My, what clever stories the Grimms told – all the better to scare kids with
Since she was two, my eldest daughter has thrilled to hear bedtime tales of carefully calibrated terror, like Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt. I can't remember which came first: my delight in scaring her or her delight in being scared. Whichever, the thrill is deep-seated – and it was most successfully captured, and cultivated, by two young German scholars, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 200 years ago.
One of the most popular Grimm stories is Little Red Riding Hood. A play inspired by it, Zoe's Play, by John McArdle, runs at the Ark in Temple Bar, Dublin, till March 31 (see www.ark.ie).
McArdle imagines what might have been going on in the little girl's life that led to her fateful journey through the forest to visit her granny. Like the original, it is a parable, which asks moral questions of its audience. But where the original tale promotes virtues of obedience and the fear of the unknown, McArdle promotes questioning and independent thought. (It is recommended for children of eight and over, and should enchant adults also.)
But what of the original that inspired it, and its writers, the Brothers Grimm? Jacob, born in 1785, was the eldest of nine Grimm children; Wilhelm was just one year younger. Their father was a lawyer and the family well off, but when Jacob was 11 their father died and they were cast into penury.
The brothers were as close as twins. When Jacob went away on work, aged 20, Wilhelm wrote to him: "When you left, I thought my heart would tear in two . . . you certainly don't know how much I love you." (Such effusiveness seems unusual today, but author Jack Zipes, an authority on the Grimms whose work I have relied on here, writes that this was typical of the "romantic", platonic bonds popular at the time.)
Jacob never married. When Wilhelm did, his wife moved in with the two brothers, and looked after them both.
Snobbishness and poverty threatened their education, but they overcame them through intelligence, hard work and frugal living (attributes they came to see as classical Germanic virtues).
They initially studied law but moved on to literature and then to folk culture. In their 20s, they were commissioned by a leading poet, Clemens Brentano, to collect folk tales for him. Before they sent him their handwritten collection of tales, they decided to make a copy; had they not, we might have heard no more of them, for Brentano lost the original manuscript.
Most people picture the Grimms traipsing around the German countryside recording ancient tales from the mouths of peasants – tales that were somehow intrinsically German.
But they were more conventional, desk-bound scholars: they collected many of their tales from young women, middle-class or aristocratic, some of French origin, in their social circle in the small town of Kassel.
And they sanitised those tales, adding Christian overtones and stripping out some of the more violent and erotic elements.
Little Red Riding Hood (or 'Little Red Cap', as the Grimms called it) was one such French tale: it had been published by the French author and folk-tale collector, Charles Perrault, in the late 1600s. In earlier versions, the girl is told to take off her clothes by the wolf, and gets into bed with him.
The first edition of the Grimm's Children's and Household Tales was published in December 1812. Despite a degree of sanitisation, it wasn't an obvious children's book: one of the stories was a gruesome tale called How Some Children Played at Slaughtering. But the Grimms soon realised they had tapped a demand amongst the emerging German middle-class for children's stories, and in 1825 they brought out a slimmed-down version for the popular market.
Wilhelm died in 1859; Jacob survived till 1863. Their last great project was a dictionary of German which only got as far as the letter 'F'. But it was their accidental success in retelling fairytales that ensured their names survived, and gave the world a global culture of fairytales that still thrills our children today.