Dreams: A background to the Brothers Grimm

Edited by Phil Stubbs
Terry Gilliam is working to bring a project entitled Brothers Grimm to the screen. Here we look at the real Brothers Grimm, whose lives and work have provide a basis for the fictional film. Some of this text is taken from an 1889 edition of the tales, published by John Heywood, Manchester. The illustrations of Grimm tales are by Gustave Dore.

Little Red Riding Hood
Sleeping Beauty

Jacob Lewis Grimm and his brother William Carl Grimm were two learned Germans, who devoted the whole of their lives to the study of the German language and literature, and the antiquities, poetry, and the laws of the German people.

Jacob was born at Hanau, in the year 1785. His brother William was born at the same place the year after, viz, in 1786. The two brothers were educated at the University of Marburg, and were associated through life in their studies and labours. From youth to old age they had all things in common - books, money, and dwelling. They studied together, and wrote together in the same works, so that their respective shares can scarcely be distinguished in the great result of the united task, and the Brothers Grimm became a recognised duality in literature.

In 1806 Jacob was a clerk in the office of the Hessian Secretary of War. He afterwards visited Paris, where he pursued a variety of studies, and assiduously cultivated his taste for mediaeval literature.

In 1829, after several changes, the brothers removed to Gottingen. Jacob was appointed professor and librarian, and William sub-librarian, in the University; but in 1837 they were both dismissed, for protesting against the violation of the constitution by the King of Hanover - Ernest, Duke of Cumberland. They retired to Cassel, but in 1841 the King of Prussia (Frederick William IV) invited them to Berlin, where they resided for the remainder of their lives.

There they were both appointed professors in the University, and elected members of the Academy of Science, where they frequently lectured. Jacob held, at various times, important public offices, but his whole life was devoted to the study of philology and antiquities. His great work (in which he was assisted by his brother) is his German Grammar - the result of above twenty-five years' study and industry. His Antiquities of Germany, his German Mythology and his books on The History of the German Language and On the Origin of Language are also works of great importance.

Respecting his studies, he said, "I have esteemed nothing trifling in these inquiries, but have used the small for the elucidation of the great - popular traditions for the elucidation of the written documents". It was in connection with the antiquities and mythology of German that the Brothers Grimm collected and published (between 1812 and 1814) their Kinder und Hausmarchen (Nursery and Household Tales), which are as popular in England, France, and Italy under the title of Grimm's Fairy Tales, as they are in Germany.

The tales collected by the brothers Grimm were, for the most part, obtained from the mouths of German peasants. Many of the them are of peculiar interest to English readers, since they prove that nearly all our national tales are of the highest antiquity, and are the common property of similar classes of society in countries widely separated. Jack, commonly called the giant killer, and Thomas Thumb landed in England from the very same hulls and warships which conveyed Hengist and Horsa, and Ebba the Saxon.

The brothers collected and published over 200 tales, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog King, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstilzchen, Snow-White. The collection has enchanted children and adults alike, and has had a lasting effect on popular culture.

Jacob died in 1863, and William in 1859.

For further reading, consult:

Brothers Grimm resource
Margaret Hunt translation

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