Tales of the Brothers Grimm

Week 10: European Fairy Tales - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


This week and next week we will be reading "fairy tales." When you think of fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White, you probably think of them as being stories for children. And you will indeed find children's versions of these stories in books and in movies. Yet these stories were not always considered to be just for children, as you can see by in the work of the Brothers Grimm. When Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm published their famous collection of German "Märchen" (usually translated as "fairy tales"), they were interested in far more than children's stories: Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm were interested in German mythology, and they saw these folktales as being part of the German mythology tradition.

Of course, the Brothers Grimm realized that many of the folktales they collected had a special appeal for children. So when they published their first collection of German folktales in 1812 they called it Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or, Children's Tales and Household Tales. These were stories for children - but also stories not for children, stories for the "household." In order to understand what that means, you can try to imagine what life was like in 1812. At that time, there was no television, and no radio - so storytelling was an entertainment shared by the whole household. Sitting around and telling stories was the equivalent of watching TV or listening to the radio. So there were stories you might tell when children were around... and stories you might tell only after the children had been put to bed. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories from storytellers who were still alive in 1812; they also worked from some earlier written sources. Although the Brothers Grimm used a more-or-less uniform storytelling style in their versions of the stories, they retained some of the original storytelling style, sometimes including the distinctive final words that a storyteller would use to indicate that the story was over: for example, "My tale is done, there runs a mouse, whosoever catches it, may make himself a big fur cap out of it" (at the end of Hansel and Grethel).

So, even though the Brothers Grimm are now most commonly found in the children's section of the bookstore, they were really not interested in children at all! They were interested in the folk traditions of Germany and the ancient traditions that were preserved by these stories of the "people" - the "Volk", or "folk." You can get a clear sense of the motivations of the Brothers Grimm if you put the "fairy tales" in the context of the other folk traditions and mythology that they studied. Together, the Brothers Grimm published collections of "Old German Tales" and "German Sagas" and an edition of the "Lays from the Elder Edda." They were also major contributors to the first modern German dictionary, which had a strong historical emphasis.

Jacob Grimm, in particular, was famous for his work in historical linguistics, the study of how languages change over time. The Brothers Grimm were interested in linguistics because this branch of linguistics made it possible for them to study the history of a culture through the history of its language. If you have ever taken a linguistics course, you are probably familiar with "Grimm's Law", which refers to Jacob Grimm's description of historical sound changes in Indo-European languages. Grimm's Law is still a cornerstone of modern linguistic science.

In addition to their joint publications, the two brothers published independent works, which likewise show their interest in ancient German traditions and the traditions of other ancient Germanic peoples:

Clearly, these men were not specialists in children's literature! They were seeking to discover the cultural history of the German people as it had been preserved in popular folktales and other storytelling traditions.

Hopefully, you will now start to see what a strange fate has happened to the stories called "myths" in English, and the stories called "folktales." It is a very paradoxical problem! Even though "myths" and "folktales" refer to pretty much the same kind of stories, these words have entirely different connotations in English.

Yet as the Brothers Grimm recognized, folktales are a form of mythology. Remember: the Greek word "mythos" just meant a "story"! The Brothers Grimm collected the kinds of stories that you might tell sitting around the kitchen, and they also collected the stories told by German minstrel singers, and epic sagas about mythical heroes, along with many other folk traditions. For the Brothers Grimm, these stories all contributed to an understanding of German cultural history.

So while you will probably have lots of memories from your own childhood as you read this week's stories (including memories of the Disney versions, definitely intended for children), try to see what happens if you think about these stories as myths rather than fairy tales. You probably all know Cinderella, but what happens if you think about Cinderella as a mythological figure...? Give it a try - that would get you a lot closer to how the Brothers Grimm thought about what they were doing when they collected their German Märchen!

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM