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‘The Brother’s Grimm: living a fairy tale?’

They may have closed their doors for the time being, but the National Library of Scotland have joined the fight to preserve culture in the time of Corona with a series of free online lectures. Over at their website you can find stash of talks on a diverse range of subjects, including feminist history, world literature and Scotland’s racial past. 

This week, I, along with over four hundred others, attended ‘The Brother’s Grimm: living a fairy tale?’ Where silver linings are scarce, it was heartening to see that the library received a global audience for the lecture, testament to the influence of the brothers’ fairy tales as part of the literary canon. 

Presented by the Library’s Rare Book Curator, Dr Anette Hagan, the lecture covered a biography of the Brothers Grimm, followed by the history of their fairy tales. Dr Hagan offered a concise and insightful presentation, which reflected the dual themes of history and storytelling in both content and form. 

Dr Hagan framed the story of the brothers in the style of their own creation, opening with a condensed fairy tale history of their rags-to-riches story. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born into a large family and lived their early childhoods contentedly in the town of Steinau, in the Holy Roman Empire. However, following their father’s death when the eldest, Jacob, was only eleven, the family was plunged into poverty. Life became very hard, but the brothers each possessed a special gift: a voracious appetite for learning. 

The brothers pursued philology and literary history and, spurred on by the Romantic movement, sought to preserve the oral traditions of the German folk tale. They collected stories from friends and compiled them into their famed anthology. Their tale ends in fame and fortune and indeed, Hagan assured her audience, they really did live happily ever after. 

The historical reality of the brothers’ tale is, of course more detailed, but what struck me most were the ironies involved in collecting the stories. The brothers sought to present them in a Romantic vein, that it was ‘the simple folk that carried on the storytelling tradition’. However, ironically, the vast majority of the brothers’ sources were educated women, including Dorothea Viehmann and the sisters of the Wild and Hassenpflug families. 

The brothers concealed the identities of their sources to preserve the idea that they reflected a purely rustic German literary heritage. For example, despite being young and educated, Dorothea Viehmann was presented as an elderly peasant woman. But the ironies persisted. Even the stories originally from illiterate shepherds had ‘passed through the pens of educated young women who were themselves experienced readers’. Moreover, the stories reflected a culturally diverse background. The Hassenpflugs, brought French tales into the mix, as they were of Huguenot descent while others, such as Tom Thumb, were of Scandinavian origin. 

The brothers’ desire to portray an ideal of German identity within their literary heritage is revealed more so in their subsequent edition for children. While the original 1812 version was more for academic purposes, it was republished in 1819 for a younger audience. Wilhelm Grimm removed details that were too explicitly sexual, implanted Christian messages and made sure that women behaved themselves. In Hansel and Gretel, for example, it is the mother who originally sent her children out into the woods to starve, hence a stepmother hastily replaced her. 

Ultimately, Hagan’s lecture seemed to suggest that the idea of the anthology itself represents something of a story, as it constructs a fictionalised history of German literary heritage and identity. It also suggests the realities of the Grimms’ historical context, with women receiving more education and an increase in migration meaning cultures inevitably become intertwined.

Today, Hagan noted, the tales are a global phenomenon, having been translated into hundreds of languages and undergoing constant revisitation for modern audiences. Consequently, they represent our contemporary context as much as they represent the past. Thus, the legacy of the collection perhaps lies in its irony. While it set out to reflect the purity of the past, today they often examine the diversity of the present. 

The National Library’s free online lecture series can be accessed on their website and YouTube channel.

Image: Toronto Public Library Special Collections via Flickr