Jacob and Wilhelm called their collection Children’s and Household Tales when it first appeared in Germany in 1812. We know it, of course, as just Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything on this list that requires less of an introduction or justification. “Hansel and Gretel”, “Cinderella”, “Iron John”, “Rapunzel”, “The Brennan Town Musicians” – they are all in here, along with countless others less well known.
The Grimm boys collected and revised a wide array of stories, tales, myths, and folklore, essentially translating a whole lot of central Europe’s oral tradition to the page. And in doing so, they – with Charles Perrault – preserved much of the region’s cultural foundation that may very likely have otherwise been lost.
Academics both – and in particular scholars of language and cultural history – the legacy of the Grimms has been hugely important. Though known for the Fairy Tales they also produced the first German dictionary and are recognized as two of the founders of what is now known in university circles as ‘Germanic Studies’. Beginning with their appointments as professors at the University of Gottingen, they began researching the origins and transformation of the German language and took an interest in folktales and mythology, starting the work that we all recognize them for. After a few years of political upheaval – including termination of their jobs and exile for their protest against autocratic rollbacks of liberal democractic lawmaking – the settled once more into their work, bringing together grammatical studies, pre-Christian mythology, and contemporary folk stories to better understand the origins of their Germanic culture.
The Grimms, like all collectors and translators, have had their critics – most notably for the impact of their translations and edits. In some cases, the stories included were in fact not Germanic in origin, but came from elsewhere. In others, the brothers stripped away what they considered extraneous or repetitive information to capture what seemed to them the jewel in the tale. And certainly they were attacked, at least initially, for presenting as children’s stories some tales far too violent or sexual to be appropriate, a criticism that subsided as later editions were further revised to soften the edges.
But whatever those critcisms, the impact remains profound – and, in fact, we might do well to remember that all our history and myth undergoes such changes, revising and editing and translating being part and parcel of cultural production generally. And that process itself is a contribution, the unpeeling and deep reading and reconsideration of the Grimm legacy itself providing work for any number of historians, linguists and cultural studies and literature professors today.