German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are best known for publishing a collection of stories known as “Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” But while the duo did popularize these classic tales, the roots of the stories date back much farther.
Bringing fairy tales to the mainstream
“Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, originally known as “Children’s and Household Tales,” was first published in 1812. The collection includes over 200 stories, with familiar classics like “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” But while the Grimm brothers were largely responsible for introducing these tales to the masses, they weren’t the original creators of the stories.
The fairy tales, in fact, were part of a rich oral tradition passed down from generation to generation. In an effort to save the stories from extinction, scholars Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm undertook an extensive effort to interview friends and relatives to gather the tales in writing.
The collection enjoyed wide distribution in Germany and eventually in all parts of the globe, becoming the model for the future collecting of folktales. The Grimms’ notes to the tales formed the basis for the science of the folk narrative and even of folklore itself. To this day the tales remain the earliest “scientific” collection of folktales.
Dark themes and adaptations
It’s widely known that the Grimm fairy tales contain darker themes than their modern retellings. Several of the stories that have since been adapted as family films originally contained depictions of graphic violence.
In “Cinderella” the evil stepsisters cut off their toes and heels trying to make the slipper fit and in the end their eyes were pecked out by doves. In “Snow White” the wicked queen dies after being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. Unsurprisingly, these details didn’t make the cut in the Disney movies.
The Grimm fairy tales have also been reframed for sinister reasons. During the Third Reich, the Nazis adopted several of the Grimms’ tales for propaganda purposes. They claimed, for example, that Little Red Riding Hood symbolized the German people suffering at the hands of the Jewish wolf.
A surprising legacy
If the Grimms were alive today, they might be surprised to find that they’re most well-known for their collection of fairy tales.
The university-trained philologists (the study of language in historical texts) also wrote books about mythology, published scholarly works on linguistics and medieval studies, and began compiling an ambitious German dictionary, although they died before they were able to finish it.
But with more major upcoming projects adapted from the Grimm fairy tales — like “Tiana,” the series follow-up to “The Princess and the Frog” set to debut on the Disney+ streaming service in 2022 — it looks like fairy tales will continue to be the lasting legacy of The Brothers Grimm.
Green Eggs and Ham