Exactly 200 years ago in Kassel, Germany, the Brothers Grimm brought out their first collection of fairy tales and a new interest in folklore was born that thrives to this day.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, there lived two brothers who were gifted scholars. Intrigued by the tales of common folk who linked local history with moral teaching, they began to collect their stories. Soon they had many accounts of princesses in danger, princes in disguise, and animals and other creatures who talked to people.
Together they introduced us to Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, the Pied Piper, and Hansel and Gretel, among so many others.
This summer, as thousands of creative artists and writers from all over the world converge on Kassel for the 100 day dOCUMENTA13, many will stay an extra week to drive on one of the country’s most scenic routes, the 370-mile Fairy Tale Road. It connects all the German towns that were inspirations for the world’s most famous fairy tales.
Kassel was favorite home of brothers
Much can be learned about the Brothers Grimm during a visit to Kassel, since they spent some of the most productive years working in the city. “The Kassel years were the happiest years in our life,” Jacob Grimm wrote in 1860, and his brother Wilhelm agreed.
The two spent more than 30 years in the city in the late 18th and early 19th century, and today there is still a museum in their honor featuring their letters, manuscripts, books and personal objects. Jacob (Jan. 4, 1785 – Sept. 290, 1863) and Wilhelm (Feb. 24, 1786 – Dec. 16, 1859) were German linguists and cultural researchers. Their 1812 publication of Children’s and Household Tales, their first fairy tale collection, was the start of their legacy.
Two hundred years since publication
Two hundred years later, the fascination with Grimm’s fairy tales has not diminished. Their characters live on and continue to capture the imagination of new generations of children. The entire Walt Disney kingdom hinges on these memorable characters and their enchanted castles.
However, the early versions of the stories were quite different from the popular bedtime stories of the same name that North American children are read today. The stories of the Grimm Brothers as collected were more reflective of the local history of their area, and were darker stories. All contained moral lessons, urging youngsters to reject evil and listen to their parents.
As the editors of National Geographic point out in their renditions of these original works, these were no “sweet, soothing tales to waft you toward dreamland.”
“The stories collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 1800s serve up life as generations of central Europeans knew it – capricious and often cruel. The two brothers, patriots determined to preserve Germanic folktales, were only accidental entertainers.”
Brothers “fixed” stories in later editions
Apparently, once they and subsequent editors saw how their stories were affecting young readers, the brothers started to “fix them” and soften them. But the polishing, and eventually the adaption of these stories into Walt Disney movie classics, never really destroyed the heart and moral of the stories, or dulled their allure.
Many scholars have pondered the phenomenon of folk tales and their continuing popularity over the ages and generations. Arnold van Gennep, founder of a major French folkloristic study, believed that fairy stories were the key to understanding the creative force within small groups of societies.
The fascinating thing about these stories is that like all folklore, they stay alive because each generation remembers them, and considers them worthy to pass along to their own children. Each generation can take poetic license with them, of course, and that is the variable that keeps them relevant.
Re-Imagining the brothers’ world
Walking around Kassel, it is a creative experience to imagine again the lives of the Grimm Brothers and how they lived. Keep in mind that the Germany they called home was not the country we see today.
In the early 1800s, it was a collection of separate entities. There was no sense of a national identity, and there was no theme that held the country together. The common bonds of the people were language and folklore, and at that point, the folklore had not even been gathered into any kind of literary collection.
Both Jacob and Wilhelm were educated at the Friedrichs-Gymnasium in Kassel and both studied law at the University of Marburg. By their early 20s, they were laying the groundwork for continued linguistic studies and a growing interest in collecting fairy and folk tales.
By all accounts, their first goal was linguistic research; the discovery and later publication of the folk tales was considered a byproduct of their primary work. Jacob did most of the research, collecting the stories from peasants and villages along with his close friend, August von Haxthausen. Wilhelm put the collection into a literary format that he thought would have mass appeal and be suitable for children.
Brothers branched out as scholars
By 1816, Jacob had landed a job as a librarian in Kassel, and Wilhelm continued to work in the city as well. In the next two years, they published two books of German legends and one historical work.
Their legacy to the world extended ultimately beyond the world of fairy tales. Jacob became fascinated with the structure of Germanic languages, and he developed a theory about language that came to be known as Grimm’s Law. He never married and lived most of his life in Wilhelm’s home. William married Henriette Wild.
In the latter part of their careers, both men became professors at the University of Gottingen. However, they ended up being fired for their protest against the abrogation of the liberal constitution of the Kingdom of Hanover by King Ernest Augustus I and they moved back to Kassel.
Later they moved back to Gottingen where they both achieved academic posts again and produced the definitive German dictionary in 1854 along with collections of animal fables and a study on German mythology, among other works. As well, five more editions of fairy tales were produced by the brothers in their lifetimes.
Travelling in the footsteps of their imaginations
The Brothers Grimm Museum is located at 2 Schone Aussicht.
The Fairy Tale Road starts in the brothers’ birthplace of Hanau, (Autobahn exit A66). It stretches through medieval villages with romantic castles, cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, an absolute delight for the artist and photographer.
Highlights include Schwalm Region, the setting for Little Red Riding Hood, Gottingen where a stop is needed to kiss the statue of the little goose girl in the central square for lasting good luck, Castle Sababurg where Sleeping Beauty slept for 100 years and where you can now spend the night, and Hamlin, without rats, where the Pied Piper did his trick to rid the town of rodents. A map can be downloaded.