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The Brothers Grimm
The Brothers Grimm

CHILDREN'S LITERATURE... a BRIEF History: The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm are one of the most recognized names in children's literature in the world. The two German Brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, are credited with a series of complex tales that carry with them a specific flavor which involves a consistency of setting, characters and themes. In the late 1700s, the Grimm brothers were born into an educated family and eventually themselves went to college at the University of Marburg. It was in law school when a professor "interested in the legends of the Middle Ages" (Folktales, 247), inspired the brothers to focus their studies on Germany's language, history and social makeup. Similarly to Perrault, they gathered the folktales told in their region and codified them into a series of works that they intended "for the scientific study of the culture that had produced them" (247). The brothers attributed their works to a Frau Viehmann, a German woman equal to Perrault's "Old Mother Goose", but S. S. Prawer claims that the woman was indeed French (Huguenot) and "clearly knew her Perrault, and cannot therefore have been the unsullied folk source of the traditional dramatic anthology that the Grimms presented" (Prawer 343). Regardless, their volumes of Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children and House Tales) (1812, 1815, and 1822) had a profound effect on society and scholars alike, the latter being inspired to search out the folktales of the regions in which they resided, resulting in regional tales from Finland, Norway, and England, to name a few.

These tales presented tales of social and personal values, often placing children in dangerous situations ("Hansel and Gretel") and were quite violent in nature. Animals in these works followed familiar anthropomorphic patterns ("The Bremen Town Musicians"), and supernatural characters were often used to reward individuals for good behavior ("The Elves and the Shoemaker"). Many of the stories are about adolescent girls, often in peril or a situation of abuse ("Rapunzel"), and equally as often saved by a handsome prince ("The Sleeping Beauty"). Indeed, many of the stories, whether involving animals or humans, involved a protagonist that has been abused by life, either a peasant or a child or both, and through the interaction of that character either with a supernatural being, an animal or an evil entity that must be overcome, the character is rewarded for perseverance, hard work and ingenuity. Sometimes, children eventually provide happiness and wealth for not only themselves, but their parents as well. The American versions of the stories have often been watered down, diminishing some of the elements of peril and minimizing references to acts of violence. In the originals, the Brothers Grimm often make very clear that the child or other protagonist is in danger of being killed. Perhaps the most famous line from these German tales is "Once upon a time...", a clear indication that the work is one of fantasy and that of a bygone era.

Themes: Honor, Bravery, Duty and Loyalty, magic
Characters: animals, spirits, children, royalty and laborers

Works Cited

Prawer, S. S. "Myths and Myth-makers." The Times Literary Supplement, 30 Mar 1984.

Saltman, Judith. Folktales. The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, 6th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

______________ Trade and Plumbcake Forever. The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, 6th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
Last modified: October 31, 2006