Wilhelm (left) and Jacob Grimm by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1855)
Just the other day, I blogged about the dark elements in the children’s fairytale of Rumplestiltskin. I ended my thought of the day by stating that it contained disturbing insights into human nature. I had an issue with not only the imp being evil, but the girl’s father and the King too, although they received no justice for their evil acts.
The Grimm brothers wrote many tales that are equally disturbing. Just think of Hansel and Gretel. We have within this tale abandonment, threat of cannibalism (by the witch that lived inside the house made of candy), deception and murder. The tale is highly disturbing when you think about it. As usual, the ending is bitter-sweet, the Aunt (or step-mother if you prefer another version of the story) just ‘dies’ at the end of the story and their Uncle (or father) says that all is well and the children can come home. To my mind, it remains an open question of how their step-mother died. Did their ‘father’ murder her? We all know that he wasn’t happy at letting the children go. The mind boggles.
By the time the ‘father’ welcomes the children back home, they had managed to trick the witch and push her inside her own oven (the same oven that she had planned to roast and eat one of the children). Oh, and they had stolen all her money too.
This got me thinking about the Grimm brothers. Who were they and what made them write such dark tales?
The Grimm brothers’ father died when they were young (Jacob was eleven and Wilhelm was just ten). This resulted in much angst and financial hardship for their family. As a result, they developed a strong work ethic and understanding of the perils and brutality of life.
Dire poverty and social exclusion did not break the Grimm brothers, it brought them closer together. I can see echoes of their life experiences in their writings and believe that this influenced their interpretation of the folklore. During their time at the University of Marburg, they developed an interest in German and Scandinavian folklore and studied a great deal of German medieval literature. Time passed and they researched and wrote their own adaptations of folklore tales.
Many of their tales were edited, sometimes due to criticism for not being suitable for children. For example, in the original version of Rapunzel, the relationship between the Prince and the girl in the tower was described as being sexual. This reference was removed in later editions.
In sum, Wilhelm and Jacob were two men who knew about the harsh reality of life. Who the audience should be to their stories remains an open question. Even in the edited versions, there is an undeniably dark thread that runs through their works.