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. The Grimm brothers wanted to resurrect the German oral tradition, to excavate and preserve the oral and written forms of German culture and to restore this treasure to the people.

Originally their folk tales were not intended for children. The stories included scenes of violence and sexuality that have since been sanitized. For example in the original version of “Snow White” the heroine is called Aschenputtel, and her wishes come true not from the wave of a fairy godmother’s wand but from a hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave, which she waters with her flowing tears. When the prince comes to find the dainty foot that will match the single slipper (which is gold, not glass), the stepsisters do not shove and shriek but dismember, one cutting off her big toe to try and make the shoe fit, the other cutting off part of her heel. And at the story’s close, Cinderella’s wedding to the prince includes two white birds, which rather than cheerfully tweet Cinderella on her way to happily ever after, peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. The Evil Queen, who is a guest at Snow White’s wedding, is punished for her crimes against the princess by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and to dance until she drops down dead.

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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