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This year marks an important anniversary in world literature as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of one of the most popular books of all time: the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm!
Although fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin are read the world over, few people know of the two German scholars who collected and published them. Jacob (1785 – 1863) and Wilhelm (1786 – 1859) Grimm were born in the German city of Hanau and were the oldest in a family of nine children. Their father Philipp was employed as a local magistrate, a position which came with a large house, servants and a high social standing. All this changed upon Philipp’s death in 1796 and the family was forced to move to more modest accommodations and rely on the charity of relatives.
Despite financial challenges, Jacob and Wilhelm excelled in school, studying law, philology (the study of words and language) and medieval German literature at the university in Marburg. It was these latter two subjects which inspired their life-long love of folk tales and in 1806, encouraged by their friend Clemens Brentano, the two set out to systematically collect and record the oral storytelling tradition of the local countryside. Contrary to what many believe, Jacob and Wilhelm were not really the authors of these fairy tales, unlike another famous writer of tales, Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen’s works, while certainly appearing to be folktales, are defined as literary tales. His stories, including The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina came from his imagination. As folklorists, the Grimm brothers sought to record common stories that were told around camp fires or to children at night – some of which had been passed down for centuries. Travelling around the local district and inviting individuals into their home allowed them to accumulate a vast amount of raw material which included everything from magical fairy tales to parables, local legends, fables and other moral lessons. The resulting book, Die Kinder- und Hausmärchen or Children’s and Household Tales, was published on December 20, 1812 and contained 86 stories including Rapunzel, The Frog Prince, Cinderella, The Fisherman and His Wife, The Bremen Town Musicians and The Elves and the Shoemaker. By 1857, seven editions had been released and the publication had grown to include 211 entries.
It is interesting to note, that although the brothers’ original goal was to produce an accurate account of German folk tales, they found it irresistible to modify some of the story fragments they received to create a more satisfying narrative. Through the various editions they also revised many of the tales to be more reflective of trends in religion, social appropriateness and children's literature.
Children's and Household Tales has been translated into over 100 languages and served as the inspiration for some of the world's most enduring operas, plays, movies and even video games.
(l – r) Laura Albino, Adam Luther, Alexander Hajek and Ileana Montalbetti the Canadian Opera Company's Xstrata Ensemble Studio School Tour production of The Brothers Grimm, 2009. Photo: Anand Maharaj © 2009