“Once upon a time…”
Those four words herald the beginning of almost every modern fairytale you care to name. Now, it’s a stock phrase for fantasy literature. But those four words are most associated with the collection of stories gathered by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Today, the brothers are more recognized for their tales of princesses, fairies, and witches, as well as providing material for beloved Disney movies such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, however, didn’t set out to collect these stories to become children’s bedtime reading. Their original intent was more serious and, given the content of the stories themselves, was made for adults.
A Scholarly Pursuit
The Grimm Brothers grew up in a Germany that was a collective of nations rather than a single country. They were also great scholars, linguists, and librarians. In fact, Jacob Grimm was the proponent for an important linguistic concept, Grimm’s Law. Today, their articles would not have been out of place for German language books for teachers you’d find at a linguist’s shop.
Although there was no unified Germany to speak of yet, the brothers were fierce nationalists and sought to preserve the identity of their collective country. The brothers thought that one way that Germans could build their identities was through connecting and remembering their folklore.
The Brothers Grimm spent several years collecting and cataloging folklore from all over Germany, eventually publishing 200 of the stories in 1812.
The language of this collection was far more scholarly than stylistic. And even then, the tales they collected were certainly worthy of the name “Grimm.”
Very Grimm Tales Indeed
A happily ever after is the standard ending for the latest versions of the tales the Grimms collected. But the original versions were stories of blood, murder, and misery.
In the original “Snow White,” after the titular princess wakes up from her apple-induced coma, she forces the wicked queen to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. In “Ashputtel,” the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella,” the stepsisters mutilate their feet as they attempt to deceive the prince. As punishment for their trickery and misdeed, birds blind them.
The brothers have collected plenty of other tales that are miserable, gruesome, and stranger. “The Three Snake-Leaves” involves being buried alive with a lover’s corpse, magical leaves, and betrayal. “Herr Korbes” features a band of intelligent animals and objects torturing and murdering the unfortunate Korbes for no apparent reason. “The Juniper Tree,” one of the most infamous tales of them all, involves a stepmother dismembering a boy and feeding his remains to his father.
What was the point of these gruesome tales? According to the Grimm brothers, their stories were cautionary tales that had seeds of morals in them. They were written to warn readers of their wrongdoing in the most creative way possible.
By definition, folklore is an ephemeral thing being passed down through oral retellings instead of writing. These modern fairytales, which are descendants of the folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm, are different from their predecessors. Through them, however, today’s readers can still connect to the darker stories Jacob and Wilhelm sought to preserve, once upon a time.