably and compulsively eats their own hair, which can cause serious digestive problems due to a buildup known as a trichobezoar. These human hairballs can be surgically removed, but can actually be fatal if left unattended. In 2017 a 16-year-old died in Britain from an advanced and untreated case of Rapunzel syndrome.

7. Researchers used linguistic science to determine that the story "Rumpelstiltskin" may be more than 4,000 years old.

The Grimms modeled many of their fairy tales on preexisting stories from folklore—some of which had been told for millennia. Because the tales were passed down orally through the generations, with many stories dating back to before written language was prevalent, scientists employed a method of linguistic analysis to determine the stories' origins. They found that several stories, including "Rumpelstiltskin," may have been in circulation for more than 4,000 years. Dr. Jamie Tehrani, who worked on the project, explained:

We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written ... They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.

The Grimms were convinced that many of their fairy tales were ancient in origin and conveyed a shared European linguistic history. Dr. Tehrani, who supported the Grimms' hypothesis, continued:

We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm. Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology—some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts—but our findings suggest they are much older than that.

8. The Grimms originally intended for their audience to be adults.

The Grimms' fairy tales are often noted for being much more violent than traditional children's literature. This may be because, originally, the Grimms didn't intend for children to read them at all. The first edition of their fairy tale collection was written for and marketed to adults. Though some of the stories they adapted were told to scare misbehaving children, many were meant to entertain adults around a campfire—particularly to help working people unwind after a hard day. However, the Grimms' first edition received poor reviews and little praise, so they rebranded the stories for children in subsequent releases, often removing the most horrific and violent elements from the stories.

9. Many of the Grimms' tales were told to them by one peasant woman.

An invaluable source of information for the Grimm brothers was Dorothea Viehmann, a German peasant woman whom they visited regularly. Viehmann told them many tales of German folklore that she'd grown up with, and these became the basis for numerous Grimm adaptations. Some scholars dispute the role than Viehmann played in the Grimms' research, however, as there are varying accounts of her life and meetings with the brothers. Some sources claim she was a peasant, while others claim she was a member of the middle class. The most common portrayal of Viehmann, however, comes from a series of illustrations showing her as an old woman, surrounded by children and grandchildren, regaling the brothers Grimm with tales from folklore.

10. "Little Red Riding Hood" originates from a much more sexually explicit tale.

Although the Grimms' fairy tales are usually considered less kid-friendly than their Disney adaptations, the Grimms' "Little Red Riding Hood" is actually less explicit than previous incarnations. "Little Red Riding Hood" has been the topic of much scholarly debate regarding themes of sexuality—the "big bad wolf" is often thought to represent lust, and her red hood has been viewed as a symbol of menstruation. The first known written version of the story comes from France, entitled "Petit Chaperon Rouge," and features an adolescent girl actually seducing the wolf, undressing, and inviting him into her bed. Though the brothers Grimm often left violent motifs in their retellings of folklore, they removed most overtly sexual themes, as in the case of "Little Red Riding Hood."

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