Paths through the Forest: A Biography of the Brothers Grimm
About Wise Men and Simpletons: Twelve Tales from Grimm
A Game of Dark
The Third Road
Children and Fiction
How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and so Discovered the World
The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine
Tooni the Elephant Boy
One Misty Moisty Morning: Rhymes from Mother Goose
Lewis Carroll wrote Alice for the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. Edward Lear made up his Nonsense Songs and Stories for the children at Knowsley Hall where he was painting Lord Derby’s parrots. Beatrix Potter told the Tale of Peter Rabbit to entertain a five-year-old invalid. In collecting and publishing their Fairy Tales the brothers Grimm had a loftier end in view: the greater glory of Germany. Not that they didn’t care for children: Wilhelm was a doting father, Jacob an affectionate uncle; both had romantic views about the sacred innocence of childhood. But pleasing children with fairy tales was only a by-product of their great endeavor, which was nothing less than to recapture the whole German cultural heritage. Fairy tales were part of a grand design which also comprised folk tales, heroic tales, mythology, translations from Old German and Danish, German legal antiquities, and the monumental Grammar and Dictionary.
What a pair the brothers were! From childhood utterly devoted to each other and to the great project, living in the same house, working at two desks in the same study, talking less as they grew older and only needed to discuss the details of their work, absorbing a wife (Wilhelm’s, when he was thirty-nine) and children without impairing their profound harmony. They were in no way sheltered from the rough winds of history, as we learn from Murray Peppard’s enthusiastic biography. Clearly his book is a work of love, and full of interest, if now and then a bit heavy-handed (“Jacob, the lifelong bachelor, was not blind to the charms of women and he was an alert observer of the fair sex”).
As a young man Jacob earned his living as librarian to Jerome Bonaparte, then King of Hesse, and attended the Congress of Vienna in 1814 as secretary to the Hessian legation. In 1837, when both brothers were professors at Göttingen, they and five colleagues protested so effectively against the absolute rule of the new Elector of Hanover that they had to leave the state and, after difficult years, settled in Berlin. Yet for all the domestic and professional upheavals, the quarrels with other scholars, the publishing delays, the ever-present worries over health and money, the brothers were happy, as those are who have a vision and spend their lives in realizing it. I looked up W. P. Ker’s essay on Jacob Grimm: Ker sees their progress and conquests as
…a demonstration of the power of that great god Wish whom Jacob Grimm was first to name. The moral seems to be Fay ce que Voudras, when that counsel is rightly understood.
They collected fairy tales in Hesse and Westphalia in the same manner as Walter Scott, a few years earlier, had collected the ballads of the Scottish Border. Oral tradition was all-important, and they sought out grandmothers, shepherds, nurses, far-traveled soldiers, anyone who had the old tales firmly lodged in memory and could repeat them word for word. For all …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.