A new Hollywood movie about fairy-tale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm underscores the renewed attention the German philologists are receiving, even as their revered tales have never been forgotten.
Once upon a time there lived two brothers...
Who hasn't heard of Little Red Riding Hood or Rumplestiltskin? Who hasn't seen countless versions of Snow White or Cinderella in cartoons, movies or even ballet?
Even though many of the tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are known and honored around the world, the two German brothers who lived almost two centuries ago remain more obscure. But now a new movie is aiming to change that. Sort of.
In "The Brothers Grimm," Terry Gilliam, best known as part of British comedy series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," has created a fantastical account of the two brothers as folk tale collectors and con artists, who travel from village to village pretending to slay evil creatures until they encounter a real curse in a haunted forest. The movie, featuring Matt Damon as Wilhelm Grimm, was released in August in the US and will be released in Germany in October.
Gilliam's film is only the brothers' most recent attention-getter: in June, their fairy tales were designated a World Heritage document by UNESCO. "Our stories are at home everywhere," the brothers once wrote of their collection.
An unlikely subject
Director and writer Gilliam describes himself as a "sucker" for fairy tales, something that has "informed" every piece of work he has done. That is partly why he chose the Grimm brothers as subjects of his current movie.
Cinderella is beloved around the world
"I grew up with Grimm's fairy tales," he said in remarks on the film's Web site. "I think all of my films are fairy tales in different ways. So the Grimms were an incredibly important part of that."
But while the movie features the Grimms, it isn't really about them at all, something for which it has been criticized. Instead, Gilliam says, he wanted to make a fairy tale with the fairy-tale creators in it.
"What I never wanted to do was to actually do their fairy tales because everybody does that," he said. "So what this allowed me to do is incorporate some of them and mix and match them, and basically gave me a chance to make a fairy tale about the Brothers Grimm. It's not the Brothers Grimm, they're not the real people, they're not historical people."
Indeed not, said Jack Sipes, professor of German literature at the University of Minnesota, who saw the movie and was not impressed.
But then, the translator of a Grimm collection and author of a biography about the pair adds that most of the students taking his classes on the Grimm's tales have no idea of the true lives of the extraordinary scholars.
"The Grimms would be surprised and stunned to know that today they are mostly recognized for their fairy tales," he said.
More than fairy-tale writers
On the fairy-tale road in Kassel
Born in the 1780s in Hanau, Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm first worked as librarians and professors before they began acting on a long held interest in the oral traditions and folk culture of Germany. Accordingly, the pair collected tales, soliciting them from relatives, neighbors, other principalities and countries and rewriting them into a collection called "Children's and Household Tales," which was published in 1812. At first, it was a flop. But after revising the book, taking out academic footnotes and including illustrations, it went on to become one of the best known works in the world.
What is more obscure is the brothers' role in German philology and politics. During their lives, Germany was made up of numerous principalities ruled by autocrats. Inspired by the American Revolution, Germans in some places started agitating for democracy, a parliament and a constitution. In the principality of Hanover, where the Grimms lived, in Göttingen, they were successful. But when Ernst August von Hanover came to power in 1837, he repealed the new constitution, dissolved parliament and forced professors and activists to swear an oath of allegiance. The Grimms refused and were thrown out of Göttingen. They moved to Berlin and continued to be active in politics, for a time.
During this transition, the brothers began to compile a German dictionary, but they only managed to publish A to F during their lifetimes. The dictionary, completed by others more than a century later, in 1960, is the definitive German lexicon with 32 volumes.
"Through bringing together the common language and literary tradition, they were critical to the pan-German consciousness that developed," said Bernhard Lauer, director of the Brothers Grimm Museum in Kassel. "They were critical to the creation of the German identity."
Cinderella lives on
"Hänsel und Gretel" in a different interpretation
The brothers continued writing and editing the tales throughout their lives. In the centuries since, the stories have been cleansed of sexism and racism, come under fire for their violence and even appropriated by the Nazis to further their ideas of Aryan superiority.
Regardless, the Grimms' tales have remained popular. They have been translated into more than 150 languages and taught in universities across the world. They continue to lure visitors to Sleeping Beauty's castle in Sababurg and other towns along the "fairy-tale road" in Germany and have influenced generations of writers and inspired millions of children.
"They set the standard for how fairy tales would be written from then on," said Sipes, who is writing a book called "Why Fairytales Stick," due out next year. "But most of all, they are so loved because they reflect the basics of human life: death, love, murder, greed and most of all, the longing for happiness."