Notes on German Culture

Grimm brothers German folk tales were not originally intended for children

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855 painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

We all know the fairy tales that made the Grimm brothers famous. The two brothers collected, edited, modified and popularized stories such as “Cinderella” “(Aschenputtel)”, “The Frog Prince” (“Der Froschkönig”), “Hansel and Gretel” (“Hänsel und Gretel”), “Rapunzel“, “Rumpelstiltskin” (“Rumpelstilzchen”), and “Snow White” (“Schneewittchen”).

Their 1812 book is commonly known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The first publication contained 86 stories. By the seventh edition in 1857, there were 211 stories.

Not known so well is that originally their folk tales were not intended for children. The stories included scenes of violence and sexuality that have since been sanitized. For example the original version of “Snow White” ends with the stepmother dancing at Snow White’s wedding wearing a pair of red-hot iron shoes that kill her.

Another story has a servant being pushed into a barrel “studded with sharp nails” and then rolled down the street. The original version of “The Frog Prince” describes the princess throwing the frog against a wall instead of kissing him.

The original “Rapunzel” clearly shows the relationship between the prince and the girl in the tower as sexual.

All of this was revised in the later editions as Wilhelm Grimm polished the language to make it more enticing to a younger audience, eliminated sexual elements and added Christian elements.

There is also more to the legacy of the Brothers Grimm than collecting and publishing folk lore. The brothers, Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859) also achieved renown as German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, and lexicographers. A major achievement was the brothers’ monumental scholarly work on a German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, which they began in 1838 and worked on for 25 years. Not until 1852 did they begin publishing the dictionary in installments. The work on the dictionary could not be finished in their lifetime because in it they gave a history and analysis of each word.

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm

Perhaps most telling is the German 1000 DM banknote that honors the Grimm Brothers. The currency images highlight the brothers on front side, and on the reverse side, it shows their two biggest achievements…not the Grimm’s fairy tales, but the German Dictionary and the Berlin Royal Library.

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