Brothers Grimm – fairy tales and more

When we think of the Brothers Grimm (Gebrueder Grimm), their fairy tales pop to mind. We recall the familiar stories read to us in childhood: Hansel and Gretel (Haensel und Gretel), Snow White (Schneewittchen), Sleeping Beauty (Dornroeschen), Cinderella (Aschenputtel), Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkaeppchen) and Rapunzel (Rumpelstilzchen). Grimm’s fairy tales became to popular worldwide that they may have been outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible.

The Brothers Grimm published far more than folklore

But aside from collecting and publishing fairy tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – both University-trained linguists and librarians – also wrote many books on mythology, linguistics and medieval studies. They even started compiling a German dictionary on the scale of the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, both brothers died before they could finish the project.

Grimms ausgewaehlte Maerchen, printed in 1946, my favorite childhood book, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Grimms ausgewaehlte Maerchen, printed in 1946, my favorite childhood book, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2015

Who were the Brothers Grimm?

Jacob Grimm (born in 1785) and Wilhelm Grimm (born in 1786) were the second- and third-eldest surviving siblings in a family of nine children. Three of the Grimm children died in infancy. The Brothers Grimm were born to prosperous parents and grew up in the German town of Hanau, 25 km east of Frankfurt/Main. Their father was a lawyer; their mother was the daughter of a city councilman.

But when Wilhelm was ten years old, the boys’ father passed away, and the family plunged into poverty. Only with great difficulty did the Brothers Grimm manage to attend a university preparatory school. Although they went on to law school, their interest soon shifted to the collection of folklore. Their book, “Die Kinder- und Hausmaerchen” (Nursery and Household Tales), first published in 1812, contains stories that had been passed down from generation to generation. The book eventually became known as “Grimms’ Fairy Tales – Grimm’s Maerchen.”

The Brothers Grimm did not invent the tales

Many readers assume that the Brothers Grimm actually invented these fairy tales. But they did not. Instead, they only collected and published the stories. Until the early 1900s, fairy tales were part of an oral tradition. While doing household chores, women often retold stories to reduce the monotony of their chores. But all this changed with industrialization. The stories faced extinction until the Brothers Grimm began collecting them by talking to relatives and friends in many parts of the country.

It is also interesting that Grimm’s Fairy Tales were never meant for children because the stories routinely included sex, violence and incest. But once the stories became popular, the Brothers Grimm continued to revise them until they deemed them appropriate for the young minds of children.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

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