A Grim Tale: The Brothers Grimm

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the pod cast. I am Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I am Sara Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Today, we are going to talk about the Grimm brothers and their fairy tales. We talked a little bit about fairy tales in Bluebeard. I've been reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter lately, which is really cool modern retellings of fairy tales, if you want to pick it up. But we wanted to talk a little bit about fairy tales and folk tales in general.

Sarah Dowdey: And the difference between them. Folk tales start with an oral tradition, and they are written down later. So they're kinda living things. Think about it. If you are telling a story over and over again, it will change sometimes slightly, sometimes in big ways. You might emphasis a part that you really like a lot and play down another.

Katie Lambert: The story you tell would be different from the way I would retell it later.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, exactly, and then it would finally be written down and we would have a folk tale. Fairy tales contain magic. You could look at it as a subgenre of folk tales or a totally different thing.

Katie Lambert: If you haven't picked up any fairy tales since your childhood, I highly recommend that you do. I took a Children's Lit class in college with Dr. Katerina Yojak, and she recommended The Classic Fairytales by Iona and Peter Opie. It's a really fantastic edition. These tales are very dark. There is frog sex and decapitated heads, so keep that in mind when you start reading. We could talk about fairy tales all day really, but we won'

t Sarah Dowdey: Instead we are going to talk about two of the most famous men behind fairy tales and folk tales: the brothers, Grimm.

Katie Lambert: The cool thing about them was that they wrote stories down like their neighbors and friends actually told them, mostly without messing too much with them. The science of folklore began with these two, so we are going to talk about where they came from.

Sarah Dowdey: Jacob Karl Grimm and brother Wilhelm Karl Grimm were born about a year apart in Hanau, Germany. Jacob 1785, Wilhelm 1786. Their parents were Philip Wilhelm Grimm - who was a lawyer - and Dorothea Grimm, and they were a solidly middle-class family - not the kind that is whose going to have a scary fairy tale childhood - until their father dies.

Katie Lambert: That was in1796, and it left them quite poor. Wilhelm was in bad health his whole life, and now Jacob at the age of 11 was the man of the family. Poor little guys! They soon went to live with an aunt, and they pretty much do everything together for the rest of their lives. They both went to study law at the University of Marburg, like their Dad, but they found a new interest: folk poetry.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, because there they befriend Clemens Brentano, who was a German romantic who would go on to do very unusual works, taking the dictation of a nun who had received the stigmata.

Katie Lambert: And Achim von Arnim who collected folk songs into a book which later really influenced Muller. The Grimms started collecting stories, and songs, and poems that they hoped would have been in this book, but when they weren't, they just kept doing it on their own.

Sarah Dowdey: We'll make our own collection.

Katie Lambert: Exactly.

Sarah Dowdey: They ran into more trouble in 1808 when their mother dies, and Jacob then has five siblings to care for and money is pretty tight. He and Wilhelm actually go hungry a lot of times, sharing a meal a day, something that, I don't know, makes their -

Katie Lambert: Reminiscent of those fairy tales.

Sarah Dowdey: All the starving children in their fairy tales. He holds a lot of jobs to try to make enough money for the family too. He is a secretary to a war office and private librarian for the king of Westphalia. Yeah. It's just sort of a tough time for the two brothers.

Katie Lambert: And they ended up in a library in Kassel, and officially gave up on the law to pursue their studies of folklore, because they'd finally found their calling. Their famous book, Kinder und Hausmarchen was published in 1812, the first volume at least. The second part published in 1814. In that table of contents, we have "The Frog King," "Rapunzel," "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White," and "Rumpelstiltskin."

Sarah Dowdey: So all the familiar characters here. But we should say that these stories weren't new. They weren't making them up, or presenting them for the first time. They're versions of stories that were told in many languages and in many cultures, just the specific versions they happened to copied down.

Katie Lambert: And this book was for adults and children, not just kids. It wasn't at all poetic. Again, they wrote down stories the way people told them, so there were colloquialisms and, you know, it sounded a little bit more like dialogue.

Sarah Dowdey: It'

s casualKatie Lambert: Exactly, and they had characters, and they reflected German settings, like big scary forests, and German people, and German values, and the stories were often very dark and contained a lot of cruelty.

Sarah Dowdey: Which this definitely reminds me of Dwight and his Grandma Ter reading this story about what happens to little children who suck on their thumbs, very bad things.

Katie Lambert: But the book became incredibly popular in Germany, not immediately but a bit later. Once translated in the world - it's in 160 languages now. You've probably seen some version of it.

Sarah Dowdey: You probably have an edition of it on your shelves.

Katie Lambert: Although it may be a sanitized version. They saw six editions just in their lifetime. The final count was something like 200 stories and ten children's legends. Speaking of the sanitized versions, they later cleaned up a lot of their tales to make them nicer for kids. Rapunzel, for example, doesn't have premarital sex in the later ones, and no one dances herself to death in hot iron shoes. I thought that was funny because kids are so often are rather ghoulish and not innocent little angels and really enjoy some good-and-evil tales.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Well, and they take these tales pretty literally as cool magic stuff happening. And if you do go back and read them as an adult and you can see more of the symbolism that's really behind some of the stories.

Katie Lambert: But it's important to note too that their great accomplishment wasn't just transcribing stories. Their book is considered the first scientific collection of folk tales. The brothers were really interested in language and highly skilled researchers.

Sarah Dowdey: Because they're lawyers.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. That came in to serve them well. They both studied medieval manuscripts and the history of law. After this, they published a book of German legends and a translation of Irish tales, along with lots of critical essays and interpretations of what folklore meant.

Sarah Dowdey: These guys are a pretty big deal in the academic world consequently, Jacob more than Wilhelm, but Jacob has other projects too, working on philology and linguistics. If we got too much into some of those subjects, I think most of you would fall asleep during the podcast.

Katie Lambert: At least tune us out.

Sarah Dowdey: But he writes a giant grammar book. That's a good example why you might get sleepy.

Katie Lambert: One clue.

Sarah Dowdey: And another book on the history of the German language. There's even a linguistic law named after him.

Katie Lambert: Grimm's Law. If anyone would like to explain it to us more clearly, please email us at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. He also did a lot on Teutonic mythology.

Sarah Dowdey: Which makes sense, because that's going to be pretty close to your Germanic folk tales?

Katie Lambert: Right. As far as their academic careers, they had to leave Kassel in 1829 due to some politics of higher academia. They went to the University of Gottingen instead, but when they protested against some political actions of the king of Hanover, they were let go, so they were men of principle, those Grimms.

Sarah Dowdey: But they were in great demand, even after they were let go. They were trying to decide where they would settle, and they chose the University of Berlin as the place to continue their work and their lectures.

Katie Lambert: They started writing an absolutely enormous German dictionary, the Deutsches Worterbuch. Please excuse me if that's not the correct pronunciation. It took 100 years to finish, so it wasn't them living ageless and writing a dictionary.

Sarah Dowdey: Wouldn't that be a great Grimm's fairy tale though?

Katie Lambert: It would be fantastic.

Sarah Dowdey: They're like 200 years old working on the dictionary.

Katie Lambert: But everything you could ever possibly want to know about any German word ever is in this. I mean everything. According to Britannica, Jacob only lived to see it get to the letter F. Now it's 32 volumes.

Sarah Dowdey: Another thing we thought was kind of cool about these two guys - this is how close they are - they lived together and they worked together. Jacob even lives with his brother after Wilhelm gets married, all of them getting along pretty well with the kids in the house and fairy tales presumably being told.

Katie Lambert: Wilhelm's son said about them, "The brothers had one house, one library, one purse." Wilhelm died in Berlin on December 16th, 1859. Jacob died there on September 20th, 1863. I imagine Jacob was rather lonely without his lifetime companion. In his eulogy, he called Wilhelm the fairy tale brother. That's the end of our Grimm brother's podcast. That brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: This is another edition of real mail, this time from Sarah in California. She wrote us to say that she was visiting New York City for the first time and listening to one of Candace and Jane's older podcasts on trading Manhattan for nutmeg, and just looking around her, and thinking, "How much is this worth? A bunch of nutmeg, I guess." She mentioned she kept on telling all of her friends this little tidbit.

Katie Lambert: Related to that, we got an email from a listener who asked that if someone sent real mail, did that up their chances of being talked about on listener mail. We have to say yes. We'll put your podcast topic a little higher on the list.

Sarah Dowdey: Plus we tape it up on the wall. We do. We have a whole little section right now between our cubes.

Katie Lambert: We sit next to each other, so that's where we put all of them. If you'd like to send us some mail, please do. You can follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory. We also have a Facebook fan page that we update regularly. If you'd like to read cool history articles, you should come search our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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