Grim Revolution

Tutorial Essay Trinity (Summer) 2012

The Romance of the People: The Folk Revival from 1760 to 1914

How Revolutionary Were the Grimms?

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, famous for their Children and Household Tales but also for several other influential scholarly works, were important collectors of folklore and significant linguists and cultural researches throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and their impact on popular culture has lasted to this day. They were pioneers in the field of collecting oral narratives, a process which can be viewed as revolutionary. They also participated in creating a sense of German nationalism, although to what extent they were a symptom or a cause of this is debatable. It is difficult to argue that they individually were the reason why nationalism in Germany began, as they were clearly part of a wider movement, but within this movement they were major players. Their scholarly contribution to the study of language has often been termed ‘revolutionary,’ although this is a looser use of the term with little political ramifications. If one takes the word ‘revolutionary’ to mean the initiation of a new way of thinking, then they could be seen as revolutionaries. However in a stricter sense of the word, the conservative elements of their collected tales, and the fact that their readership was fairly elitist, especially for scholarly works such as the Deutsche Grammatik, problematises this.

It could be argued that through collecting tales from rural peasants, the Grimms gave the subdued a voice. Bottigheimer has  argued in the past that, ‘the Grimms essentially redefined folk culture as emanating from the people rather than filtering outward from their own bourgeois and educated acquaintances.’ This line of argument implies that the Grimms were vital in guiding this process, rather than them merely being symptoms of a wider trend. One of their main contributors, Frau Viehmann from a village called Niederzwehrn near Kassel, was portrayed by the Grimms as an archetypal peasant, or ‘Märchenfrau,’ although as a tailor’s wife she could arguably be placed as part of the urban middle class. Even so, whether or not the stories came directly from the ‘people’, by claiming to come from them they changed perceptions. Dégh has argued that the popularity of the stories helped to elevate the status of peasants, as what had been previously viewed as part of an irrational, superstitious, uneducated, and old-fashioned custom was portrayed to the literate urban middle classes as creative and of value. In addition, she argues that the Grimms’ methodology launched a trend throughout Europe in collecting oral histories, giving people who did not have or had not had a voice outside of their own social group a chance to communicate. Therefore a case can be made that the Grimms were revolutionary in providing channels for the comparatively uneducated and un-empowered groups of society to be heard.

However, this becomes complicated for two main reasons. Firstly, questions about authenticity must be addressed. The Grimms did not merely publish transcripts of interviews with peasants, they had a creative role in the presentation and collation of the texts, embellishing details and standardising the texts somewhat to present a cohesive narrative style. In the preface to the second edition of their Household Tales, they freely tell their readers that they have in some cases stitched variants of stories together, giving ‘preference to the best one.’ The use of the word ‘best’ here demonstrates that the brothers had to make arbitrary decisions, which were informed not purely by historical accuracy but also by literary taste. This limits the reading of their work as revolutionary, because instead of being able to give the subdued a direct voice, the tales were filtered through the Grimms’ own beliefs and choices. Since the Grimms did not belong to the group of people that they were aiming to represent, some divergence of message must exist. Another issue to do with authenticity is the fact that due to practical necessity, the Grimms were unable to keep dialects and had to standardise the language used. The voice of the text is therefore a new creation, and is not the direct voice of the people.

The second complication is that the contents of the tales themselves, although in some cases displaying examples of social tension and resistance to oppression, often portray conservative values. A high proportion reinforce traditional gender roles, and although some of the tales show independent females, stories such as Snow White and Ashputtel show women fulfilling the role of drudges, who are only rescued from their lives by marrying a prince. In a less well known story, Clever Else, the titular character is ridiculed and presented as stupid. As Bottigheimer argues, the collection demonstrates ‘radically different moral expectations for girls and for boys.’ For example, in Hansel and Gretel, although Gretel kills the witch in the end, it is only when her brother is in captivity, and he is the one who looks after her to start with and comes up with the plans to find their way home. On the other hand, in some stories women do display initiative, particularly The Peasant’s Clever Daughter, in which the protagonist is strikingly autonomous and inventive. This range has to come down to the varied source base, some tellers would have told more radical tales than others. However, the fact that the Grimms included these tales suggests that they were neither anti nor pro revolutionary.  Their main aim was to find and preserve a ‘German’ cultural history, and the fact that the stories have come from different places means that naturally, they are not fully homogenous despite any editing on the Grimms’ part. The brothers do not seem to have discounted tales based upon their conservative or revolutionary message, and placed more importance on creating a sense of tradition and link between past and present.

In order to assess whether this is a fair judgement or not, it is useful to look at the Grimms’ intentions in collecting and publishing the Household Tales. In the preface to volume one of the first edition in 1812 the brothers claimed that they were trying to preserve a ‘seed for the future.’ They claimed that ‘no details have been added or embellished or changed,’ suggesting that they wanted to present their collection as a historical record more than as a form of entertainment or instruction. Two years later, in the preface to the first edition of volume two, their motives, or at least their portrayal of their intentions, had shifted. They wrote that their aim was ‘not just to serve the cause of the history of poetry’ but to provide a means of pleasure and a ‘manual of manners’ for children, showing how the work changed from being marketed as primarily scholarly to a form of entertainment. They did not censor any of the more gruesome details, claiming that elements of horror or evil would not impair children, but they did advise parents to be selective when choosing which tales to share with their children. By 1819 and the second edition, they claimed that they wanted to provide both history and pleasure, but in no place did they exhibit any overtly revolutionary characteristics. Their main focus was on creating a shared past for the all Germanic peoples, not just the subdued, and their audience was the educated urban middle classes, which greatly diminishes any sense that the Grimms were revolutionary.

We must therefore discount the idea that the Grimms were revolutionary in a radical sense, but they still had considerable impact both in the scholarly world and in popular culture. Many historians have argued that the Grimms’ greatest influence was in creating a shared German culture which enabled nationalism to exist. This could perhaps be seen as ‘revolutionary’ in that they helped to fundamentally change and shape perceptions of nationhood. At the time, there was no ‘Germany’ as such, and by creating and making popular a shared culture, the Grimms had a major role in forging a sense of unity and belonging amongst Germanic speaking peoples. In his introduction to the Deutsche Mythologie Jacob Grimm wrote, ‘I was wishful to exhalt my native land,’ showing that these ideas were consciously present. By trying to create a history of German poetry which used the local community as a source base, they gave German speakers a shared sense of the past and a shared sense of pride. Snyder claims that the Grimms were Romantics who ‘saw their organic-genetic conception of culture as the expression of the German national soul.’ This is not to argue that the Grimms’ set in motion a train of events which would inevitably lead to Nazism, as even though some of their collected tales can be read as promoting ideas of racial purity and anti-Semitism, in the context of post-Napoleonic fractured Germanic states, their works are more about searching for a common unity. Some would argue that by praising one nation, inevitably it must be presented as supreme, but at this point in time every nation was looking at past glories to fuel patriotism, so it would be difficult to argue that nationalism inevitably leads to persecution. Nevertheless, the Household Tales do share a common theme in presenting outsiders (for example changelings and especially stepmothers) as threats. To what extent the Grimms shaped this is debatable, but as they did not completely fabricate the stories, it cannot be argued that they formulated German nationalism entirely alone. Their major role was, however, in collating these ideas into one place and mass producing them. Their long term influence was based upon commercial success, and it is this wide reaching success that allowed them to contribute to the conception of nationalism. Their scholastic contribution should not be underestimated, but neither should it be over exaggerated and termed ‘revolutionary.’

Despite this, it is the impact of the Grimms upon the intellectual world that is often termed revolutionary. Sperber has spoken of their ‘groundbreaking philological work.’ Shippey argues that the publishing of Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Grammatik in 1819 was a critical event in creating a paradigm shift in the ways language was viewed, theorised, and approached by scholars. He speaks of a ‘“Grimmian” revolution in linguistics,’ attributing these developments solely to the Jacob Grimm. The formulation of Grimm’s Law certainly had a decisive impact on scholarly thinking, and affected the development of studies in linguistics, lexicography, and philology, yet arguably his approach to grammar and language was influenced by other scholars such as Rask. As Antonsen argues, ‘historians of linguistics frequently make the mistake of turning him into too much of a revolutionary.’ Although the Grammatik was certainly influential and achieved quick success, it was not intentionally revolutionary. It did use dialect, which could suggest that it was giving the marginalised a voice, but the reasoning behind this was purely scholarly, and did not have much political impact.

The Grimms therefore need to be studied as part of a wider intellectual trend, for example Franz Bopp’s Conjugationssystem and Raynoard’s Grammaire Romane were being published around the same time as the Grammatik. In addition, as Sperber has made clear, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a ‘new and invigorating self consciousness about art’s importance’ which stimulated interest in culture and oral tradition. The Grimms’ work should therefore be seen as part of a wider movement. Although they were certainly pioneers at the forefront of this movement, they could not have had such an impact, and probably would not have done what they did, without the specific historical context, especially the end of the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent need to create unity. Sperber has argued that there was a ‘new convergence of philosophical ideas that put scholarship and self-cultivation in the centre of a vision for Germany’s renewal in an age of upheaval and change.’ This demonstrates that the trend of which the Grimm brothers were part of was one which used culture to allow for nationalism to gain widespread understanding and support. However, it also relied upon a revolution in reading to provide an audience. In some ways then, it can be proven that the Grimms participated in a movement which changed conceptions of nation and state. However, the extent to which this movement can be called ‘revolutionary’ is problematised by its conservative nature.

To conclude, in every aspect of the Grimms’ work I have shown that yes, they were important pioneers in pushing forward the use of oral narrative and in creating a basis for nationalism, but in each case any potentially ‘revolutionary’ characteristics were tempered by conservative ones. As Shippey argues, in his Deutsche Mythologie Jacob Grimm was in search of, ‘a mythology which would not challenge the social structures of his own day.’ Sperber has claimed that from 1795 to 1859,  the period within which the Grimms were most active, culture suffered a ‘catastrophic constriction,’ by being relegated from a representation of ‘human wholeness’ to merely symbolising ‘Germanness.’  It is this novel use of culture as a way of creating unity and belonging to a nation that I see as the most important consequence of the Grimms’ works. However, it must be remembered that the success of the Grimms was due to their appeal in society, and their influence is due to their fame. They became culturally the ‘collection of choice,’ and this indicates that their works must have resonated with the aspirations of their readers, namely the educated urban middle classes. Therefore, although they did dabble in what could be called revolutionary activity, (through their methodology in collecting tales from peasants,) this was neither their main purpose nor their main achievement. Overall, they were much more conservative than revolutionary.


E.H. Antonsen (ed.), The Grimm Brothers and the Germanic Past, (Amsterdam, 1990)

Ruth Bottigheimer, Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys : The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales, (London, 1987)

Linda Dégh, ‘Grimms’ Household Tales and its Place in the Household : The Social Relevance of a Controversial Classic’ in Western Folklore 38.2

Konrad Koerner, ‘Jacob Grimm’s Position in the Development of Linguistics as a Science’ in  E.H. Antonsen (ed.), The Grimm Brothers and the Germanic Past, (Amsterdam, 1990)

Tom Shippey, The Shadow Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous, (Arizona, 2005)

Louis Snyder, ‘Nationalistic Aspects of the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales,’ in Journal of Social Psychology 33.2 (1951)

Jonathan Sperber, Germany 1800-1870, (Oxford, 2004)

J.S Stallybrass (tr.), Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, (London, 1883)

Maria Tatar, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, (Guildford, 1987)


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