The Legacy of the Grimm Brothers: Origins and Transformations–a guest post by Amalie Dieter

Amalie Dieter is a senior at Southern Oregon University working towards a BA in English & Writing and a BS in Environmental Science & Policy.

The Grimm brothers are the most associated with the fairy tale genre compared to any other author or fairy tale collector and their work has been translated into 150 languages and is known throughout the world (Zipes xi). Despite this wide recognition and fame, how many people really know the original origins and purpose of the tales collected by the Grimm brothers? And how did these tales transform from their original state in 1812 to the many adaptations we see today? Numerous authors and scholars have written and researched the history of the Grimms and their tales and have found that their transformation is in large part due to the readers themselves.

The first edition published the Grimm brothers was fairly small compared to the eventual 210 tale edition: “Today the Grimms’ tales fill two fairly thick volumes, but in 1812, after five years of collecting, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had only found enough tales for one small book” (Bottigheimer 27). The Grimm brothers did not originally collect these tales for children to read: “When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first developed the plan to compile German folktales, they wanted to capture the “pure” voice of the German people and to preserve in print the oracular poetry of the common people” (Tatar 341). The original intent of the Grimm brothers was a scholarly project to preserve the oral traditions and cultural viewpoints of the German people, but after the first printing of the collection everything changed.

The readers’ response to the first edition of the collection was not what the Grimm brothers had been hoping for:

To a great extent the Grimms’ scholarly ambitions and patriotic zeal guided the production of the first edition of the Nursery and Household Tales. But once the collection was in print, reviewers weighed in with critiques that took the brothers back to the drawing board to revise, rescript, and redact. One critic denounced the collection as tainted by French and Italian influences. Another lamented the vast amounts of “pathetic” and “tasteless” material and urged parents to keep the volume out of the hands of children. (Tatar 343)

In the following editions of the Nursery and Household Tales the Grimm Brothers made many changes. They fleshed out the texts they had collected, often doubling their length and they polished the language used. The biggest change of all however, was the intended audience of their collection of tales, from scholars to children (Tatar 343). In order to make their collection suitable for children the Grimm Brothers made many additions and redactions to their collection: “The Grimms were intent on eliminating all residues of risqué humor in the tales they recorded, yet they had no reservations about preserving, and in some cases intensifying, the violence” (Tatar 344). Many of the tales the Grimm brothers had collected originally contained innuendo and sexual content that was considered to be inappropriate for children. The Grimm brothers also added religious references to the text and instructive motives to the tales in order to make them a sort of teaching device for children (Tatar 49). The violence of the tales only intensified over the editions, but during this time period violence was everywhere.

The Grimms would have been exposed to much of the political turmoil of the eighteenth-century: “The French Revolution of 1789, which was followed by grisly reports of the execution of Thermion, affected Wilhelm’s young imagination. His earliest watercolor drawing depicts a bloody scene from Louis XVI’s execution, as his head is held aloft before the gathered mob” (Bottigheimer 3). Other events and changes in Europe during this time were the Napoleonic Wars, the Romantic movement, Kantian philosophy, the age of Metternich, the July revolution in France, he struggles for constitutional government in the German states, the revolution of 1848, and the rise to power of Bismarck (Peppar xii). These events and changes in Europe influenced the additions and reactions to the Grimm brothers’ collection.

Some examples of changes the Grimm brothers made to their collection are found in the tales of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The Grimm Brothers made the tale of Cinderella more violent than the one written by Charles Perrault: “The Grimms delighted in describing the blood in the shoes of the step sisters who try to slice off their heels and toes in order to get a perfect fit. The German version also gives us a far less compassionate Cinderella, one who does not forgive her stepsisters but invites them to her wedding where doves peck out their eyes” (Tatar 30). Some of the transformations the Grimms made were to serve as harsh lessons for children (Zipes 14). The Grimms revised the Red Riding Hood tale so that the Huntsman rescues Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, while in the original the young girl rescues herself by distracting the wolf with a strip tease (Tatar 18). The Grimms erased all of the inappropriate erotic content and added in behavioral imperatives such as: “When you’re out in the woods, look straight ahead of you like a good little girl and don’t stray from the path” (Tatar 19). Many scholars have pointed out that some of the rewriting and edits the Grimms did made the women in the stories less independent, giving us the role of damsel in distress. The Grimm brothers also took out any “scandal” of their version of Rapunzel: “In the first version of the Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales, Rapunzel asks the enchantress why her clothes are getting so tight and don’t fit any longer” (Tatar 113). This was taken out and replaced with a less harmful line. The Grimm brothers also made Rapunzel a “wife” to the prince so as to not suggest that Rapunzel’s twins were born out of wedlock (Tatar 113). Other edits were made in general to many of the tales, for example many of the original evil women in the tales were mothers, but the Grimms changed them to step mothers.

A lot has been written about where the Grimm brothers got their tales: “Few readers know that more than half of the 210 fairy tales included in the Grimm anthologies had a woman’s hand in them, whether they were recorded from her storytelling or recorded by her as she listened to another storyteller” (Paradiz xi). Many of the people who provided the Grimm brothers with tales were girls and young women who were in the brother’s social circle:

Wilhelm’s informants were as young as 14-year-old Dortchen Wild, one of six daughters of the town apothecary Rudolf Wild who lived across the street from the Grimm family. Dortchen’s older sister Gretchen, another tale contributor, was 20. The two girls and their mother told Wilhelm several folk tales and many fairy tales, some of which – like “The Frog Prince,” “Frau Holle,” The Six Swans,” and “Many Furs” – later became well known in the English-speaking world. (Bottigheimer 28)

The three Hassenpflug girls (Marie, Jeannette, and Amalie) were also principal sources for the Grimm brothers. The three girls provided the brothers with many tales including, The Seven Ravens, Red Riding Hood, The Girl Without Hands, The Robber Bridegroom, Sleeping Beauty, King Thrush beard, Snow White, and The Carnation (Bottigheimer 29).

The changes that the Grimm brothers made to their collection of tales has influenced two centuries worth of generations and continues to shape our world today: “In this century, Walt Disney’s film versions of fairy tales, beginning with Snow White in 1937, helped add to familiarity with the stories. In recent years, widespread enthusiasm for every sort of fantasy, from science fiction to horror movies, has included a strong up swing of interest in fairy tale” (McGlat vii). There are many Disney adaptations of fairy tales and the tales collected by the Grimm brothers: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled are just a few examples. These adaptations of course do not resemble even the edited editions of the Nursery and Household Tales, not to even mention the originals. Most women and girls in these adaptations are either damsels in distress or villains, gone are the women who save themselves with their imagination, bravery, and quick thinking (Zipes 74). There is also very few traces of violence and sexual content left in any of the tales we see today, however many still cling to the idea of role models of behavior, instruction, and morality (Zipes 152).

It is unclear whether or not children stories will return to their original form, seen in the eighteenth century, but recently there has been an increase of films and television series based on fairy tales that are of a much darker nature than the Disney film adaptations. One popular television series is Once Upon a Time, which contains material from many tales and myths including: Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. In this show many women are damsels in distress or villains, but there are also many more who are strong women who save the day. Red Riding Hood in this enchanted world is actually the wolf herself and her grandmother is one tough old lady who comes to the rescue of many of the characters (Once Upon A Time). Another current TV series is Grimm, which is a spin on the Grimm brothers themselves. This show is set in current society and is a cop drama with a fantastical twist. In this show a Grimm is someone who collects tales and information about magical creatures and then uses that information to hunt them down (Grimm). The Grimm TV series includes many of the details of the tales collected by the Grimm brothers and reflects more of the original versions, especially the violence the Grimm brothers were known for describing in their tales.

Walt Disney Pictures is even embracing the return to the darker versions of fairy tales with the musical fantasy film, Into The Woods, which was produced in 2014. In the introduction of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales you find this description of fairy tales:

Fairy tales are up close and personal, telling us about the quest for romance and riches, for power and privilege, and, most important, for a way out of the woods back to the safety and security of home. Bringing myths down to earth and inflecting them in human rather than heroic terms, fairy tales put a familiar spin on the stories in the archive of our collective imagination. (Tatar xii)

The film Into The Woods embraces this description of the classic fairy tales literally and figuratively. Much of the material used in this film comes from the original versions of the Grimm tales. Red Riding Hood in this film is a clever girl who tricks the baker and his wife out of many of their goods, however she does end up needing rescuing. The wolf is represented by a deviant man like the original version and includes instructions like “do not wander from the path and beware of strangers” (Into The Woods). After the encounter with the wolf Red Riding Hood becomes more independent, a girl who wears a cape made of wolf skin and carries a knife to protect herself with (Into the Woods).

The tale of Rapunzel in this film is a mixture of the old and new versions, it does contain the sexual content that the original version did, but it contains many of the other details. Some of these include: the enchantress getting Rapunzel because her parents stole from the enchantress’ garden, the enchantress locking Rapunzel in a tower, thorns blinding the prince, Rapunzel being banished to a swamp, Rapunzel’s tears healing the prince (Into The Woods). The tale of Cinderella in this film adaptation contains the violence of the original Grimm version, where the stepsisters have their toes and heels sliced off to fit into the slipper and Cinderella’s birds blind the stepsister for their cruelty (Into The Woods). Also, from the original Grimm tales the theme of wish fulfillment, of wanting riches, children, and a different life are included in this film.

What would literature, culture, and society be like today if the readers of the 18th century had not called for the Grimm brothers to edit their collection or if the Grimm brothers refused to do so? The Grimm collection of tales have changed many times over for the past two centuries, but that is the nature of fairy tales: “Fairy tales are never fixed and always changing from one region to another, from one teller to another, they still preserve a stable core” (Haase 31). Even though the fairy tales we know today may not reflect the original Grimm collection, their legacy lives on through the adaptations and the inspiration they passed on to other authors, scholars, and collectors.

Works Cited

    Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Fairy Tales: A New History. Albany: Excelsior Editions, 2009. Print.

    Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Grimms’ Bad Girls & Bold Boys: The Moral & Social Vision of the Tales. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Print.

    Ellis, John M. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1983. Print.

    Grimm. By Stephen Carpenter, David Greenwalt, and Jim Kouf. NBC Universal Television, 2011. DVD.

    Haase, Donald. The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1993. Print.

    Into The Woods. Dir. Rob Marshall. By James Lapine. Walt Disney Pictures, 2014. DVD.

    McGlat, James M. The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991. Print.

    Once Upon A Time. By Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. ABC Studios, 2011. Digital. Netflix. Web.

    Paradiz, Valerie. Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. New York: Basic, 2005. Print.

    Peppar, Murr B. Paths Through the Forest: A Biography of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971. Print.

    Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

    Zipes, Jack. Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms’ Folk and Fairy Tales. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Print.

    Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to Modern World. New York: Palrave, 2002.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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