Grimm, Jacob (Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm) and Grimm, Wilhelm (Wilhelm Carl Grimm)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Grimm, Jacob (Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm) and Grimm, Wilhelm (Wilhelm Carl Grimm)

Grimm, Jacob (Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm) (1785-1863) and Grimm, Wilhelm (Wilhelm Carl Grimm) (1786-1859) German philologists and folklorists

Born in Hanau, Hesse-Kassel, Germany, the scholars and story collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm lived in an unstable milieu during an upheaval in northwestern European empires. Like the German poet and playwright JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, the Grimm brothers lived during the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire under Francis II and, until 1813, endured the occupation of Germany by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1819, during a period of spying and censorship Jacob railed at the climate of mistrust, petty jealousies, and scandals among police, all features of the feudalism and rigid class system prevalent in Germany at that time. While Austria, France, and Prussia vied for territory, the brothers promoted the Volk (peasantry) and the solidarity and history of their German fatherland.

The Grimms earned respect from contemporaries for defending the arts. With Protestant fervor, Jacob declared the value of indigenous literature: “Nations hold fast by prescription: We shall never comprehend their tradition, their superstition, unless we spread under it a bed on still heathen soil” (Grimm 1883, vi). Like the Hawaiian story collector King David Kalakaua, the Australian FRONTIER LITERATURE writers A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson, and the Polish-Jewish writer ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER, the Grimm brothers envisioned that a single, all-encompassing language and a vigorous literary canon would supply a disparate German confederation with a common shared heritage. The writers’ PROPHECY of a unified Germany came true in 1871 with the proclamation of the German Empire.

Germanic Treasures

The Grimm brothers rooted their careers in archival material and relived “olden times when wishing still helped one” (Grimm 2002, 17). In the estimation of the 20th-century author and literary analyst Padraic Colum, their stories concentrate on fear and a transcendent WISDOM that can free and validate humankind. Their ethnography and mythography drew on German antiquity for GOTHIC romance, beast FABLE, the 13th-century Prose Edda legends of the Icelandic bard SNORRI STURLUSON, and cautionary tales that warned the innocent of kidnap, abandonment, starvation, seduction, dungeons, torture, and death. The detail and naturalism of Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children’s and household tales, 1812, 1815, 1822), Deutsche Sagen (German Legends, 1816, 1818), and the beast fable Reinhart Fuchs (Reynard the Fox, 1834) suited the education of children and established a sense of German nationhood in the minds of readers. In the preface to the first collection, Wilhelm extolled the purity of folktales, which reveal the marvel and blessing of childhood innocence. Story by story, the reading of ethnic treasures provided young minds with the “wonderful last echoes of ancient myths” that, according to the Grimm biographer Murray B. Peppard, preserved for future generations the “childhood of the race” (Peppard 1971, 48, 49). As a consequence of the Grimms’ liberal politics, in 1837, after seven years on staff at the University of Gottingen, Jacob and Wilhelm resisted a constitutional violation committed by King Ernst August I and withdrew from Hanover as political victims.

The Grimm brothers expressed the extremes of international aggression through stories that paired obvious mismatches—a cat with a mouse, a wolf with a man, a bear with a wren, and a fox with bees. Their folktales put Rapunzel in a tower cell, Little Red Riding Hood in the clutches of a wolf, Snow White and Rose Red in peril of a black bear, a princess under the designs of the Frog Prince, Briar Rose under an evil spell, Thousandfurs in the hands of her lustful father, and Hansel and Gretel in the cage of a cannibalistic witch. The skewed balance of power leads to VIOLENCE, a given in world politics involving one nation’s dominance over another. To public demands for bowdlerization of sexual implications and murder in their stories, the ethnographers softened the wording slightly but insisted that children face the truth about domestic violence, empire building, GENOCIDE, and war. Writing to Goethe in 1816, Wilhelm informed his contemporary that the stories “represent, without any additions by other hands, the characteristic poetic views and attitudes of the common people, since only a strongly felt need was ever the occasion for composing them” (70).

Through the importation of German storybooks to North America by German immigrants, Grimms’ fairy tales passed to Hollywood. Individual stories and biography became sources of the films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), and The Brothers Grimm (2005), which features Heath Ledger and Matt Damon as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm on a mission for the Napoleonic regime.


Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. 3 vols. Translated by

James Steven Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, 1882-83.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Introduction by Padraic Colum. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Peppard, Murray B. Paths through the Forest: A Biography of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971.

Toews, John Edward. Becoming Historical: Cultural Reformation and Public Memory in Early NineteenthCentury Berlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Zornado, Joseph L. Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood. New York: Routledge, 2001.