CORRESPONDENCE between the Brothers Grimm and Sir Walter Scott at the National Library illuminates not only their fairy tales but also much about the early study of the roots of Scottish and German culture and language. By Lee Randall
Never was there a more apt coincidence than the surname of brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, for in the stories they collected, children are ripped from their parents’ breasts and reared by witches, queens are condemned to dance to death in shoes made of red-hot iron, and frantic women hack away at their bodies in the hope of marrying a wealthy prince (apparently some things never change).
Then again, Grimms’ Fairy Tales – published 200 years ago as Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Tales of Children and the Home) – wasn’t intended for youngsters. The tales come from a once-upon-a-time era that probably seems unreal to modern readers, out of the depths of those “pre-media” centuries, when even low-tech books – not to mention literacy – were scarce, and entertainment was DIY. Then as now, a good story well told helped to pass the hours.
In honour of that 200th anniversary, the National Library of Scotland is putting on an exhibition, Illustrating the Brothers Grimm, highlighting the links between the brothers and Scotland – including letters between Jacob Grimm and Sir Walter Scott, as well as a book published in 1813 for which Wilhelm Grimm translated three Scots songs into German, among them, one from Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. There is also a copy of the first edition of the Tales that Jacob Grimm sent to Scott in 1814, and which bears the signature of Scott, who is also the subject of an anniversary this week, with Friday marking the 180th anniversary of his death.
How did these two become pen pals? Did they ever meet? Curious, I ventured into the bowels of the library, chaperoned by Anette Hagan, the senior rare books curator who assembled this exhibition.
“Grimm and Scott only met on paper,” says Hagan. “As far as I’m aware, this is the first letter that Jacob Grimm actually wrote to Walter Scott.” She fingers paper covered in beautiful German script. Unfortunately, manuscript copyright laws prohibit us from reproducing the letters, or quoting extensively, but Hagan gives me a taster: “It dates from January 1814. He wrote, spontaneously, to introduce himself, ‘I’m taking the liberty to send you this letter and to ask if you would allow that we could, in the future, have an exchange about different topics of old English’ – what he meant is old Scots – ‘if I wanted to have some more information, can I apply to your expertise and grace?’
“He wrote in German, assuming Scott could either read it or find someone to translate. And the funny thing is, Scott could read German. And Grimm could also read English, so Scott wrote back in English. In the very early exchanges they say to each other, ‘Look, I can understand your language, but I don’t dare write in it.’”
Scott, yet to publish a novel, was renowned as the poet whose work included the Minstrelsy, Rokeby, Marmion, and the Lady of the Lake. Hagan says, “Grimm heard about this so he wrote and said can we be mates and profit from each other?”
Jacob was the elder of the brothers, born in 1785, with Wilhelm arriving 13 months later, but they were as close as twins. Theirs was an old, respected family. Their father was a lawyer, but his early death, when the boys were still young, plunged the family into economic difficulties.
Thanks to a helpful aunt, the boys were well educated, and both attended the University of Marburg to study law.
There, as students of Friedrich Karl von Savigny, they became interested in philology (the science of language and its development), and German folklore. They longed to see a unified, self-governing Germany, and were convinced that German literature needed to find a way back to its natural roots (Volkspoesie). Their goal was to unearth the linguistic threads binding Germans.
Spurred on by their friend Clemens Brentano, who was preparing an anthology, they began collecting stories in 1806. And they were collectors, not the authors of these tales, though in time, Wilhelm would rework some of them.
In his introduction to his translation of the tales, professor Jack Zipes writes: “Their major accomplishment… was to create an ideal type for the literary fairy tale, one that sought to be as close to the oral tradition as possible, while incorporating stylistic, formal, and substantial thematic changes to appeal to a growing middle-class audience.”
Hagan says, “Today, the Grimms don’t have the same high status in German that Scott has here. Some of their philological work has been superseded – though Jacob Grimm did create a very important linguistic law that’s named after him, which proved that Germanic languages were Indo-European, by following the sound change from Sanskrit text, via Latin, to Old English and then modern German. But it’s a niche interest.
“The tales were mainly told among adults, mostly young women, who had heard them from their governesses and servants. Others were simply copied out of older books. And there is a dark side – they reflect the often cruel, violent lives of people in Europe at that time, with a central fear of the dangers that lurk in the dark forest.”
They didn’t even leave home to collect their tales, but corralled their sister’s friends – mainly educated middle- and upper-class young women – to tell stories which they transcribed. One of these women, Dortchen Wild, became Wilhelm’s wife.
Hagan wonders, however, whether the brothers knew that one of their sources had Huguenot ancestry, and may have originally heard her tales in French. The Grimms encouraged their friends to beat the bushes for them, and nearly made the request public. Hagan shows me a circular – ultimately never sent – in which the Grimms beseech Germans to collect folk literature for them including songs, sagas, fairy tales, fables, funny stories, and also customs, games and rituals.
Scott’s reaction to Grimm’s appeal was favourable. “He wrote back in April of 1814 – remember this was during the Napoleonic wars, so it took a while for the first letter to reach Scott, and for him to reply and for that letter to get back to Grimm.
“He wrote: ‘Your very welcome letter reached me only yesterday. I am perfectly acquainted with what you have done for ancient German literature…’”
Grimm’s reply came from Paris, where he’d joined the war commission as part of the diplomatic corps. “This is June, now, and he’s saying, ‘I just got your letter from the 29th of April.’ It had been sent to his home in Germany, and then on to Paris.”
They also exchanged books – though not every parcel reached its destination – which is how the library is able to display the first edition of the Tales that Jacob Grimm sent to Scott.
Her aim, says Hagan, is to highlight the links between different European countries at that time, and the Grimm’s philological achievements. “It was really ground-breaking work. They had a huge linguistic interest and an interest in scholarly exchange.”
They were also compiling a dictionary of the German language, and had made it to F by the time the brothers died, Wilhelm in 1859 and Jacob in 1863.
This correspondence makes an interesting footnote to the story of a collection that is widely accepted as one of the most influential works of Western culture. Hagan says, “After the publication of the second volume, in 1815, Wilhelm Grimm in particular started to edit the tales to make them more acceptable to adults who wanted to tell them to their children. The fairy tales became much more child-friendly, and that trend has continued down to the 20th century, particularly with the sanitised Disney film versions.”
Professor Zipes sums up: “To a certain extent, the intense interest in their tales … throughout the world is a tribute to the Grimms’ uncanny sense of how folk narratives inform cultures. They were convinced that their tales possessed essential truths about the origins of civilisation, and they selected and revised those tales that would best express these truths.”
• Illustrating the Brothers Grimm runs from 19 September until 18 November. Entrance to the display at the NLS, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh is free. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.nlk.uk
• The influence of the Brothers Grimm will also be explored at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival running 19-28 October. For information, visit www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk
A HISTORY OF FAIRY TALES ON FILM
Disney studios have consistently drawn inspiration from the Grimms, starting with the December 1937 release of Snow White, below, which became the most successful film of 1938. They’ve since made versions of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. In 2010, they released Tangled, a take on the story of Rapunzel. Wildly popular, the Disney films nonetheless tend to sugarcoat the tales, making them more palatable for their target audience – kids.
Edgier adaptations of the tales are always being made, such as this year’s Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart, pictured left, which depicts Snow White as quite a warrior.
Hoodwinked!, from 2005, is an animated retelling of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, pictured below, and owes as much to the Japanese classic Rashomon, as it does the Grimms.
In 2011 Dreamworks released Puss in Boots as a spin-off of the Shrek franchise, which drew many characters from Grimm fairy tales. And who can forget 1971’s Muppet version of The Frog Prince?