“Fairy tales since the beginning of recorded time, and perhaps earlier, have been a means to conquer the terrors of mankind through metaphor.” – Jack Zipes
In 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first edition of Kinder-und-Hausmarchen, a collection of tales that were known amongst many, but were never written down. Before, the stories were told over the fire or in the confines of a spinning circle. The Grimm brothers decided to collect and transcribe the stories, as they saw the need to record the tales for historical preservation- a way to capture a small fragment of the folk Germanic culture and oral traditions before all would be forgotten.
When picturing how Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm acquired their research, one might imagine that they traveled around the Germanic states and spoke to the peasants who told these tales over an outside fire. However, that romantic notion is just another fairy tale. In reality, the brothers gathered the material from educated young women in the middle to upper class, as well as acquaintances who knew of their scholarly work. These people would recount the tales they heard from those working in their homes: their governesses, maids, and servants.
The original versions of the tales were not meant for children’s ears. The stories were not romantic notions full of happy endings. Rather, there were instances in each pertaining to violence, incest, sex, death, and other hardships that were reminders to people of the harsh realities that can happen in life.
Given contemporary retellings, it is hard to believe that Snow White’s mother (in later revisions, stepmother) would order for doves to peck out her daughter’s eyes, or that Cinderella’s stepsisters would cut off their heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper. Little Red Riding Hood has multiple interpretations. One could be for children to be wary of strangers, others see it as anti-Semitism, and still others can view the story as a metaphor for rape. Filled with cruelty and abuse, most of these tales have evolved today to have happier endings, and with substantially less cruelty.
Between 1812 and 1857, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm composed seven editions of the fairy tales. What started out as a scholarly crusade evolved into a high demand book second only to the Bible. Their changes reflected what was popular with the audience they could attract. Tales of horror coupled with unhappy endings evolved into marketing to the growing field of children’s literature.
Between the thorough research and desire to make a scholarly product, the Grimm brothers preserved a part of their culture- even if they have been heavily reinterpreted over time.