Brothers Grimm Publish Fairy Tales Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The appearance of the first volume of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen continued the English and German Romantics’ elevation of folk materials to literary status and popularized folktales for a broad audience.

Summary of Event

When the first volume of their extraordinary collection of German Märchen, or fairy tales, appeared in 1812 as Kinder- und Hausmärchen (revised 1815; German Popular Stories, 1823-1826), the Grimm brothers were not yet well known. They would not begin work on their famous dictionary Dictionaries;Brothers Grimm for another quarter century, and the first edition of Jacob’s groundbreaking Deutsche Grammatik (German grammar), which introduced Grimm’s law, would not appear until 1819. Their only publication before the fairy tales was a collection of Danish hero-songs by Wilhelm and an essay on old German songs by Jacob, both published only a year earlier (1811). Fairy tales;Brothers Grimm Grimm, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Literature;German Literature;children’s Germany;literature [kw]Brothers Grimm Publish Fairy Tales (1812-1815) [kw]Grimm Publish Fairy Tales, Brothers (1812-1815) [kw]Publish Fairy Tales, Brothers Grimm (1812-1815) [kw]Fairy Tales, Brothers Grimm Publish (1812-1815) [kw]Tales, Brothers Grimm Publish Fairy (1812-1815) Fairy tales;Brothers Grimm Grimm, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Literature;German Literature;children’s Germany;literature [g]Germany;1812-1815: Brothers Grimm Publish Fairy Tales[0550] [c]Literature;1812-1815: Brothers Grimm Publish Fairy Tales[0550] Brentano, Clemens

Jacob Grimm (left) and Wilhelm Grimm.

(Library of Congress)

German readers were ready for exactly the sort of folk materials they found in the Grimms’ tales. German Romanticism had eroded, if not eradicated, the Enlightenment notion of the preeminence of classical literary forms (that is, following Greek and Roman models). An antiquarian spirit that preceded Romanticism in England, which had produced such folk-ballad collections as Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), prompted German readers to look to their own native tradition for literary materials. A leading German literary critic of the late eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried Herder, in Von deutscher Art und Kunst (1773; on German manners and art) called for a rediscovery of authentic German folk literature. Johann Karl Augustus Musäus responded with Volksmärchen der Deutschen (5 volumes, 1782-1786; popular fairy tales of the Germans), although instead of transcribing tales from the oral tradition, as Herder’s manifesto called for, Musäus made up original tales in the folktale manner, creating the genre of Kunstmärchen (artistic fairy tales) rather than the longed-for Volksmärchen.

As the German Romantic movement appeared at the turn of the century, the taste for authentic German folk literature grew. Romantics Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano Brentano, Clemens disguised their imitations of folk-style lyrics as folklore collections in Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805-1808; The Boy’s Magic Horn, 1805-1808). About the same time (1806), the Grimm brothers began collecting stories to give the German reading public exactly what it was yearning for. When the first volume of the Grimms’ collection appeared in 1812, it was something of a compromise between the Kunstmärchen of the Romantics and the true folk collection Herder wanted. The prefaces to Kinder- und Hausmärchen implied that it was purely a work of research and collection, an implication that would lead not a few twentieth century critics and historians to accuse the Grimm brothers of fraudulently passing off their quite ingenious inventive powers as merely mechanical anthologizing.

Such controversies, however, lay far in the future when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set about collecting their stories—for they did begin as collectors, however the final product was judged. Jacob was in fact employed as a librarian during most of his time spent on the collection, giving him unlimited access to the rich holdings of the royal library at Wilhelmshöhe. With only nominal official duties, he had ample time to write and edit—and to visit the peasant storytellers. The Grimms became friendly with the Romantic Brentano, whose folk song collection had led him to announce his intention to follow up with a collection of tales. With Brentano’s Brentano, Clemens blessing, the Grimms took up the task, and with an archivist’s diligence spent six years in preparing the first volume.

The German reader’s thirst for authentic German tales was made even more acute by a groundswell of ethnic consciousness brought on by the Napoleonic Wars. King Jérôme, the youngest brother of Napoleon, was officially Jacob’s employer at the library. The German name of the town, Wilhelmshöhe, was changed to Napoleonshöhe, and the superiority of French culture was everywhere proclaimed—creating a political need for German folk literature where there was already a personal one.

When the first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen appeared in 1812, the Napoleonic suppression of German culture had already waned; the French occupation would last only one more year, ending in 1813, and the Grimms would publish their second volume just as Napoleon met his final defeat in 1815. Jacob’s preface to both volumes would sound the proclamation of German-ness. To the Grimms, the simple tales of the German peasants represented the last echoes of Germanic mythology poised, with the advent of modern industrial Europe, to disappear. Jacob opens his preface with something of a fairy tale of his own: an allegory of a farmer whose entire crop has been destroyed by a storm. Looking closely at a small area protected by a hedge, he realizes that the destruction has not been absolute after all: A few stalks remain, to be nurtured to full growth. This was Jacob’s metaphor for the tales he and his brother offered the German people: a carefully preserved remnant of a once great crop, dim remnants of a once great Germanic mythology nearly destroyed by French cultural chauvinism.

The reaction to Kinder- und Hausmärchen was immediate and sensational. Not only the popular audience but also German intellectuals recognized the volume as an answer to Herder’s call, nearly forty years earlier, for authentic German folktales. Both scholar and burgher warmed to the homely appeal of the tales and the preface, which—far from touting them as polished literary pieces—valued them for their rustic honesty. As a result, Jacob’s preface almost guaranteed critical success for the tales: Not even the stuffiest, most Frenchified critic could fault a work that aimed only at being simple and German. Each volume went through a number of printings before the second (and not the final) edition of 1819. The initial success of the tales is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the first edition was presented as a literary text, with notes and scholarly apparatus, and no illustrations.


The two volumes of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 1812 and 1815, contained more than two hundred tales. In the remaining half century of their lives, the Grimms continued to refine their stories (and to some extent edit them, removing language and content deemed objectionable for children). Although the German audience hailed them as authentic German folk matter, the larger world recognized their universality. They became a major work of world literature, translated into seventy languages. The first English volume, translated by Edgar Taylor as German Popular Stories, appeared in 1823, with comic illustrations by the popular London illustrator George Cruikshank Cruikshank, George .

Although the Grimms continued to collaborate on their historical and philological scholarship, particularly their Deutsches Wörterbuch (1852-1862; German dictionary), Dictionaries;Brothers Grimm a massive three-volume historical dictionary begun in 1838 and not completed until a century after their deaths, it would be the fairy tales for which the world would remember them. The continued status of the stories as literary masterpieces has much to do with the fact that the Grimms did encounter them as authentic folk stories that reflected basic archetypes of the human imagination, yet they had the sensibility to shape them into patterns that emphasized their affinities with other classics of world literature. Because so many of the tales were about children coming of age, the volumes offered insight into developmental psychology, a field that would not develop until nearly a century later.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Since its first appearance, this psychoanalytic study of fairy tales by an eminent psychologist has been indispensable to a study of the Grimms’ tales.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, John M. One Fairy Story Too Many. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. A thorough exploration of the premise that the Grimms perpetrated a fraud in presenting their own compositions as authentic folk material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGlathery, James M., ed. The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. This collection of scholarly articles is for the advanced researcher and tends to favor psychoanalytic and folkloric interpretations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. A scholarly presentation of the evidence for the Grimms’ falsification of the “collection” process for the tales.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Detailed notes on forty-six of the most analyzed tales, with generous background essays, a biography of the Grimms, and a thorough bibliography.

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