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Brothers Grimm

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Wilhelm (left) and Jakob Grimm (right) from an 1855 painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

The Brothers Grimm (German: Die Gebrüder Grimm), Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, were German academics who were best known for publishing collections of folk tales and fairy tales and for their work in linguistics, relating to how the sounds in words shift over time ( Grimm's Law). They are among the best known story tellers of novellas from Europe, allowing the widespread knowledge of such tales as Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel.


The Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Karl (1786–1859), became famous as the authors of fairy tales. As scholars, they also contributed to comparative linguistics. The Grimm brothers were also very important historians of medieval language and folklore.

The Brothers Grimm were born in Hanau, Jacob on January 4, 1785, and Wilhelm on February 24, 1786. They grew up playing games of make-believe together, and their lifelong close relationship made their accomplishments possible. The Grimm family lived nearby the magistrates' house between 1790 and 1796 while the father was employed by the Prince of Hesse. The brothers attended school in Kassel, and both studied law at the University of Marburg. It was the inspiration of Friedrich von Savigny who awakened in them an interest in the past. In 1808, Jacob was named court librarian to the king of Westphalia, and in 1816 he became librarian in Kassel, where Wilhelm was also employed. They remained there until 1830, when they secured positions at the University of Göttingen.

The Grimm brothers published their first volume of fairy tales, Tales of Children and the Home, in 1812. They had received their stories from peasants and villagers. In their collaboration Jacob did more of the research, while Wilhelm, more fragile, put it into literary form and provided the childlike style. They were also interested in folklore and primitive literature. Between 1816 and 1818 they published two volumes of German legends and also a volume of early literary history.

In time the brothers became interested in older languages and their relation to German. Jacob began to specialize in the history and structure of the German language. The relationships between words became known as Grimm's Law. They gathered immense amounts of data. By 1830 the brothers moved to the University of Göttingen, where Jacob was named professor and head librarian. Wilhelm also became a professor in 1835. Both were dismissed that same year for protesting against the king's decision to abolish the Hanoverian constitution. Their last years were spent in writing a definitive dictionary of the German language, the first volume published in 1854, and it was carried on by future generations.

Wilhelm died in Berlin on December 16, 1859, while Jacob continued work on the dictionary and related projects until his death in Berlin on September 20, 1863.


Jakob Ludwig Grimm and Wilhelm Karl Grimm were born on January 4, 1785, and February 24, 1786, respectively, in Hanau near Frankfurt in Hessen. They were among a family of nine children, only six of whom survived infancy. Their early childhood was spent in the countryside in what has been described as an "idyllic" state. When the eldest brother Jakob was eleven years old, however, their father, Philipp Wilhelm, died, and the family moved into a cramped urban residence. Two years later, the children's grandfather also died, leaving them and their mother to struggle in reduced circumstances. (Some modern psychologists have argued that this harsh family background influenced the ways the Brothers Grimm would interpret and present their tales.) The Brothers tended to idealize and excuse fathers, leaving a predominance of female villains in the tales—the infamous wicked stepmothers, for example, the evil stepmother and stepsisters in “Cinderella”, the nefarious crone in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, and the kindly father in “The Frog King”, however this opinion ignores the fact that the brothers were collectors of folk tales, not their authors:

"They urged fidelity to the spoken text, without embellishments, and though it has been shown that they did not always practise what they preached, the idealized ‘orality’ of their style was much closer to reality than the literary retellings previously thought necessary."
"Scholars and psychiatrists have thrown a camouflaging net over the stories with their relentless, albeit fascinating, question of 'What does it mean?'"

Another influence is perhaps shown in the brothers' fondness for stories such as The Twelve Brothers, which show one girl and several brothers (their own family structure) overcoming opposition.

The two brothers were educated at the Friedrichs- Gymnasium in Kassel and later both read law at the University of Marburg. They were in their early twenties when they began the linguistic and philological studies that would culminate in both Grimm's Law and their collected editions of fairy and folk tales. Though their collections of tales became immensely popular, they were essentially a by-product of the linguistic research which was the Brothers' primary goal.

Jakob remained a bachelor until his death, but Wilhelm married Dorothea Wild, a pharmacist's daughter from whom the brothers heard the story Little Red Riding Hood, in 1825. They had four children, three survived infancy. In 1830, they formed a household in Göttingen with Jakob, where both brothers became professors.

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm joined five of their colleague professors at the University of Göttingen to protest against the abolition of the liberal constitution of the state of Hanover by King Ernest Augustus I, a reactionary son of King George III. This group came to be known in the German states as Die Göttinger Sieben (The Göttingen Seven). The two, along with the five others, protested against the abrogation. For this, the professors were fired from their university posts and three deported--including Jakob. Jakob settled in Kassel, outside Ernest's realm, and Wilhelm joined him there, both staying with their brother Ludwig. However, the next year, the two were invited to Berlin by the King of Prussia, and both settled there.

Graves of the Brothers Grimm in the St Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin.

Wilhelm died in 1859; his elder brother Jakob died in 1863. The brothers are buried in the St. Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin. The Grimms helped foment a nationwide democratic public opinion in Germany and are cherished as the progenitors of the German democratic movement, whose revolution of 1848/1849 was crushed by the Kingdom of Prussia, where there was established a constitutional monarchy.

The Tales

The Brothers Grimm began collecting folk tales around 1807, in response to a wave of awakened interest in German folklore that followed the publication of Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano's folksong collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), 1805-8. By 1810 the Grimms produced a manuscript collection of several dozen tales, which they had recorded by inviting storytellers to their home and transcribing what they heard. Although it is often believed that they took their tales from peasants, many of their informants were middle-class or aristocratic, recounting tales they had heard from their servants, and several of the informants were of Huguenot ancestry and told tales French in origin. It is believed that certain elements of the stories were "purified" for the brothers who were Christian.

In 1812, the Brothers published a collection of 86 German fairy tales in a volume titled Kinder- und Hausmärchen ( "Children's and Household Tales"). They published a second volume of 70 fairy tales in 1814 ("1815" on the title page), which together make up the first edition of the collection, containing 156 stories.

They wrote a two volume work titled Deutsche Sagen which included 585 German legends which were published in 1816 and 1818. The legends are told in chronological order of which historical events they were related. Then they arranged the regional legends thematically for each folktale creature like dwarfs, giants, monsters, etc. not in any historical order. These legends were not as popular as the fairytales.

A second edition, of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, followed in 1819-22, expanded to 170 tales. Five more editions were issued during the Grimms' lifetimes, in which stories were added or subtracted, until the seventh edition of 1857 contained 211 tales. Many of the changes were made in light of unfavorable reviews, particularly those that objected that not all the tales were suitable for children, despite the title. They were also criticized for being insufficiently German; this not only affected the tales they included, but their language as they changed "Fee" (fairy) to an enchantress or wise woman, every prince to a king's son, every princess to a king's daughter. (It has long been recognized that some of these later-added stories were derived from printed rather than oral sources.)

These editions, equipped with scholarly notes, were intended as serious works of folklore. The Brothers also published the Kleine Ausgabe or "small edition," containing a selection of 50 stories expressly designed for children (as opposed to the more formal Große Ausgabe or "large edition"). Ten printings of the "small edition" were issued between 1825 and 1858.

The Grimms were not the first to publish collections of folktales. The 1697 French collection by Charles Perrault is the most famous, though there were various others, including a German collection by Johann Karl August Musäus published in 1782-7. The earlier collections, however, made little pretense to strict fidelity to sources. The Brothers Grimm were the first workers in this genre to present their stories as faithful renditions of the kind of direct folkloric materials that underlay the sophistications of an adapter like Perrault. In so doing, the Grimms took a basic and essential step toward modern folklore studies, leading to the work of folklorists like Peter and Iona Opie and others.

It should be noted that the Grimms' method was common in their historical era. Arnim and Brentano edited and adapted the folksongs of Des Knaben Wunderhorn; in the early 1800s Brentano collected folktales in much the same way as the Grimms. The good academic practices violated by these early researchers had not yet been codified in the period in which they worked. The Grimms have been criticized for a basic dishonesty, for making false claims about their fidelity—for saying one thing and doing another; whether and to what degree they were deceitful, or self-deluding, is perhaps an open question.


In the very early 19th century, the time in which the Brothers Grimm lived, the Holy Roman Empire had recently dissolved, and the modern nation of Germany did not exist. In its place was a confederacy of 39 small- to medium-size German states, many of the states newly created by Napoleon when he reorganized Germany. The major unifying factor for the German people of the time was a common language. So part of what motivated the Brothers in their writings and in their lives was the desire to help create a German identity.

Less well known to the general public outside of Germany is the Brothers' work on a German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch. It was very extensive, having 33 volumes and weighing 84 kg, and is still considered the standard reference for German etymology. Work began in 1838, but by the end of their lifetime, only sections for the letter 'A' through part of the letter 'F' were completed. Ultimately, the work was not considered complete until 1960.

Jacob is recognized for enunciating Grimm's law, Germanic Sound Shift, that was first observed by the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask. Grimm's law was the first non-trivial systematic sound change ever to be discovered.

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