Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales

Andrea Dezsö
‘The Frog King’; illustration by Andrea Dezsö from The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The Grimm brothers Wilhelm and Jacob were in their twenties and studying at the University of Marburg in the early 1800s when they were encouraged to collect German popular stories and other material by their law professor and mentor, Friedrich Carl von Savigny. Savigny was an important figure in the nationalist Romantic movement calling for Germany to be united politically and culturally; his friends and associates formed a tightly bonded, ardent group, caught up in the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Their appeals for national recovery were combined with a quest for authentic voices of the Volk, the people.

The group included the writer and scholar Clemens Brentano (Savigny’s brother-in-law) and the poet Achim von Arnim, who was married to another sister of Brentano’s, Bettina, also a writer. Brentano and Arnim edited the influential songbook Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) in 1805–1808, with its eldritch ballads from the folk tradition, such as “The Erl King.” The Volk could be heard, it was believed, in such songs, stories, lore, and language. The passion for Poesie, as the Grimms called the folkloric tradition, had already inspired in England an anthology of comparably terse, dark story-songs, Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. That same passion infuses the magical and nightmarish poems of Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads as well as Wordsworth’s love of unlettered and unrecorded tradition:

Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy far-off things,
And battles long ago…

The metaphors the Grimms used to describe their work are messianic and ecological: they believed they were saving authentic popular German culture, an endangered species. The preface to the first volume of the brothers’ tales Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), published in 1812, begins:

When a storm, or some other catastrophe sent from the heavens, levels an entire crop, we are relieved to find that a small patch, protected by tiny hedges or bushes, has been spared and that some solitary stalks remain standing.

Of these few survivors, they wrote:

Ear upon ear will be carefully bound in bundles, inspected, and attended to as whole sheaths. Then they will be brought home and serve as the staple food for the entire winter. Perhaps they will be the only seed for the future.

This is how it seemed to us when we began examining the richness of German literature in earlier times…. The places by the stove, the hearth in the kitchen,…and above all the undisturbed imagination have been the hedges that have protected the tales….

The first volume was followed by another in 1815. Together these make up The Complete First Edition of the Grimms’ tales, presented…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.