A short fairytale that may or may not be based on a true story: There once was an eight-year old boy who grew up to have a couple of brothers. This was the time before he was have a sister as well. First his birthday, he and a family member went to see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Later that year, he and one of his brothers joined a group of kids to take a trip to the same movie theater. It was there, that the decision was between Babe Ruth (1991) or Beauty and the Beast again. The boys’ parents had told the two brothers to stay together and go to see the same film. One was interested in Babe Ruth’s story; the other, wanted to see B&B again. The boys went their separate ways, and when the parents’ found out, the brothers were reprimanded. Years later, one boy became a bandwagon Yankee fan, and the other, an aspiring scholar obsessed with story, fantasy and a strong critic of Disney movies.
Who were the Brothers’ Grimm? What was their inspiration? Were their stories original? For a few years now, there have been “re-tellings” of familiar fairytales, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella. NBC’s new drama GRIMM began to pique my curiosity for the source of the stories. When I Googled “The Brothers’ Grimm” and religion, I found some perplexing answers. So, I decided during the Thanksgiving holiday break to do some research.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Hanau, Germany in 1785 and 1786, nearly a century before the unification of the Prussian provinces. The boys had come from a long line of German Protestant clergy; this is why in the Grimm household, education was of the utmost importance. School for Jacob was much easier than for Wilhelm, but both boys were studious. Their lessons included logic, ethics, French, Greek, Latin, and philosophy by the time what is now considered to be junior high in contemporary U.S. American culture. They attended the University of Marburg, tuition free, despite the fact that they were the sons of a city administrative official all because their mother wrote a letter for an exemption. (See, higher education has always had class barriers). Jacob became renowned for studying Germanic law and comparative linguistics, Wilhelm for his contribution to literature from the Medieval Ages. The Brothers Grimm, originally employed at a library, eventually were hired at the University of Gottingen. Ernst August of Cumberland took over Gottigen, and with one move, dissolved the Constitution, depriving professors of their rights to academic freedom and free speech. Inspired by none other than Martin Luther, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm make political speeches in front of students protesting this tyrannical act. Their reward? Along with 7 other professors, they were canned! The Grimms felt it was their Christian duty to speak for human rights, even if it was contrary to the will of the king.
While the Grimms’ were fascinated with democracy and German Romanticism, they were more interested in the culture of the Volk (pop culture, if you will). The German masses passed down wisdom through the ages, and the Grimms, with a team of writers went from village to village (at times) record fairy tales to have them published. According to certain accounts, the Grimm Brothers’ preferred variation, for not each fairytale was told the same way. Also, Jacob, ever the cultural linguist, desired to have editions of fairy tales from other cultures as well (the Scottish version of Cinderella, the French, etc.). Folk tale traditions did not stop at German borders. Some folk tales were based off true crimes and stories. Others found their inspiration from Norse Mythology. It is this connection with the Nordic past that the folk community fell prey to Nazi propaganda. The Grimm Brothers’ legacy, unfortunately, has been soiled by Disney and Hitler. Each of the heroes from the Grimm Brothers’ tales were converted into loyal Germans to the Third Reich. The Brothers Grimm dreamed of a day when all cultures everywhere could share their stories with other cultures, a dialogical approach to national cultures if you will. The Nazis would have none of the Grimms’ virtue ethic, one of empathy, kindness, gentility, and charity.
Someday, one can hope, the legacy of the Brothers Grimm will be recovered. Someday, when we no longer have Nazis or Disney telling their stories.
For more information on the Brothers Grimm, I would see, The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics by Christa Kamenetsky.