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Romanticism Brothers Grimm
The Influence of Romanticism
on the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
The Germany of the Brothers Grimm was not the Germany we know today. In the early 1800s, the country we now call ‘Germany’ was basically a collection of separate entities. There was no central unifying theme to draw the country together, no sense of national identity. The single unifying factor of these separate entities was a shared language; there was not yet a standard literary history.
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When it comes to fairy tales, nearly everyone has something to say, and they all have something different to say. As Tatar notes, ‘folklorists, cultural anthropologists, historians, sociologists, educators, literary critics, psychologists—even criminologists—have all laid claim to occupying privileged positions as judges and interpreters of those tales’ (Tatar 39).
This lack of history was a motivating factor for the Brothers Grimm, who responded to this need with their lifelong efforts to record and unify the fairy tales that we today equate with German culture. In so doing, their work became not only a central part of German literary identity, but also an important part of world literature.
A primary focus of Romanticism was the development of national languages, folklore, and a celebration of local customs and traditions. Nationalism also figured prominently in the development of Romanticism, and was largely responsible for determining the ultimate direction it would take.
The Brothers Grimm embraced the notions of Romanticism at a crucial moment in history. It is important to note that up to this time, there was no sense of a single, unified ‘Germany’. Germany at this time was merely a collection of principalities with nothing to tie them together. The turmoil wrought by Napoleonic rule was made worse during the unven reign of Jerome. Despite this—and despite their numerous personal obstacles—Jacob and Wilhelm were able to draw together the key and major works of the past, and to present them and publish them in a format that would preserve German culture to this day.
Romantic nationalism gained momentum in the late 18th century. The Brothers Grimm were enthusiastic advocates of it in the early 19th century as they started their careers. The concept of an inherited cultural patrimony from a common origin quickly became an important issue. It soon became central to a divisive question within romantic nationalism. The basic question addressed the issue of whether or not a nation was unified because of its genetic source—that is, because of its race—or were other issues the cause? This issue lies at the heart of disagreements which rage to this day.
One of the most important scholars who have written about the efforts of the Grimms is Jack Zipes. Zipes raises some key questions about the motivations of the Grimm Brothers. For example: what is it that drove these gifted scholars to devote themselves with such zeal to the study of ancient German folk tales? Zipes points out that the Grimms identified themselves closely with these tales; in addition, they felt that the essence of Germany’s history was clearly tied into them.
Zipes carefully considers questions about the brothers’ initial motivations to revive these old German tales. ‘Why were the brothers drawn to old German literature and folktales in the first place?’ he asks (Zipes 206). Zipes points out that the Grimm brothers diligently spent much of their careers in zealous devotion to meticulous rewriting of these tales, but asks key questions, such as, ‘why did they rewrite the tales so carefully and to what purpose?’ (Zipes 206).
In addition, Zipes considers a number of critical issues. He delves into the types of family prototypes the brothers favored. He also questions the extent to which these types match the bourgeois notions of the time: in other words, what makes people act ‘ethically’? More specifically: what comprises ‘ethical behavior’ when considering this period in German history? ‘What type of wish fulfillment (Wunsch-Erfüllung) did the tales convey for the brothers, who had a deep love for one another and for home (Heimat) and fatherland (Vaterland)? (Zipes 206).
The effect of Romanticism on the Brothers Grimm is inextricably tied into their family history. Jacob and Wilhelm first began their studies of German folk literature in 1805. At this time they were not yet scholars; they were merely twenty-year old university students who were reacting to the new experiences of being away from home and learning new things. The brothers are generally treated as a team, though Jacob concentrated on linguistic studies and Wilhelm was primarily a literary scholar. German Romanticism and its interest in mythology, folklore and dreams affected the brothers. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had as their main thesis the idea that folktales should be collected from oral sources. They therefore aimed at genuine reproduction of the original story. It is significant to note that their methodology also became the model for other scholars.
Jacob Grimm’s ‘Deutsche Mythologie’
In his magnum opus “Deutsche Mythologie’, Jacob Grimm’s traces his fairy tales to the pre-Christian era. By doing so, he ties them into the ancient faith and superstitions of the Germanic peoples. The archaic pre-medieval Germany was seen as representative of a Golden Age, a period of comparative harmony and happiness before it was lost. Often considered a romantic view, this perspective of the history is heavily dependent on the Bible’s tale of Eden. Some even attribute it to Arthurian legends.
Both brothers argued that folktales should be recorded and presented in print. Furthermore, they believed that the folktales should be presented in a form that mirrored the original mode. In practice they modified folktales in varying ways. In “The Snow White” the violence was removed in later editions: the original end of the story has the wicked Queen forced to put on red-hot iron slippers and dance till she dies. In “Hansel and Gretel” the witch ends up in the oven and is baked alive. At the end of World War II, allied commanders banned the publication of the Grimm tales in Germany in the belief that they had contributed to Nazi savagery.
Their teacher in Marburg was Friedrich Karl von Savigny, a man who was to have a major influence on their lives. A legal historian, Savigny awakened their inclination for historical studies and steered their interest towards “Old Germanic” literature’ (Neumann 25).
As stated previously, the Grimm brothers were a year apart in age; though both were bright and academically inclined, each had a different temperament. Jacob, the elder, had a hearty constitution; although in later years he was described as serious and dour, he was actually quite sociable as a young adult. Wilhelm did not enjoy good health; although asthmatic and sickly throughout his life, he managed to maintain a positive attitude.
The Grimm family was close-knit; however, tragedy struck early. The loss of their father in their early adolescence had a devastating effect on the brothers, both emotionally and financially. In the early years of the 1800s, Jacob and Wilhelm knew they had to establish careers for themselves as quickly as possible to look after the rest of the family. As Zipes writes: ‘Out of a sense of loss of their father they became absorbed by a quest to reconstitute the old German tradition in its oral and written forms so that it would not fade from the memory of the German people’ (Zipes 209).
According to Zipes, the Grimm brothers reacted to their father’s death on a global level: in the desire to preserve their family line, they undertook the rather massive task of preserving German folklore:
Put more positively, the Grimms saw old German literature as the repository of valid truths concerning German culture. In particular, they believed that a philological understanding of old German literature would enable Germans to grasp the connections between the customs, laws, and beliefs of the German people and their origins. (Zipes 209)
By comparing the motifs and themes in German tales and legends with those of other countries, the Grimm brothers attempted to preserve German culture.
At this time, under the influence of Napoleon’s foreign rule, the Brothers Grimm….felt that by collecting and publishing surviving forms of “Old Germanic” literature and folk poetry they were fostering national self-reflection’ (Neumann 26).
‘Like Herder, from whom the Romantic movement borrowed the concept of natural poetry (Naturpoesie), the Grimms also saw in folk poetry—the original source of poetry and the echo of ancient literature. And in this context they understood “folk poetry” largely bin an ethnic sense—as the poetry of Germans, Poles, and so on. At the same time the Grimms viewed fairy tales as belonging “to those poetic works whose content had most pyrely and powerfully presered the essence of early epic poetry” (Ginschel 250)’ (Neumann 26).
‘The Romanticists had rediscovered the magic and charm of the German national past in their own way, which was highly imaginative and fruitful where it was not methodical and historical. For many Romanticists the Middle Ages represented a timeless, unhistorical period of adventure, nobility, European unity, and German greatness, “an era when knights were bold and ladies fair”, virtue was triumphant, evil was punished, and the exotic nature of the past was recaptured in fanciful tales of love and wonders. This approach was enough to satisfy the brothers at first, to win their enthusiasm and devoted interest, and to stimulate further research’ (Peppard 18).
The concept of Volksmund is bound to the Romantic concept that folk traditions have no individual owner; they are rather a common property. Indicating the names of storytellers seemed therefore unnecessary, but places of origin were deemed important. ;Done as a matter of coure and even deemed necessary, the adaptation of “orally” (aus dem Volksmund) collected and acquired texts should be seen in this light. And here Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were of one mind—in contrast to the often circulated oinion of the brothers’ differing concepts of adaptation’ (Köhler-Zülch 49).The Grimms had already supplied the model of contaminating variants in order to gain a “more complete” and “purer” version of a tale’ (Köhler-Zülch 50).Not only had the Grimms’ standards set a precedent, but in addition reviewers kept watch over the observance of these norms’ (Köhler-Zülch 50).
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Sex and violence: these are the major thematic concerns of tales in the Grimms’ collection, at least in their unedited form. But more important, sex and violence in that body of stories frequently take the perverse form of incest and child abuse, for the nuclear family constitutes its most common subject.
When it came to passages colored by sexual details or to plots based on Oedipal conflicts, Wilhelm Grimm exhibited extraordinary editorial zeal. Over the years, he systematically purged the collection of references to sexuality and masked depictions of incestuous desire. But lurid portrayals of child abuse, starvation, and exposure, like fastidious descriptions of /cruel punishments, on the whole escaped censorship. The facts of life seemed to have been more disturbing to the Grimms than the harsh realities of everyday life’ (Tatar 10–11).
‘The Grimms’ enterprise, we must recall, began as a scholarly venture and a patriotic project. As early as 1811, the brothers proclaimed that their efforts as collectors were guided by scholarly principles, and they therefore implied that they were writing largely for academic colleagues. Theirs was an idealistic effort to capture German folk traditions in print before they died out and to make a modest contribution to the history of their beloved homeland.
Sex and violence are the major thematic concerns of tales in the Grimms’ collection, at least in their unedited form. However, it is more important to note that sex and violence in that body of stories frequently take the perverse form of incest and child abuse, for the nuclear family constitutes its most common subject. When it came to passages colored by sexual details or to plots based on Oedipal conflicts, Wilhelm Grimm exhibited extraordinary editorial zeal. Over the years, he systematically purged the collection of references to sexuality and masked depictions of incestuous desire. But lurid portrayals of child abuse, starvation, and exposure, like fastidious descriptions of /cruel punishments, on the whole escaped censorship. ‘The facts of life seemed to have been more disturbing to the Grimms than the harsh realities of everyday life’ (Tatar 10–11).
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm became fine scholars early in life, paying meticulous attention to detail. They were formally educated, but they went beyond this, educating themselves to read a variety of languages on their own including Old High German, Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Sanskrit, Spanish and others. Their linguistic skills were such that they could read, perhaps a dozen languages, over hundreds of years’ of variations.
Jacob believed in accuracy and attention to detail. It was largely through his meticulous and painstaking attention that we have the fairytales as they exist today. He did not seem to understand why others may not harbor the same language abilities as they did, and Jacob could be found resistant to creating translations to make stories or poetry available for the general public. To not read a work in its original form, appeared to Jacob, to be the result of sloppy or lazy reading. Because of this belief, and the idea that works should not be altered, some of their contributions belonged more to the scholarly world than the general public. Wilhelm, however, was happy to translate works into German and seemed more willing to make works accessible to the mainstream population. The combination of their talents and skills are what made the brothers a winning team.
The lives of both brothers were intricately interwoven with folklore. Fortunately, both men left abundant letters describing their lives, work and beliefs, and because of this, we are able to gain a bit of insight into their lives and work. Few have had such a great impact on literature as the Brothers Grimm who have left such works as “The Children’s Household Tales” (Kinder- und Hausmarchen) also known as “Fairy Tales” published in 1812, “German Heroic Tales” published in 1829, German Grammar (1819 and 1822), “German Mythology” published in 1835, and finally, the “German Dictionary.”
The brothers collected and published over two hundred stories during their lives and their work has been published into more than 140 languages. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are known to the German people as great philologists, and to the world as great folklorists. The Brothers Grimm elevated the stories told by the common people to the level of literature, and made the common culture of the German people a subject of respectability and greatness at a time when the culture of the German peoples were thought to be sorely lacking in literary history. By popularizing the common German folklore, these stories, told around the world even today, became a source of pride and patriotism. The Brothers Grimm, it must be remembered, lived and worked through the French occupation and remained intensely patriotic to their own people as did many others. This alone sets their work apart from the work of others of this time period.
As stated previously, the Germany of the Brothers Grimm was not the Germany we know today. In the early 1800s, the country we now call ‘Germany’ was basically a collection of separate entities. There was no central unifying theme to draw the country together, no sense of national identity. The single unifying factor of these separate entities was a shared language; there was not yet a standard literary history.
It is largely due to the work of the Brothers Grimm that Germany has this important legacy. When it comes to fairy tales, their work is both innovative and significant. Everyone has something to say about fairy tales—and almost everything has something different to say. As Tatar notes, ‘folklorists, cultural anthropologists, historians, sociologists, educators, literary critics, psychologists—even criminologists—have all laid claim to occupying privileged positions as judges and interpreters of those
tales’ (Tatar 39).
The Brothers Grimm embraced the notions of Romanticism at a crucial moment in history. During this time, there was no sense of ‘Germany’—it was merely a collection of principalities with no unifying theme. The turmoil wrought by Napoleonic rule was exacerbated by Jerome’s uneven reign. Despite this—and despite their numerous personal obstacles—Jacob and Wilhelm were able to draw together the key and major works of the past, and to present them and publish them in a format that would preserve German culture to this day.
Fohr, Samuel Denis. 1991. Cinderella’s Gold Slipper. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Haase, Donald, ed. 1993. The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. .Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Köhler-Zülch, Ines. 1993. ‘Heinrich Pröhle: A Successor to the Brothers Grimm’. Pp. 41–58 in Haase, Donald, ed. 1993. The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. .Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
McGlathery, James, et al. 1988. The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Michaelis-Jena, Ruth. 1970. The Brothers Grimm. London: Praeger Publishers, Inc.
Neumann, Siegfried. 1993. ‘The Brothers Grimm as Collectors ad Editors of German Folktales’. Pp. 24–40 in Haase, Donald, ed. 1993. The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. .Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Perkins, Richard. 1993. ‘Little Brier Rose: Young Nietzsche’s Sleeping Beauty Poem as Legend and Swan Song’. Pp. 127–148 in Haase, Donald, ed. 1993. The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. .Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Peppard, Murray. 1971. Paths Through the Forest: A Biography of the Brothers Grimm. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Sutton, Martin. 1996. The Sin-Complex: A Critical Study of English Versions of the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen in the Nineteenth Century. Kassel: Brüder Grimm-Gesellschaft.
Tatar, Maria. 1987. The Hard Facts of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Zipes, Jack. 1988. ‘Dreams of a Better Bourgeois Life: The Psychosocial Origins of the Grimms’ Tales’. Pp. 205–219 in McGlathery, James, et al. 1988. The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
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