Guardians of the Fairy Tale: The Brothers Grimm

Wilhelm & Jacob Grimm

Wilhelm & Jacob Grimm

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Thomas O’Neill and featured by the National Geographic Society, founded in 1888, It has since become one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world, headquartered in Washington, D.C. with a current membership of about 8.5 million.

To read the complete article, check out the Society’s other resources, sign up for email alerts, and obtain membership information, please click here.

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Once upon a time there lived in Germany two brothers who loved a good story—one with magic and danger, royalty and rogues. As boys they played and studied together, tight as a knot, savoring their childhood in a small town. But their father died unexpectedly, and the family grew poor. One brother became sickly; the other, serious beyond his years. At school they met a wise man who led them to a treasure—a library of old books with tales more seductive than any they had ever heard. Inspired, the brothers began collecting their own stories, folktales told to them mostly by women, young and old. Soon the brothers brought forth their own treasure—a book of fairy tales that would enchant millions in faraway places for generations to come.

The Brothers Grimm, Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm 1786–1859), named their story collection Children’s and Household Tales and published the first of its seven editions in Germany in 1812. The table of contents reads like an A-list of fairy-tale celebrities: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, the Frog King. Dozens of other characters—a carousel of witches, servant girls, soldiers, stepmothers, dwarfs, giants, wolves, devils—spin through the pages. Drawn mostly from oral narratives, the 210 stories in the Grimms’ collection represent an anthology of fairy tales, animal fables, rustic farces, and religious allegories that remains unrivaled to this day.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales, as the English-language version is usually called, pervades world culture. So far the collection has been translated into more than 160 languages, from Inupiat in the Arctic to Swahili in Africa. In the United States book buyers have their choice of 120 editions. As a publishing phenomenon the Grimms’ opus competes with the Bible. And the stories and their star characters continue to leap from the pages into virtually every media: theater, opera, comic books, movies, paintings, rock music, advertising, fashion. The Japanese, perhaps the most ravenous of all the Grimms’ fans, have built two theme parks devoted to the tales. In the United States the Grimms’ collection furnished much of the raw material that helped launch Disney as a media giant. Cinderella and Snow White easily hold their own with the new kids on the block, whether Big Bird or Bart Simpson.

As for the brothers, they are recognized as pioneers in the field of folklore research. Their crystalline fairy-tale style—the Grimms extensively edited and rewrote drafts of the narratives—has influenced generations of children’s writers and paved the way for other masters of the genre, from Hans Christian Andersen to Maurice Sendak. But the Grimms’ stories do not speak only to the young. “The age for hearing these fairy tales is three years to death,” says Elfriede Kleinhans, a professional storyteller in Germany. “Our world can seem so technical and cold. All of us need these stories to warm our souls.”

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To read the complete article, please click here.

For biographical information about Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, please click here.

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