The Brothers Grimm and Grimms’ Fairy Tales

The Brothers Grimm and Grimms' Fairy Tales

Learning German does not just help you get a job with Lufthansa or book a hotel in Frankfurt. Learning German is also a passport into another world. And part of this world is the world of stories; everything from modern crime stories (Krimis like ‘Die Tote Frau’ in smartergerman) or going back to some of the most well-known fairy tales put together by the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, most of these folk tales have been translated into English and we have enjoyed them being read to us when young, and we have enjoyed reading them to our own children when old, but translation brings them into our world. If we really want to be transported, we need to step into the language.

Who Were the Grimm Brothers?

The Brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, were historians and philologists (the study of languages in relation to story-telling). At university, the Grimm brothers met the Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, who asked for their help collecting folk songs and poetry. So, they embarked on gathering old stories from Germany and surrounding European countries.

It was really the history of the Germanic languages and their German dictionary that was their life’s work, but at the height of romanticism, their collection of fairy tales became popular. The Brothers Grimm also dedicated themselves to examining early literature through the publication of new editions of ancient texts in various languages.

Jacob Grimm dedicated himself to philological research that later led to a history of the German language, “Geschichte der deutschen Sprache”, in which he attempted to combine the historical study of language with the study of early history. Wilhelm Grimm, the younger brother, made a notable contribution with “Die deutsche Heldensage” (“The German Heroic Tale”), a compilation highlighting themes and names from heroic legends.

Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales )

They were not originally meant for children, but were later shaped to fit the audience. Even so, some of them were considered inappropriate and had to be changed further … and even these are considered by some too violent for children of today, particularly in relation to Disney-versions of the stories.

Brothers Grimm

The Grimms believed in these stories as foundational elements for the culture of Germany; that a sense of being German was tied up in the many stories that had been told from generation to generation by word of mouth. Like with any old story, there were often many different versions of similar stories in different places, so part of the process of collecting them was to decide upon how to put a single story together from all the various parts.

These even changed from edition to edition of their works. The collection called “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” went through several different editions and became more and more popular as the years went by, and a greater sense of Germanic unity developed. The book became such a symbol of German nationalism that it was even banned for a short period after the Second World War. However, they never did finish their German dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch), since they spent so much time and effort researching every word. They only got up to the letter ‘F’.

Social and Political Context

The era of the Napoleonic Wars ushered in a period marked by significant political and social unrest. The German-speaking region experienced fragmentation, prompting numerous German intellectuals, including Jacob and Wilhelm, to be fueled by a sense of nationalism in their efforts to safeguard the swiftly vanishing German cultural heritage.

Central to this movement was German Romanticism, characterized by a deep emotional yearning for authenticity. The Romantics believed that this authenticity could be discovered in the straightforward language and wisdom of ordinary people, as they sought to reconnect with a sentimentalized historical past. For the Romantics, the epitome of this purity was encapsulated in Naturpoesie, or folk poetry.

The Grimms’ Geschichte der Deutschen Sprache

In 1840, upon receiving an invitation from the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, the Brothers Grimm relocated to Berlin. As members of the Royal Academy of Sciences, they delivered lectures at the university. It was in Berlin that they embarked wholeheartedly on their most ambitious project—the Deutsches Wörterbuch, a comprehensive German dictionary designed to serve as both a practical guide for language users and a scholarly reference work.

This extensive dictionary aimed to encompass all German words spanning the literature from “Luther to Goethe” across three centuries. Entries included historical variants, etymology, and semantic evolution of words, with usage examples drawn from both specialized and everyday language, incorporating idioms and proverbs.

Began in 1838 as a means of financial support following their expulsion from Göttingen, the colossal undertaking of compiling a dictionary spanned over a century, involving multiple generations of successors. Jacob saw the project advance up to the letter F, while Wilhelm concluded his contributions at the letter D. This monumental dictionary, later becoming a model for similar publications in countries such as Britain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, exemplified the enduring legacy of their linguistic efforts. During their approximately two-decade tenure in Prussia’s capital, the brothers enjoyed respect and financial stability. Noteworthy contributions from this period include their lectures, essays, prefaces, and reviews (Kleinere Schriften).

In Berlin, they actively engaged in the political upheavals, notably experiencing the 1848 Revolution and participating in the ensuing political tumult for several years. Jacob’s philological pursuits extended to a history of the German language, titled “Geschichte der deutschen Sprache,” wherein he endeavored to blend the historical study of language with an exploration of early history. Jacob Grimm’s work stimulated research into names, dialects, writing methods, and spelling reforms, as evidenced by his advocacy for roman type and the lowercase spelling of German nouns.

German Folk Tales and Linguistics

The Pied Piper Of Hamelin – A Stamp A Day

Some of the Grimm Brothers tales you might have heard of include The Bremen Town Musicians (Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten), Old Sultan (Der alte Sultan), Little Briar-Rose (Dornröschen), The Jew in the Thorns (Der Jude im Dorn), The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht), The Three Feathers (Die drei Federn), The Godfather Death (Der Gevatter Tod), The Goose-Girl at the Well (Die Gänsehirtin am Brunnen), The Elves (Die Wichtelmänner) and The Singing Bone (Der singende Knochen).

The Dark Nature of the Grimm Fairy Tales

Many Grimm tales feature dark and gruesome elements. In “Cinderella,” the malevolent stepsisters mutilate their feet to fit the slipper and suffer further by having their eyes pecked out by doves.

“The Six Swans” features the burning of an evil mother-in-law at the stake, while the wicked queen in “Snow White” is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes at the end. The original versions of “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White” included evil biological mothers, but subsequent editions transformed them into stepmothers.

Der Ratenfänger

One of my favorite fairy tales among the ones collected by the Grimms is ‘The Pied Piper’ which is called ‘Der Ratenfänger’ in German, which is already an interesting point of difference in emphasis. It was Robert Browning’s version of this fairy tale that I remember so well, but many different versions developed over time and place. In fact, the original folk tale doesn’t even mention rats at all.

In this fairy tale, children were taken by a brightly dressed chap. And it might not have even been children; in its context, it could have meant ‘children’ as meaning being a child-of a place, or having been born there. It could well have been recording a mass migration into the underpopulated eastern regions of Europe, perhaps encouraged by a brightly dressed ‘procurer’.

People were certainly not so mobile in the early Middle Ages, so such a migration would have been a noteworthy event. Perhaps Robert Browning’s English version will always be my version of the story. But learning German helps you realize how much our stories and the oral tradition are tied up in our languages, which was really the whole point of the Grimm project anyway.

Linguistics and Grimm’s Law

Grimm’s Law, named after Jacob Grimm, is a renowned linguistic concept often overlooked by those outside the field. In the realm of linguistics, Jacob Grimm is primarily recognized for this law, also known as the First Germanic Sound Shift.

This set of sound laws delineates the evolution of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) stop consonants into those of Proto-Germanic during the 1st millennium BC. Though initially noted by Rasmus Rask, it was Jacob Grimm who systematically presented Grimm’s Law, establishing regular correspondences between early Germanic stops and fricatives and those of specific other centum Indo-European languages.

Influence of the Grimm’s German Folktales

“Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (Children’s and Household Tales) has earned a place in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry. The Brothers Grimm, firm believers in the intrinsic cultural value rooted in language and history, left an indelible impact on other collectors. Their work served as both inspiration and a catalyst for a spirit of romantic nationalism, leading collectors to view a country’s fairy tales as particularly emblematic, sometimes overshadowing cross-cultural influences.

Influenced figures include Alexander Afanasyev from Russia, Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Englishman Joseph Jacobs, and American Jeremiah Curtin, who collected Irish tales. Despite their influence, the Grimm collection didn’t always receive universal acclaim; Joseph Jacobs, for instance, was prompted to collect English fairy tales in response to concerns about English children not engaging with their own folk stories, and even stated that “What Perrault began, the Grimms completed.”


Here are also some of the questions people ask about the brother Grimm’s popular stories

Why did the Brothers Grimm gather tales?

The Brothers Grimm gathered tales with the primary goal of preserving and documenting the rich oral folk traditions of Germany. Motivated by a passion for language, history, and cultural heritage, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm started collecting tales and fairy legends, known today as “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (“Children and Household Tales”). They aimed to capture the essence of German folklore, believing that these oral tales were essential expressions of the nation’s cultural identity.

Why are the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales so dark?

The dark and grim nature of the Grimms’ tales can be attributed to their original intent. The tales the brothers Grimm published were not initially meant for children; they aimed to capture the harsh realities and moral lessons of the time. Over the years, adaptations have been made to make them more suitable for younger audiences and has built a more fairy tale world around the original tales.

What are the Brothers Grimm best known for?

The Brothers Grimm are best known for their collection of fairy tales, first published in 1812 as “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” This compilation has become a cornerstone of Western folklore, featuring timeless stories that continue to captivate readers.

What fairy tales were written by the Brothers Grimm?

Some of the most famous fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm include “The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Tom Thumb,” “Rapunzel,” “The Golden Goose,” “The Frog Prince”, and “Rumpelstiltskin.”

When were the Grimm Brothers’ tales published?

The Grimm tales, formally known as “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” or “Kinder- und Hausmärchen,” were first published in two volumes. The initial volume was released in 1812, followed by the second volume in 1815. The seventh and final edition, published in 1857, contained a total of 211 tales—comprising 200 numbered folk tales and 11 legends.

Summing Up: The Brothers Grimm and Grimms’ Fairy Tales

The enduring impact of the Brothers Grimm and their famous collection of tales is thus tied to a tapestry woven with German legends and oral traditions.

Once not intended for children, have become UNESCO treasures, Grimms tales give us a

The legacy of Grimms’ tales transcends bedtime stories—it’s a portal into the world of German folklore and the essence of cultural identity.