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Lighting up Children's Lit: The Brothers Grimm

March 29, 2018 by Nora Nagy

"For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to.” - The Storyteller. Walter Benjamin, 1936


The Brothers Grimm: Jacob (foreground, right) and Wilhelm Grimm. 1855. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Once upon a time there were two brothers, who differed very much in person but shared the same passion for folk and fairy tales, legends and sagas. Their passion grew out of their academic interest in language, folk knowledge and storytelling, and they dedicated most of their adult lives to collecting and publishing stories we still love and retell to our students and children. Indeed the Brothers Grimm are among the greatest weavers and spinners of stories of all time and the web they wove greatly contributed to keeping storytelling alive.

In this series we introduce people who made a difference in children’s literature (or we could simply say, in literature), and today we explore the world of the Brothers Grimm, focusing on their lives and work. The tales have been told, retold, analyzed, interpreted, translated and adapted so many times that we often forget about the collectors of these much-loved (and often gruesome) folk and fairy tales. However, finding out about their lives and work is just as entertaining as reading one of their tales.

True scholars

Jacob and Wilhelm are often remembered as the first Germanist philologists, literary historians and linguists. They were born at the end of the 18th century (Jacob, 1785-1863; Wilhelm, 1786-1859), and they became active collectors of folk tales by 1806, carrying on their scholarly work until their death.  

Before they embarked on literary studies, they studied law, and, to support their families, they worked as secretaries, diplomats and librarians, and they also went on to become university professors. Indeed their time as librarians afforded them the chance to devote their energies to researching folk tales thereby kindling their passion. Their love of folk tales tells us a lot about their own scholarly interests. They saw the tales as the carriers of folk wisdom, the primary inspiration and source of modern literature, and they viewed the texts they collected as fundamental materials for the study of the German language.

They were also researchers and folklorists, and learning about their research methods informs the researchers of our age. They looked for stories everywhere: in old and new books, and among working class, middle-class and aristocratic storytellers. They had several informants who shared tales with them, which they recorded, transcribed, edited and annotated for scholarly studies.

The Brothers Grimm often changed the original folk tales. This, however is in line with oral tradition as each storyteller personalises the story with details from his or her given time. In the case of the Grimms this gives us a valuable insight into German cultural and literary history. Wilhelm in particular reacted to the expectations of his readers, incorporating elements from Christian cultural tradition, and fostering the romantic view of a unified German language and folklore. Although they attributed immense cultural unifying power to the tales and the language they were written in, they also recorded and kept regional dialects in them. Their interest in language lead them to become the first lexicographers, and they started building the first German dictionary called the ‘Deutsches Wörterbuch’ in 1838.

In the seven different editions of 'Children’s and Household Tales' we find some of our favourite stories. Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel and Snow White are all included in the long list of tales. It is interesting to notice that the stories they collected were not simply children’s fairy tales, but they were called 'household tales'. They also collected stories that were told in the family, without prescribing whether they should be addressed to children or adults. The storyteller could decide which tale to tell on which occasion. They believed in the power of stories without the need to add educational or moralizing values to them. As they put it themselves in the ‘Preface’ to the 1812 edition of the first volume of the collected tales:

"Wherever the tales still exist, they continue to live in such a way that nobody ponders whether they are good or bad, poetic or crude. People know them and love them because they have simply absorbed them in a habitual way. And they take pleasure in them without having any reason. This is exactly why the custom of storytelling is so marvelous, and it is just what this poetic art has in common with everything eternal: people are obliged to be disposed toward it despite the objections of others." (Zipes, 2014)

The tales in the classroom

The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Complete First Edition. Translated & Edited by Jack Zipes. Illustrated by Andrea Dezső. © Princeton University Press, 2014.

Have you ever considered reading the tales, either the original ones or an adaptation for young learners in the classroom? The original, first edition (1812) of the tales was recently translated by Jack Zipes and published in a beautiful edition by Princeton University Press in 2014. The volume was illustrated by Andrea Dezső. Although the most widespread edition is the seventh one from 1857, this first one contains the tales in the original form, without the changes which were added to them over  subsequent decades. Various collections can also be found on the Internet.

Retellings of the tales can be found in many editions for a wide range of audiences. Among these you can find the editions for young learners in the Helbling Young Readers series:

We have collected a set of questions and resources to help your students discover the life and work of the authors. We recommend this project-based lesson for teenagers at pre-intermediate to upper-intermediate level.


Research questions for the Brothers Grimm Project

1 Short biography

Prepare a short biography of the brothers, answering the following questions.

  1. Who were their parents?
  2. Where were they born? Find the place in a map.
  3. How many brothers and sisters did they have?
  4. Who helped with their education?
  5. What happened in the Grimm family's life in 1796?
  6. What was the profession of their brother Ludwig?
  7. Where did they study law?
  8. When did they start collecting tales?
  9. Which brother married?
  10. Where did they die?

Here are some links to biographies and resources:

Get your students to create role plays where a journalist interviews one or both of the brothers.

2 Storytellers

Become storytellers. First of all choose a story everyone in the class knows (this could be a local story, or a more universal one). Before you tell it aloud in class think of how you will lead into it, how you will build up tension and how you will conclude. Consider your delivery, tone and facial expressions. It may help to think of key words which reoccur in the story. When you are confident, tell the story in class. As a follow-up ask the students in groups to think of another story to tell aloud in class. They may tell it in groups or choose someone in their group to tell it. Give them time to prepare, telling them to write down key words and to break down the story into sections.

Listen to our interview with storyteller David Heathfield:

3 Professions

The brothers had many different professions which often sound complex and unique. Check the meaning of the following jobs that are related to the brothers' academic and professional life.

  • librarian
  • secretary
  • university professor
  • folklorist
  • philologist
  • linguist
  • lexicographer
  • editor


4 Grimmwelt - Grimm World in Kassel

Grimmwelt in Kassel, Germany is dedicated to the life and work of the Grimm Brothers. Visit the website of the centre and the exhibition, and if you are lucky to be in Germany, do visit the place.

Watch this video about the place and explore the website.

Which exhibition would you visit?

5 The adaptation of the tales

Search the Internet for adaptations of the tales. First, browse the list of tales, then look for retellings and film adaptions.

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