Thursday, May 24, 2012

Two Linguist Brothers – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their Fairy Tales

The Walt Disney Company has entertained children and adults all over the world with their timeless animated fairy tales featuring lovely princesses overcoming odds and challenges without ever losing their grace, beauty and poise in the process. Other film and television companies have also succeeded in giving audiences their own entertaining take on fairy tales. But viewers and even readers of today's fairy tales never really question where these stories originated.

Doppelporträt der Brüder Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm / Die Brüder Grimm (right: Jacob Grimm; left: Wilhelm Grimm)

Fairy tales come from folk tales that have been passed on, often times orally, from one generation to another. These folk tales or folk stories often center around humble heroes or heroines, princes and princesses, or peasant girls and young lads. Mythical and magical creatures such as fairies, giants, dwarves, fairy godmothers, and witches, talking animals and other magical beings sometimes are part of these folk tales.

Folk tales, folk stories, fairy tales and all other literary forms with the same elements are part of everyone's childhood. Cultures across the globe have their own version of folk tales. These tales are the stories that parents, teachers and other adults read to children. Folk stories awaken the imagination of young minds and impart moral lessons to those who know how to appreciate such tales.

In the realm of story telling, specifically of fairy tales or folk tales, there is one family name that stands out. That family name is Grimm.

Tale of two brothers

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm penned probably the best-known source of folk tales in the world. The Brothers Grimm, as Jacob and Wilhelm were often referred to, were born in Germany. Jacob was born in 1785 while Wilhelm was born the year after. Both Grimms were academics, cultural researches and linguists. They were authors in their own right. But more importantly, they collected German folklore and other European folk tales. These stories ended up in their collection of stories entitled Kinder- und Hausmärchen or Children's and Household Tales in English.
Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Große Ausgabe, Band 2. 3. Auflage. Göttingen: Dieterichische Buchhandlung, 1837

The brothers grew up poor because of the early death of their father. But this did not stop them from pursuing their studies, eventually developing an interest in Germanic studies as well as philology (a field that combines history, literary studies and linguistics). As philologists, the brothers believed that culture and language were intertwined. To them, people's expression of their culture was seen in the grammar of their language. The brothers spent much time collecting, researching and recording various folk stories. They viewed folk tales as a big part of their country's culture and literature. As much as possible, Jacob and Wilhelm made it a point to stick to the original stories as they were passed on in the oral tradition in order to keep intact the true character of the oral language in which these stories were told.

Familiar stories in Kinder- und Hausmärchen

The first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published in 1812. It contained a total of 86 stories. After two years, the second volume was published in 1814 with 70 stories. The two volumes underwent several editions with stories added and subtracted to the different editions. The 7th edition of their collection contained 211 stories in all.

illustration of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Cinderella"

Some of the tales that most people today are familiar with are:

The Frog King (known today as Frog Prince)
Hansel and Gretel
Thumbling (related to Tom Thumb)
The Elves and the Shoemaker
Little Briar Rose (which became Sleeping Beauty)
Little Snow White (basis for Snow White)

Sanitizing the folk tales

When the Brothers Grimm "wrote" the fairy tales, they wrote it as they heard it. Because it was a collection of folk tales rather than tales for children, they made sure to keep the details as accurate as possible. Unfortunately, they chose the title Children's and Household Tales. So when they came out with their first volume, they were much criticized. Why? Because the subject matter of some of these stories were not apt for young impressionable minds at all.

An illustration from page 1 (cover page) of Mjallhvít (Snow White) an 1852 icelandic translation of the Grimm-version fairytale

In succeeding editions, changes were made to the stories to make them more appropriate for children. In the story of Little Snow White, the original antagonist was the mother of Snow White. The character of the wicked mother was changed to a wicked stepmother instead. In some stories, sexual references had to be removed.

The Grimms make it to Hollywood

In 1937, Walt Disney released its first full-length animated movie entitled Snow White. This was adapted from the German fairy tale as told by the Brothers Grimm. Because of the success of Snow White, Disney developed other animated movies based on other Grimms' folk stories including Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. The Grimms' folk tales were no longer confined in pages of books. These German and European tales were introduced to different generations of audiences around the world via animated movies.

But it was not only Disney that capitalized on the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Other producers of live action and animated movies and television shows came out with their own versions of the Grimms' fairy tales. But most of the screenplays based on the folktales were sanitized versions of the original stories in order for these Hollywood products to appeal to a wider range of moviegoers and television show aficionados.

However, recently, slightly more adult versions of the Grimms' fairy tales are being produced both for the movies and for the boob tube. This year, two productions of Snow White have become available. One was shown a few months ago entitled "Mirror, Mirror" with Oscar winner Julia Roberts as the evil stepmother. This version had action, drama and comedy all rolled into one package. In a few weeks, "Snow White and the Huntsman" will fly into the big screens all over the globe with another Oscar winner playing the evil stepmother, Charlize Theron. This screen adaptation is much darker, not the cutesy, romantic version that most people are used to.

Aside from these movies, there is a television show called "Grimm" where the central character, Detective Nick Burkhardt, is a descendant of the Grimms, known guardians who keep the balance and the peace between humans and mythological creatures. Some, not all, of the stories and characters in this television series are adapted from the folktales recorded by the Brothers Grimm.

Relevance of the work of the Brothers Grimm

The primary works of the Grimms have been softened, sanitized and turned into moral stories so that children, and readers in general will, hopefully, learn a moral lesson or two that they can apply in their lives. Although the original stories are no longer there in most adaptations, the essence and heart of the different folk tales are still present.

According to National Geographic, the Grimm folk tales have been translated into over 160 different languages across the globe. Because of these translations, people of different races, cultures and languages are exposed to German and other European stories of old that have been passed on from one generation to another. Some have questioned the sources of the folk stories the Grimms compiled. Critiques have questioned the motives and techniques of the brothers. Still, theirs is an important piece of German literature that made its way into the lives of people all over the world.

Many who have read or watched Snow White and the other fairy tales based on the Grimms' books probably do not know anything about the Brothers Grimm. Maybe its time to go back to the original Grimms' folk stories and find out who the real Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White are. You can surely get a glimpse of the culture and language of Germany and the other places in Europe through the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

In compiling the different folk tales found in the original, first edition books of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the brothers went for accuracy and keeping the original oral stories instead of manipulating them to fit a certain literary style.


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