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5 Facts About The Brothers Grimm

With the new movie version of “Into the Woods” and TV shows like “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm,” it’s as clear as Cinderella’s glass slipper that fairy tales are hot thanks, in part, to the German brothers who made them so popular.

If you’re gazing into a crystal ball to find out the opening day of Into the Woods (spoiler alert: It’s December 25) planning a road trip to Storybrooke, Maine, setting of TV’s Once Upon a Time, or waiting to get your next fix of detective work from NBC’s Grimm, you’ll know one thing for sure: fairy tales are hot. Is it because we’re all yearning for a little fantasy escapism these days? Or is it the wonderful eye-candy made possible by modern special effects? Maybe it’s finally seeing strong female characters after sitting through so many estrogen-deficient superhero movies. Whatever the reason, it’s as clear as Cinderella’s glass slipper that our entertainment owes a lot to the Brothers Grimm. Although the duo is famous for sharing the classic tales bearing their name, here are five facts that you might not have known about them:

The Brothers Grimm didn’t write the fairy tales.

Despite the fact that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are often associated with Snow White and Rapunzel, the brothers didn’t actually write any of those stories. In fact, the stories existed long before the two men were born in Germany in the mid 1780s. The fairy tales, in fact, were part of a rich oral tradition − passed down from generation to generation, often by women seeking to pass the time during household chores. But as industrialization took root, local traditions changed and scholars, like Jacob and Wilhelm, began a quest to save the stories from extinction. They interviewed relatives and friends, collecting whatever tales they could, sometimes embellishing them (although they insisted they did not). In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm published the stories as part of a collection titled Nursery and Household Tales, or what is now referred to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Grimm's Household Tales

An illustration from a 1914 printing of “Nursery and Household Tales” by the Brothers Grimm. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The stories were not intended for kids.

Originally, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were not meant for children. The stories routinely included sex, violence, incest, and copious footnotes. Worse yet, they didn’t even have illustrations. Initially aimed at adults, the early editions of Nursery and Household Tales contained remarkably dark elements. In its original version, for example, Rapunzel gets pregnant by the prince after a casual fling. In Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to try to fit into the slipper. These sort of scenes (and many others) were eventually revised once the stories became popular among children. 

Jacob and Wilhelm faced deportation and bankruptcy.

In 1830, King Ernest Augustus demanded oaths of allegiance from all professors in Gottingen, a university city where Jacob and Wilhelm taught Germanic studies. The brothers refused to pledge to the king and, along with five other professors, the “Gottingen Seven” were made to leave the city. Jobless and branded as political dissidents, the brothers were forced to borrow money from friends as they worked on their story collection.

“Grimm’s Fairy Tales” was a publishing blockbuster. 

The Grimm’s collection of fairy tales was in its 7th edition when Wilhelm Grimm died in 1859. By that point, the collection had grown to 211 stories and included intricate illustrations. Jacob − who had lived with Wilhelm and his wife − died in 1863. According to biographers, Jacob was deeply distraught after the death of his brother, with whom he had held a close bond throughout his life. Some claim their collection has only been outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible.

Brothers Grimm Photo

The Brothers Grimm were buried next to each other in St. Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany. Two of Wilhem’s sons, Rudolf and Herman, were laid to rest next to the brothers. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Grimms worked on more than fairy tales.

University-trained philologists (the study of language in historical texts) and librarians, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published more than fairy tales. They wrote books about mythology, and published scholarly works on linguistics and medieval studies. They also worked on compiling an ambitious German dictionary, although both brothers died before they were able to finish the entry for the letter F.