Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cheerful news for the Brothers Grimm

There once was a shoemaker, who, through no fault of his own, became so poor that at last he had nothing left but just enough leather to make one pair of shoes. He cut out the shoes at night, so as to set to work upon them next morning; and as he had a good conscience, he laid himself quietly down in his bed, committed himself to heaven, and fell asleep.

From the Elves and the Shoemaker

I thought that someone had sleighted two second tier heroes of mine in a comment on this blog, but, since my internal search came up empty for "Grimm," it was apparently either another blog I read or I imagined my heroes being sleighted so I can write about them. I'm betting on the first. But, the brothers, Jacob (some use Jakob) and Wilhelm were not some Hansel-come-latelies who penned or collected a few fairy tales in the way some hack editor might do if assigned it by a publisher. They were actually two of the most important literary figures from the early through middle 19th century and thereafter. Moreover, as far as I know, unlike say Hans Christian Anderson, they wrote no tales of their own. This post is dedicated to rounding out the picture of the two brothers, who are almost exclusively known for the fairy and folk tales, as the great scholars they were.

The boys were born a year apart in the 1780s in Germany, the second and third of eight brothers and one sister, six of whom survived infancy. Throughout their lives the two surviving oldest siblings worked together and lived together. Wilhelm often followed Jacob, and certainly Jacob was the greater of the two in all but his own reckoning, and he was probably just being humble out of affection for his brother. When Jacob went to law school, Wilhelm followed him. And when in law school Jacob was led by a professor to a deep interest in literature, Wilhelm followed him in that too. They never looked back on a legal career. Jacob became a librarian and then Wilhelm did. They moved to Gottingen to become librarians and professors there. Later, after they were dismissed for political reasons, Berlin finally called, and they went there together.

The brothers began to publish fairy and folk tales they had collected from word of mouth in the early 1800s, when their country was under the Napoleon’s control. The first two volumes were roughly coincident with the last few years of his reign - 1812-1815, and many editions followed over the years, with something over 200 tales collected. Nowadays, we mostly just refer to any of these collections as Tales from the Brothers Grimm or something similar. The family of Wilhelm’s wife (Jacob was always a bachelor), Dortchen, who cared for both men most of her life even though being frequently ill herself, provided a number of them.

It would be hard to say that the Germanic world has brought us many longer lived and popular books than these. They have been published all over the world. Disney built a company on the Brothers’ Grimm’s backs with his great triumvirate of damsels in distress – Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Children of my generation, at least, read many more – Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel and Iron John are all familiar to those my age and prettified versions are probably told or read to kids today. Although the Grimms' tales as they wrote them still sell quite well, I’m guessing that they are most often given as gifts these days, almost like coffee table books, and I wonder if modern American parenting allows for the telling of these often violent tales to their little princes and princesses. I’d say not so much, but that’s a guess and, of course, a generalization. But, I stopped giving it as a gift years ago, when I realized it would not be read to the kiddies.

Here’s the end from one of my favorites of their tales, although really only because modern political correctness makes it so offensive – The Jew Among Thorns.

"At length the judge cried, quite out of breath, “I will give you your life if you will only stop fiddling.” The good servant thereupon had compassion, took his fiddle and hung it round his neck again, and stepped down the ladder. Then he went up to the Jew who was lying upon the ground panting for breath, and said, “You rascal, now confess, whence you got the money, or I will take my fiddle and begin to play again.” “I stole it. I stole it!” cried he; “but you have honestly earned it.” So the judge had the Jew taken to the gallows and hanged as a thief."

The whole idea for the Grimms was to explore and preserve their beloved German literature. They spent their entire lives revising and re-editing the tales. But, when they weren’t working on them, they were producing far more material spanning the entire German history. Other than Goethe and a few other great names, they virtually became German literature. And who reads Goethe anymore?

A few years after they started collecting and publishing folk and fairy tales they published a couple of volumes on German legends and this time there were hundreds of them. Besides, they didn’t just collect all of these tales; they analyzed and edited them, trying to whittle them down to their original form to the best it seemed possible (although Wilhelm was interested in poetic renderings too). Despite frequent sickness, the unrelated work they had to do for money to survive, family and social responsibilities, their corpus of work was astonishing.

While the tales are their most popular contributions to literature, other work was much more scholarly and at least as important. Together they wrote a number of works like Old German Forests aka Old German Miscellany, a collection of essays with which they began their literary dissection of old German mythology and language and a volume of lays from the Elder Edda, a collection itself whose origins are uncertain and which I sometimes loosely describe as the Germanic Bible. But the most important work they did together outside of collecting and editing the tales was the German Dictionary. Not surprising, they are little known for this outside of Germany as you have to read German to use it.

The work is important for several reasons. It was begun when the Grimms were already in their 50s and was, in some ways, a culmination of their work, particularly Jacob’s. It sought not just to define words, but to the extent possible, to try and find the first uses of the words in print. To acccomplish this, just as editors of the Oxford English Dictionary would later do, they used correspondents who would read and report to the Grimms on what they found. Not surprisingly, they could not complete this astonishing enterprise in the time they had left – Jacob died in 1863 when they were only up to "F". In fact, he was working on the entry “”frucht” (“fruit”) when he died. However, they began the German Dictionary many decades before the British began theirs, and the latter owed much to the former. The German Dictionary was not published until 1960, almost a full century after Jacob died. It may be virtually unknown in America, and, obviously, there is no rationale to have an English translation, but it is famous throughout the German speaking world and also in philological circles. Even if the Brothers Grimm had not published the fairy and folk tales, they should be just as famous for the dictionary, which they worked on for over two decades.

By the time they began the dictionary, they were already quite celebrated. Of the two, Jacob was the more revered, but not just because he was a little older. He was the more interested of the two in uncovering the roots of the German language and its history. Wilhelm was interested in that too, but, just as he was the more social of the two, and the one with a family (which Jacob got the advantage of as well), he was also more interested in the poetry and story aspects of older German literature. Much of his solo work was related to those interests – Old Danish Heroic Lays, Ballads and Folktales; On German Runes; and, The German Heroic Legend, which was considered by Jacob and most of Wilhelm's followers, his greatest achievement. It includes a study of the Nibelungenlied, a wonderful epic (and a great favorite of your legendary hero loving blogger) still published in America, but little appreciated here. Wilhelm was ahead of his time in his understanding of it, recognizing it to be of German origin, and not a Scandinavian work as scholars and the public then thought.

But, Jacob’s work was more ground-breaking. I came to know the Grimms' history through my interest in philology and mythology, the same interests which make Tolkien's works so fascinating to me. Jacob's German Grammar, written in 4 volumes over the course of 18 years, made him a giant of philology. His most important contribution is known as Grimm’s law. Like so many discoveries, it did not begin with him. Other seminal German philologists had formulated a law concerning the way sounds have systematically changed from the proto-Indo-European language that they believe preceded virtually all European and many other languages (still a theory, but largely accepted as true - I slightly disagree with the prevalent theory but won't bore you here; someday I probably will bore you with it - and that's a threat). Jacob greatly expanded the law and is credited with “the first non-trivial systematic sound changes to be discovered in linguistics”. I put that description in quotes although I have failed to track down the origin of it; but I have seen it described thus in a number of sources, and it has to come from somewhere. Jacob himself called his contribution Grimm’s law of Permutation of Consonants.

Since the description of it was rather dry, I’ll give a couple of examples with some familiar words from Halsey’s Etymology of Latin and Greek written in 1882 (which, by the way, to show the loss of quality in bookbinding over time, my copy of Halsey is in much better condition than many of my books published very recently), examining the changes of consonants for the same word in Greek, Latin, English and German.

(Grk) thugater (Lat) -- (Eng) daughter (Ger) tochter

(Grk) odous (Lat) dens (Eng) tooth (Ger) Zahn

(Grk) tu (Lat) tu (Eng) thou (Ger) du

I don’t want to dumb down Jacob’s inspirational scholarship. It was a lot more complex, and, it seems obvious once someone figures it out. Philology is not exactly a popular field, and this might not excite you too much. But, even now, for philologists, Grimm's Law is considered a staggering achievement which led to so many other developments.

And although German Grammar and Grimm’s law were perhaps Jacob’s greatest solo achievement, he made many others, particularly in books titled German Legal Antiquities, German Mythology, and finally, History of the German Language.

German Mythology stands out in my mind. There is no Grimm’s Law to pull out from it, but it was still of great importance, if only because he applied scholarly techniques to a subject that had little of it previously. Today we have many sources for stories about the Norse or Germanic gods and other tales on our bookshelves. But his was the first clear, well-researched work on the subject. He connected German mythology to Roman descriptions of their northern neighbors, covered the great gods like Wotan and Thor as well as the sprites and elves, and spent a lot of time on linguistic aspects, which, given his expertise, is not surprising. As far as I can see, Jacob’s point in much of his work seems threefold – to impart the substantive scholarship, to show the depth and richness of the Old German culture (as opposed to the barbarian civilization the Romans described and which was still believed) and also to show that that the popular culture of his day was derived from their own ancient culture - in other words, they shouldn't be skipping right from the Romans to modern Europeans -- the old German contribution was immense.

The major modern scholarly work on German mythology by the Dutchman, Jan de Vries, is considered by many to be a continuation of Grimm’s work. German Mythology is still published, last in 2004, although thanks to the first translation in the 1880’s, it is usually titled Teutonic Mythology. Frankly, there’s much in the work that has been criticized as just plain wrong, but with seminal works in any field, that is typical. It was still a substantial advance from previous work. In fact, to this day much of modern study in German mythology is based on Jacob’s work.

There are other aspects of both Grimm’s work which are worth discussing, but the above should make my point. Of course, I’ve only included the brothers’ major works. I've left out a major political escapade where the Grimms were thrown out of a university because they protested a king who revoked the local constitution and released them from vows they did not think he could legally do. Now, a small footnote in history, it was of tremendous consequence to them and colored the rest of their lives. During the failed revolutions of 1848 and an early attempt to unite Germany, Jacob was elected to represent the district where he grew up in the new parliament, although, in reality, he was ill suited for it and soon lost interest. But, they were not really political, and for what it is worth, they were very conservative, monarchistic and anti-republican. I also haven't touched on their family relationship, which was quite benevolent, from what I can see. They were best friends as well as brothers, and when Wilhelm died a few years before Jacob, it was quite sad for him. He took a portrait of his brother to bed before he died.

And, for what it is worth, the brothers were greatly celebrated in their own day, not just in Germany, but throughout Europe, particularly Jacob. In Spring, 1841, he received the French Cross of the Legion of Honor and the next year he received Prussia’s first Pour le Mérite for arts and science. In 1846, a large group of German scholars from many fields dedicated to German unity assembled for a conference. They unanimously elected Jacob their president by acclaim.

But, as I like to say - this isn't Wikipedia, so I refer you to a few available biographies - I haven't read them all - but neither of the two I did read (Peppard's Paths through the Forest is the only one I know by name) are worthy of a recommendation, and the websites, which mostly concern the tales.

Here, I just wanted to shed some light on how important the Grimms were to literary scholarship - particularly in philology and mythology, two of my favorite subjects. Unlike other past figures I've highlighted in this blog, the Grimms are actually famous and celebrated, and I am not in any way diminishing their work on the tales, as those are very important and scholarly too, despite their entertainment value. So, I'm not complaining, just expanding.


  1. Fascinating treatise on the brothers Grimm, but Frodo, do you deliberately attempt to tork me off? WHO READS GOETHE ANYWAY?? Check the website for the Goethe Society, etc... he's only the most influential German writer of ALL TIME you nittering nay-bob!

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  3. I never said he wasn't influential. Even in Grimms' times, he was. They made his acquaintance, but he was above them even them.

    However, I just looked on I chose Faust, certainly his most famous work. Ready for it's sales ranking:

    No. 146,872. In other words, no one reads him. Then I picked one fo the Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales (there are many editions for sale. No. 13,425. See the subtle difference. Just for comparison, Dickens' Tale of Two Cities (probably the most purchased classic work of all time), 150th anniversary edition, comes in at 5993. By the way, I chose the highest purchased Goethe work I could find. Most of them were far worse.

    The moral is - Grimms still popular and Goethe virtually unread. Please keep your abject apology short. I don't want to gloat. I will accept a growl as meaningful.

    Thanks for writing.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .