Today marks the anniversary of the birth of one half of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob. He was born on 4th January 1785 in Hesse-Kassel in what is known today as Germany, and in his adult life he collaborated with his brother to bring about two collections of fairy tales . Before his literary career Jacob had studied Law at the university of Hanover, a profession he wanted to pursue because his father had been a lawyer before him, but he found there was much more that interested him and he began to study History, Antiquity, Literature and Science whilst he was there. He moved around in his adulthood and studied for many happy years in Paris with Friedrich Karl von Savigny, the celebrated investigator of Roman law, who was in possession of a large library of ancient texts which interested Jacob Grimm, and which was made available to him for study and perusal for as much as he liked.
Jacob never married and never had children, which seems such a shame when you think that his most well-known contribution has been to collate, write and publish stories that have entertained and thrilled children for around 150 years. It also seems anachronistic that a polymath such as he, who had contributed so hugely to the publication of the German Dictionary, texts on politics and philosophy etc would be remembered mostly for children’s stories.
To me, the lasting fascination with the Grimm’s fairy tales is linked to the not-so-happy endings and the sometimes quite gruesome and fraught journeys the characters have to endure in order to reach them. Lots of them have been taken up and adapted by Disney, who have managed to put a gloss and polish on them and in some cases taking them far away from the “originals” that they have lost all elements of darkness and fear from them, making them saccharine-sweet and perfectly happy. I say “originals” because many of the Grimm’s stories are themselves adapted from tales that have been passed down orally from ancient times, but for the sake of argument and because Jacob and Wilhelm were the first to write them, I’m going to call them original versions of many of them.
My favourite story growing up was “The Elves and the Shoemaker”, which was the first of three stories entitled “The Elves” (Die Wichtelmänner). What struck me then is the same as strikes me now, that when you are down on your luck and you haven’t got enough to get by, there are some wonderful beings who will step up and help you when you least expect it. Today of course, my Christian faith bears that out in my life for real. I also loved the story “Snow-White and Rose-Red” (Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot), two sisters who were opposites of each other and who had made friends with a bear (as you do in fairy stories) and who had to deal with a troublesome and ungrateful dwarf throughout a summer.
There are a couple of stories that even I baulked at when I was a child, and I somehow can’t imagine Disney doing anything with them now either. For example, could you imagine how “The Wishing-Table, the Gold-Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack” (Tischchen deck dich, Goldesel und Knüppel aus dem Sack) would be portrayed as a cartoon nowadays?!
So, happy 230th birthday Jacob Grimm. Thank you for your wonderful legacy that we can still (mainly) enjoy today.