The address book begins Narrabilia, in which we tell the background of famous stories we all know. In January, we talk about the Brothers Grimm, how and why they wrote their stories, and why they shouldn't be considered a good source for studying German folklore of the time.

We are in January. It is the beginning of a new year, it is the time of good intentions. And for this reason 2022 I have chosen one that I repeat to myself, albeit in different forms, often and willingly: to tell more stories.
So, a few weeks ago I went to the good Seeker G. and asked her permission to sick you monthly with the fruit of my research. Thus, a new column was born: Narrabilia, in which we will go a bit to explore the origin and nature of many classic stories.

In fact, as you may know, in my podcast (The name of this podcast is Dionigi) I've been enjoying the business of taking a story and seeing where I can get there for some time now while continuing to go backwards. And that's a little bit what I propose to do here with you, one month at a time, one theme at a time, to see where we can get.
So, what better argument to start this new year than the story of two men who have tried to do just that (more or less)?

The Brothers Grimm in an 1855 painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann
The Brothers Grimm in a painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann Part 1855

Stories and background that we all know

Jacob Ludwig e Wilhelm Karl Grimm, both born at the end of the eighteenth century and died shortly after the mid-nineteenth century, are two figures that have gone down in history for having collected and reworked the tales of the German folk tradition.
For a long time, when we talked about children's stories, we could not help but mention the "tales of the Brothers Grimm". Then came the internet and we collectively learned from the burgeoning of articles like "The 10 Darkest Things You Didn't Know About the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales." And we discovered a world of… mutilation, in large part. But so much anthropophagy was already there in the sweetened versions, so what are we surprised about?

And we have found that, often, there is a story behind the story told by the Grimms. Hansel e Gretel, for example, it is a fairy tale probably born in reference to times of famine. A period in which it was not uncommon to abandon or otherwise make disappear the offspring for the purpose of preserving the rest of the family.


What did the Brothers Grimm write?

So, what is the story behind the Brothers Grimm story?
Our Jacob and Wilhem were two German professors, linguists and philologists. If we can say so, since at the time Germany as a nation did not yet exist. And this is an interesting concept that will come in handy shortly.

Well, so what did these two gentlemen do? Theoretically they walked around the countryside, talked to the illiterate and illiterate population to collect the so-called tales of the hearth. Those tales that have been handed down from generation to generation, orally or thereabouts.
And they weren't even the first to try something like this: in France, in 1697 Charles Perrault published The stories of Mamma Goose. But Perrault's goal was to collect traditional fairy tales and rewrite them elegantly so that the Court could enjoy them as a form of entertainment.

But was this the purpose of the Grimms? Obviously not.
You will remember that we placed a pebble on the ground: Germany in Grimm's time did not exist as a nation. And it will not exist until the end of the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871. But here we are around 1812, and all we have is a region populated by people who, for the most part, speak German.
And therefore, the Brothers Grimm aim to create a collection of stories that prove the purity and above all the very existence of a German folklore. Of a German people. A collection of stories that united the German people and demonstrates the antiquity of its roots, perhaps linked to the origins of humanity itself. Oh my God, how badly these words have aged.
And from this idea, from this initiative, three volumes come to life, published in 1812, 1814 and 1822.

Image from the second edition of the first volume of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, dated to 1819. Source
Image from the second edition of the first volume of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, dated to 1819. Source

Are the Brothers Grimm really reliable sources?

And so, can we look to the Brothers Grimm fairy tales to get a taste of the true German folkloric cultural identity?
Well, no. Or better, not in the sense that they would have wanted to imply.

In fact, after sending their assistants around to collect stories (and thus confirming that we can date the professors' tradition of having their underlings do the hard work at least to 1812), Jacob groups together those that it seems to him they can go together. Wilhem, then, rewrites them (even several times, if necessary, to remove any small sexual references from Rapunzel). All this, inevitably, under the influence of previous similar works, such as that of Perrault and beyond.

French Influences in German Fairy Tales: Where Do They Come From?

But the sources, at least: those were all popular, weren't they?
Eh. In short. In fact, it seems that one of their main sources was Henriette Dorothea Wild, known as Dortchen, neighbor of the Brothers Grimm since 1805 and wife of Wilhem since 1825.
And in fact, if you ever happened to ask yourself “How did these French fairy tales end up in my German collection?”, It was probably Dortchen: his was in fact a family of Huguenot origins. And in fact, if we want to hang up on the example above, Hansel & Gretel itself is a fairy tale that has many points of contact with the French Thumb, reported instead by Perrault:

  1. The head of the family is a poor woodcutter;
  2. They have no food to feed themselves;
  3. Parents abandon their children in the woods;
  4. One of the sons manages to find his way home the first time by sowing pebbles;
  5. The second time, the birds eat his crumbs and get completely lost;
  6. Children are "captured" by an anthropophagous creature.

The real difference lies in the nature of this creature, which from ogre becomes a witch, opening the door to a whole series of very interesting arguments on the figure of the woman in early nineteenth-century "Germany" and complex on the mother figure. But that's another story.

Another image from the second edition of the first volume of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, dated to 1819. Source
Another image from the second edition of the first volume of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, dated to 1819. Source

The origins of the Brothers Grimm: an important collective imagination, but on a questionable basis

So, summing up. Does buying a volume containing the "original" and uncleaned drafts of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales mean having a piece of authentic German popular culture in your hands? No, definitely not.
Sure, those stories come from somewhere as well. Studying how, for example, an ogre becomes a witch and why it tells us a lot about our past. For me, perhaps, it is even a more interesting tale than the fairy tale itself.
The Grimms, like Perrault and many others, played a significant role in passing on tales of popular origin, helping to build a collective imagination which still influences us today. We've even seen it in some RPGs, like Broken Tales. But let's also keep in mind two things: their methods, which today we would call "questionable" and their design, much more ideological than philological.
Nonetheless, I hope I have told you a good story.