Once Upon a Time, There Lived Jacob and Wilhelm

Inspired by the English Translation of the First Edition of the Grimms' Tales

My boys are growing up at a fast rate, and I want to be ready for a smooth transition from Peppa Pig to some other talking animal that would catch their interest and help them learn a thing or two about the world. While my oldest kid spends her time with Pippi Longstocking and Vicky the Viking, the little ones may be more inclined towards talking frogs, rabbits, pigs, mice, and an occasional mute pumpkin. The choice seems clear enough, and the illustrated children’s edition of the Grimms' Tales is about to serve yet another generation of avid listeners. The book did well for me, the oldest of three boys, who enjoyed their childhood in a small town with a grand castle above a river and surrounded by a vast forest. That is to say, a usual setup for the Grimms.

Even as a preschooler, I did not believe in talking animals, but I knew that dense silence may reign in the forest, mere steps off the track, where shadows grow longer and thicker, where chirps, buzzes and flutter dissipate in an instant. I have never expected to find myself eye to eye with a large beast, yet I still remember the feeling of creeping unease, when I looked at stuffed forest predators on the corridor wall at my relatives', members of the local hunting lodge. Yellow glass eyes set above open jaws seemed to focus on me every time, when I darted beneath enormous fangs and claws, to the bathroom and back.

Those feelings resonated through the pages of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White, and I could catch the vibe of scared children, surrounded by dark trees. Nevertheless, in the end, the children would come out of the story safe and more savvy, while villains ran off and were never seen again.

It was not until many years later, when I realized those were watered-down stories and the vibes of the original Grimms' Tales roll with a more profound tremor. I should keep those on the high bookshelf for the time being, out of the boys' reach.

For the first time, English-speaking audiences are given a chance to explore The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in English language, thanks to Princeton University Press. In 2016, an easy-to-carry paperback edition was published, with all 156 stories from the 1812 and 1815 German editions, laid out in fluent narrative translated by Jack Zipes. Forceful illustrations by Andrea Deszö more than complement macabre undertones set in familiar storylines.

The first of the editions (seven in total, the last was published in 1857) followed the lore as the Grimms learned it. The brothers did not like to travel much, so they used a network of informers from all social classes. Some of those individuals were well-educated aristocrats, while others were of lower social standing, like Dorothea Viehmann, an "exemplary peasant story teller." We know of a certain Wachtmeister Johann Friedrich Krause, a military man and provider of tales about discharged soldiers, who in the end were revenged for their mistreatment.

The brutality and downright cruelty of the stories were received with outspoken offense by the middleclass audience, which prompted the brothers to censor and stylize the narratives, as well as introduce a more acceptable Christian moral tone. While the hardship suffered by the protagonists of the stories was gradually downplayed, psychopathic mothers replaced by stepmothers and savage paragraphs erased, the punishment of the wicked sometimes increased (the 1812 edition allowed Rumpelstiltskin to run away in anger in the end, while in the 1857 version, he tore himself in two. Between 1812 and 1857, he just used to stumble into some sort of a DIY chasm).

Were the Grimms rather too keen to cater to the middleclass readers, the traditional guardians of all things proper? Some critics implied that Jacob and Wilhelm used the lore as a medium for contemporary polished morality to come across disguised as an authentic tradition, similar to our commercially successful Santa Claus.

In any case, Wilhelm was the one who advocated for the changes of the narratives, while Jacob resisted. He wanted to remain true to the stories obtained from the sources, because he believed they retained the vital truths about the German cultural heritage.

The entire 19th century expressed great enthusiasm in discovering each nations' cultural heritage, throughout Europe, especially where political clusters stirred in the direction of forming a united nation. After states had been ruled by the selected elite, the time was ripe - so Romantic Nationalism tells us - for the legitimacy of the rule to stem from the unity of those governed. The Nation.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, a region better known to Anglo-Americans for the 19,000 rented Hessians who landed in America during the Revolutionary War to fight for the British (for further dark forest magical Hessian shivers, refer to the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). The well-off Grimm family was stricken with poverty at the boys' early age, and both brothers had to learn to offer each other support, especially after the eldest surviving son, Jacob, had to assume the heavy duty of the family bread-winner. Jacob and Wilhelm excelled in their scholarly efforts, which included accepting an inferior position to their hochborn school mates, who enjoyed more attention and privileges. Their employment as librarians, and later academic tenures, allowed time for research of Germanic culture and language, a passion acquired in their student years.

Their professor, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, taught them that, in order to be fully understood, jurisprudence had to be approached by the study of not only laws, but also beliefs, customs, and values of the Volk. The planted seed grew into a formidable desire of the young Grimms to contribute to the formation of a strong legal system and the sense of community among the German people, which the brothers have done, as professors and, later, even elected members of the civil parliament, but primarily as explorers of the German language and culture. In addition to the Tales and other research of old literature, I cannot avoid another result of their life-long pursuit, one of the greatest linguistic monuments to their nation, the German Dictionary (32 volumes were published between 1852 and 1960).

Yet to understand the traditions of the Volk, one must know what they are, in their original form. Years of research accumulated a substantial collection of Naturpoesie, a term that the Grimms and their contemporaries used to identify ancient Germanic and Nordic narratives. The original opus of knowledge, passed down through generations in the form of epics, sagas, and tales, would in time retreat before the advancing Kunstpoesie (cultivated literature), only to find the final refuge in oral traditions of the folk.

While some researchers rediscovered early medieval literature, others took the discoveries further, and devised suitable historical interpretations for the role their Nation was supposed, or expected, to assume. Some passions ran wild in recreating the "natural and true" history all over Europe – in England, a lot of medieval armour was scrubbed of their protective patina just to achieve that “shining armour” effect and a certain Bavarian king wrote to a certain composer about Neuschwanstein: "... It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles..."

The Romantic Nationalism did not pretend for long that it was more about the Nation than romanticism. The Grimms also tried to avoid tales which included French origin, simply because the French were the other, and not so friendly, nation. However, the Grimms should bear none of the responsibility for the ruthless abuse of their legacy by the National Socialism that transformed a post-Enlightenment sentiment into a genocidal horror, which still haunts us today.

I doubt that “Puss in Boots” or “Cinderella” will infect my boys with racism or pseudo-historical mythology, but I do wish for them to inspire some interest in the fantastic world of storytelling. Fantasy is a magical and necessary addition to our lives, it supplements reality in unique and beautiful ways, as much as it makes for a poor and fragile ideology or legitimization of government.

I believe that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were cultural archaeologists focused on excavation of lore, and bent on preservation of poetic threads that have already thinned and paled in the fabric of culture, which was designed to teach the young and the old a thing or two about the world.

"That which managed to provide so much pleasure time and again and has moved people and taught them something carries its own necessity in itself and has certainly emanated from that eternal source that moistens all life, and even if it were only a single drop that a folded leaf embraces, it will nevertheless glitter in the early dawn."

-J. & W. Grimm, from Preface to Volume I, 1812-