Germany celebrates 200 years of Grimm tales

Germany is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Children's and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, actually city tourism employee  leads local children dressed as rats through a quiet German street. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

BERLIN // There were once two brothers called Grimm who went out into the big wide world gathering ancient stories told by ordinary folk about wicked witches and beautiful princesses, about abandoned children, big bad wolves and spellbound frogs.

They worked hard and wrote all the tales down in a book that helped to forge a German national identity and is even hailed as one of the cornerstones of western culture. And they lived happily ever after.

Germany is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the December 20, 1812, publication of Children's and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm with exhibitions, stage performances, public readings and even an academic congress on the entrancing tome that gave the world Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel, along with more than 200 other stories.

It is the most successful book yet written in the German language. Two centuries on, the Grimms' contribution to world literature is as unquestioned as the impact their often chilling stories still have on children.

But the popular perception that the brothers reached into the dark depths of the German soul to find their source material, that they toured villages, farms and forest dwellings to hear peasants recount stories handed down through the generations, is a myth.

"That's a big fairy tale and not a word of it is true," said Heinz Rolleke, a professor of German literature at the University of Wuppertal. In fact, many of the stories are French in origin, and were told not by ordinary folk but by a handful of well-to-do descendants of Huguenots, Protestants who had fled to Germany to escape religious persecution in Roman Catholic France.

"The Grimms had young friends in the city of Kassel. Most of them were Huguenots who were good at telling stories," Prof Rolleke said. "France had a big tradition of fairy tales in the 18th century. Even though the Grimms' friends were born in Germany, they had heard French stories from their parents and grandparents."

The brothers never claimed that the stories were German in origin. But neither did they try to dispel the romantic illusion of two wanderers seeking out old tales.

It is ironic that a work so closely associated with German folklore should have such strong French roots, especially given that the book was part of a national effort to preserve Germany's cultural heritage at a time when the country was under the yoke of Napoleon, and decades away from becoming a unified state.

However, the Grimms made the stories their own by retelling them in a resonant, lyrical style. It was the tone of the stories as much as their content that made them a world success. The poetry was so powerful that it easily transcended languages.

The brothers, one year apart in age, are regarded as the founding fathers of German literary science.

"Collating all the folk poetry contributed to the Germans gradually becoming aware that they all spoke one language and had a common cultural tradition, even though Germany at the time was divided into a multitude of kingdoms and dukedoms," said Bernhard Lauer, head of the Brothers Grimm museum in Kassel.

The Grimms campaigned for German unification and Jacob, the older of the two, became a member of the first freely elected German parliament in Frankfurt in 1848.

Jacob and Wilhelm were born in 1785 and 1786 respectively, the sons of a district magistrate who had nine children, three of whom died in infancy. The family was well off and lived in a large home with servants but was plunged into sudden poverty when the father died in 1796. They had to give up the house and the hardship that followed bonded the brothers together for the rest of their lives.

An aunt paid for their education. They studied law, history and literature, which led them to collect folk tales on behalf of Clemens Brentano, a prominent poet.

The stories are popular in part because they satisfy a yearning for a world in which good beats evil, in which greed is punished and hard work, modesty and courage are rewarded.

For a few years after the Second World War, the fairy stories were frowned on by the Allies because the Nazis had embraced and distorted them to foster nationalism and ideas of racial purity. During the Third Reich some 20 children's movies were made based on Grimm plots that were changed to suit propaganda purposes - the king, representing the Fuhrer, was invariably made more honest and decent than in the brothers' versions.

Some of the original versions as told by the Grimms are indeed gruesome and violent - but that is likely to be a reflection of their origins in medieval culture, an extremely violent age. Grimms' version of Snow White ends with the stepmother dancing at Snow White's wedding wearing a pair of red-hot iron shoes that kill her.

German family minister Kristina Schroder said this week that the fairy tales were "often sexist" and that she interspersed them with other stories when reading to her child. "They rarely have a positive female figure," she said.

Other parents see them as a timeless way to inspire their children's imaginations and to infuse their childhood with some much-needed magic in an age dominated by television, the internet and computer games.

"The stories are eminently important because they create a cinema in children's minds. If you read them to children, they make their own pictures and that seems to be very important for developing their imagination and creativity," said Prof Rolleke.

"If you sit them in front of a movie they just take in the images they're shown and that's it."