The Brothers Behind the Fairy Tales

April 24, 2010

By Joan Fischer

Probably no other collectors of fairy tales are as well known as the Brothers Grimm and the characters they introduced to the world: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Rapunzel, The Golden Goose.

Now they’re making a special appearance in Wisconsin thanks to Dane County’s sister county relationship with Kassel in Germany, home of the Museum of the Brothers Grimm. (Images courtesy Museum of the Brothers Grimm)

“Once Upon a Time: The Brothers Grimm—Life and Work,” the first-ever North American exhibition of Grimm-related prints, books, engravings, and historical documents, will be on display in the Dane County Regional Airport lobby gallery from April 28 to June 25. The exhibition was coordinated by the University of Wisconsin’s Tandem Press.

“Many of Grimms’ fairy tales are set in the forests and castles in the Kassel area,” notes Scott McDonell, chair of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. “They are a central element of the Kassel culture.” A delegation of elected officials from Kassel will be on hand for the exhibition opening and celebration of German Day (April 29), which this year has the theme of fairy tales and involves related cultural activities at the university and other schools.

The Brothers Grimm (1785-1863) not only collected fairy tales and other German folk tales and legends, they also were lexicographers and highly respected scholars of language. They assembled their greatest collections (Children’s and Household Fairy Tales, German Legends, The German Heroic Legends) while working as librarians at the Kassel state library in the early 1800s.

Both brothers then went on to serve as librarians and professors at the University of Goettingen. They also were committed political activists who, with five other professors, protested against the revocation of the constitution by the king of Hanover. As members of the so-called “Goettingen Seven,” they lost their positions and were banished from the kingdom. But they were revered throughout the rest of Germany and continued their scholarly work in Kassel and Berlin for the remainder of their lives.

Children’s and Household Fairy Tales is their most famous and widely translated work. With that book, the Grimms were trying to document the “ethnic poetry” of the people (“Volkspoesie”). But, like the fairy tales themselves, with their clearly defined divisions of being (good and evil, bright and dark, conscious and subconscious), the book also was intended to provide a moral or at least cautionary education.