The Grimm brothers Wilhelm and Jacob were in their twenties and studying at the University of Marburg in the early 1800s when they were encouraged to collect German popular stories and other material by their law professor and mentor, Friedrich Carl von Savigny. Savigny was an important figure in the nationalist Romantic movement calling for Germany to be united politically and culturally; his friends and associates formed a tightly bonded, ardent group, caught up in the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Their appeals for national recovery were combined with a quest for authentic voices of the Volk, the people.
The group included the writer and scholar Clemens Brentano (Savigny’s brother-in-law) and the poet Achim von Arnim, who was married to another sister of Brentano’s, Bettina, also a writer. Brentano and Arnim edited the influential songbook Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) in 1805–1808, with its eldritch ballads from the folk tradition, such as “The Erl King.” The Volkcould be heard, it was believed, in such songs, stories, lore, and language. The passion for Poesie, as the Grimms called the folkloric tradition, had already inspired in England an anthology of comparably terse, dark story-songs, Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. That same passion infuses the magical and nightmarish poems of Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads as well as Wordsworth’s love of unlettered and unrecorded tradition:
Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy far-off things,
And battles long ago…
The metaphors the Grimms used to describe their work are messianic and ecological: they believed they were saving authentic popular German culture, an endangered species. The preface to the first volume of the brothers’ tales Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), published in 1812, begins:
When a storm, or some other catastrophe sent from the heavens, levels an entire crop, we are relieved to find that a small patch, protected by tiny hedges or bushes, has been spared and that some solitary stalks remain standing.
Of these few survivors, they wrote:
Ear upon ear will be carefully bound in bundles, inspected, and attended to as whole sheaths. Then they will be brought home and serve as the staple food for the entire winter. Perhaps they will be the only seed for the future.
This is how it seemed to us when we began examining the richness of German literature in earlier times…. The places by the stove, the hearth in the kitchen,…and above all the undisturbed imagination have been the hedges that have protected the tales….
The first volume was followed by another in 1815. Together these make up The Complete First Edition of the Grimms’ tales, presented and fully translated into English for the first time by Jack Zipes. (He has left out the voluminous apparatus that the assiduous brothers added, which effectively presented the book not as fun for the family but as documents toward a national cultural memory.)
This collection contains many of the most-loved fairy tales in the history of the form: “Little Snow White” (Sneewittchen), with its haunting refrain (“Mirror, mirror…”) and its three steps to deathly unconsciousness (first the stay-laces, then the poisoned comb, then the irresistible red red apple); the Grimms’ chilling and ferocious variant of “Cinderella” in which her sisters cut off their toes and their heels to fit into the glass slipper; “Rapunzel”; “The Robber Bridegroom”; “Fitcher’s Bird”—one could go on and on. The book is a classic, formed like a mosaic of precious small pieces, each one glinting with its own color and character, glassy and crystalline, but somehow hard, unyielding.
And yet much of it is unfamiliar. After the first edition was published, Wilhelm tinkered and tampered with the texts, trying to lighten the cruelty, patch over the sexual frankness (for example, the story of Rapunzel’s pregnancy), smooth over non sequiturs, and pattern the dialogue to match the most memorable tales. The two brothers revised and added to their collections several times. While the first volume (1815) includes fewer than seventy tales, by the Grimms’ final and definitive edition in 1857, the total had grown to over two hundred, many quite different from the original form presented here.
The brothers’ prose style diverges dramatically from that of earlier writers of fairy stories. These had tended to express feline licentiousness (Giambattista Basile), sophisticated comic irony (Charles Perrault), and rococo deliriums (Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, who was the first writer to use the term contes des fées, in her book of that title in 1698). The Grimms’ stories are spare and austere. When James Merrill wrote that he yearned for
the kind of unseasoned telling found
In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean
Over the centuries by mild old tongues,
Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous,
he was referring to the Grimms, not to those older tellers of tales. Another recent translator of the Grimms, the English magical fabulist Philip Pullman, quotes Merrill approvingly, saying he was also aiming to capture this “tone licked clean.”
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