The Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales? You already know that they were German and lived a long time ago. You know Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, maybe Rumpelstiltskin. Here I will tell you what you may not know yet…
This you probably know…
The Brothers Grimm were Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm. They lived in Germany and we mostly know about them because they left us a collection of beloved fairy tales. Between 1812 and 1857 they published 7 different editions of this collection.
This is what you may not know…
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1. There were more than two Brothers Grimm
Because of their collection of fairy tales, the world knows the two eldest brothers, Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, as the Brothers Grimm.
But there were more Brothers Grimm. They were part of a big family of nine children. Three of those died in childbirth. Of the six that lived, five were boys. Jacob, Wilhelm, Carl, Ferdinand, Ludwig and Lotte Grimm.
Five boys and one girl. It reminds me of the fairy tale of the seven ravens, in which there were seven boys and one girl.
The life of the Grimm family however was not like a happy fairy tale.
2. The Brothers Grimm experienced hunger themselves
Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel? And how they are brought to the forest because their father and mother can no longer feed them?
The roots of many fairy tales reach down to times when hunger was a very real thing.
It was also very real in the lives of the Grimm Brothers.
In 1796 the father of the Grimm family died. Jacob and Wilhelm were the oldest sons and for a long time they carried a lot of the financial responsibility for the family.
In 1805 (only 7 years before the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales came out) their poverty was so extreme that they often had very little food to share.
Wilhelm wrote in a letter to his aunt, “We five people eat only three portions and only once a day“.
3. The Brothers Grimm didn’t travel much to collect their fairy tales
You can see them go, hiking through the dark forests. The Brothers Grimm. Outdoors clothes on, sturdy boots, knapsacks filled with empty papers. Traveling all over Germany to collect the fairy tales of the German folk.
Except… it didn’t happen like that.
They stayed mostly at home, and the fairy tales came mostly from people in their extended social circle or from old books.
The people who supplied them with stories did come from different social circles though. Some families and individuals supplied a great many stories. For example one woman (Dortchen Wild) was the source of forty tales, and the Haxthausen family supplied sixty tales altogether.
4. Wilhelm Grimm found love through fairy tales
A beautiful lady who tells you an amazing story. It made the heart of Wilhelm Grimm beat faster and stronger. And while he tried to write down the outline of the fairy tale she told, his mind was going other places…
Luckily for him, this beautiful girl that he had known for so long, liked him too. And so in 1825 he happily married Dortchen Wild, storytelling girl from a storytelling family.
Isn’t real life sometimes like a fairy tale? 😍
5. The Brothers Grimm’s publisher exploited them
The Grimm Brothers were overjoyed with the first publication of their book of fairy tales. The sales were quite good. They could use the money and eagerly started preparing the second edition.
However they did not receive that much of the profits. In good trust they did business with a publisher in Berlin, Georg Andreas Reimer. No clear contractual arrangements. No clear dates of payment.
They ended up getting less money, and always too late.
After a lot of correspondence they decided to find another publisher for the third edition.
💡 Interesting detail: their brother Ferdinand Grimm, who was working for Reimer, was promptly fired.
6. The critics did not like the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
In a letter Jacob Grimm wrote: “Reviewers, who have a habit of praising idiotic things, ought to stop making such foolish statements about our collection of legends and fairy tales.”
The critics made some comments still made today: “they made a book for folklore scholars and for children; they ended up with a book for neither group” and “these tales need a warning label, they are not fit for children.”
💡 Interesting detail: They did care about these reviews. Wilhelm Grimm even so much that he traveled to an influential friend to ask him to write a positive review.
7. The Brothers Grimm edited out all hints of sexuality
All hints of sexuality or something happening before marriage was edited out of the fairy tales.
Was it the Grimm’s prudence? Was it the Zeitgeist? Or was it simply a commercial instinct to make the fairy tales more safe and attractive as children’s literature?
Example: In the notes of the Brothers Grimm of the ‘The Frog Prince’, the frog turns into a handsome prince and immediately dives into the bed with the princess. Ooh La La!
However in the last edition, he immediately is her by father blessed companion for life ánd it is explicitly stated that ‘they went to sleep’. No cuddling times there.
8. The Brothers Grimm changed mothers into stepmothers
So many evil stepmothers in the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. But why?
Let’s look at the famous fairy tale of Snow White. In the first edition of their fairy tales, it is her mother, the queen, who cannot stand her beauty and tries to kill her.
In subsequent editions they changed this. Now her mother dies when giving birth, and it is her stepmother who tries to kill her.
And this is not the only fairy tale where the Grimms changed mothers into stepmothers.
That question is not so easy to answer. But maybe the answer is found in another question: “How many mothers like to read a book of stories to their children in which so many mothers are evil?”
💡 Personal note: In a world with many real stepmothers, I don’t like to tell too much tales about evil stepmothers. So sometimes I change the fairy tale for telling. Because being a stepmother is already difficult enough.
9. The fairy tales were not the Brothers Grimm’ biggest project
In 1838 the Brothers Grimm began what became their lifelong project: the writing of a definitive dictionary of the German language. Only after 16 years, in 1854, was the first volume of this German Dictionary published.
Wilhelm Grimm would never see this dictionary finished. He died in 1859.
Deeply sad from the death of his brother and ‘brother-in-work’, Jacob retreated into a life of solitude. He continued the work on the dictionary, until he died in 1863.
They never finished their dictionary.
It was later finished by other scholars and grew to be the largest and most inclusive dictionary of the German language. It consisted of 32 volumes and several addenda and updates.
10. The Brothers Grimm met Hans Christian Andersen
So, one day the great Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen knocks on the door of the Brothers Grimm house in Berlin. Full of expectation. Longing to meet kindred souls, companions in the love of fairy tales.
A maid opens the door. She asks which brother he wants to see.
Confused, Andersen replies: “The one who has written the most.”
And so the maid calls Jacob, the linguist. Clueless he looks at Andersen. He has no idea who this man is and what he has written.
Disillusioned Andersen leaves, not even interested in meeting Wilhelm.
Luckily a couple of weeks later Jacob visits Copenhagen. He pays a visit to Andersen and, having read some of his fairy tales, apologizes.
Psst… Did you know that there was a real fairy route in Germany, celebrating the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales?
My eyes popped out of their sockets when I found out. 🙂
Hope to get there someday! Discover more on their website.
Sources for this article
- The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, M. Tatar (link to Amazon)
- The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, J. Zipes, J. Grimm, W. Grimm (link to Amazon)
- The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, C. Dollerup
- Wikipedia Page about the Brothers Grimm, Various Authors
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