The Story Behind the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales

Once upon a time there were two brothers who lived in a small kingdom in the middle of a crazy patchwork of other small kingdoms, each with its own prince or archduke to rule it. Some of these kingdoms were so small the princes could fire at each other from their castle walls.

The two brothers – named Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm – were the eldest of a family of six, all boys except for the youngest who was a girl named Lotte.

Next door to the Grimm family lived a family of six girls and one boy named the Wilds. They lived side-by-side on the Marktgasse in the medieval quarter of a town named Cassel, famous for its palace set in vast gardens and forests.

Jakob and Wilhelm and their family were desperately poor. Their father had died, and the two elder brothers struggled to feed and clothe their siblings.

One day a mighty emperor called Napoleon decided he wished to rule the world. On his way to seize the thrones of the other great kings and emperors of the world, he took over the Grimm brothers’ small kingdom and mashed it together with many of its neighbours to create the Kingdom of Westphalia. He set his young brother Jérôme up as king. In his first week, Jérôme played leapfrog in his underwear with his courtiers through the empty halls of the palace, then spent a fortune ordering new furniture from Paris.

Life was very hard for the Grimms. Everything changed under French occupation – the laws of the land, the weights and measurements, even the language everyone must speak - and censors meant the newspapers only printed what Napoleon wanted people to know.

Partly as an act of defiance, and partly in the hope of making some money, the Grimms began to collect old stories from their neighbours and friends, with the aim of publishing a scholarly book.

The Wild girls who lived next door knew many stories, particularly Lotte’s best friend, the fifth daughter, who was named Dortchen. She told Wilhelm many tales, including ‘The Frog King’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Six Swans’ and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’.

Wilhelm and Dortchen fell in love, but the Grimms were so poverty-stricken they could only afford one meal a day. Wilhelm’s and Dortchen’s only chance to marry was if the fairy tale collection was a success.

Unfortunately, the book was a failure. It was criticised for being too scholarly, too unsophisticated, and filled with too much sex (some of the stories were indeed ripe with sexual innuendo).

It was a time of war and terror and tyranny. Napoleon marched on Russia. The fields of Europe were burned black, and many hundreds of thousands of people died.

Wilhelm struggled on (his elder brother Jakob was now busy with other scholarly undertakings). He collected more tales, from Dortchen as well as from other storytellers, and he rewrote the stories to make them more palatable to a middle-class audience. He added such terms as ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’, and made sure the princess did not take the frog into her bed anymore.

Slowly the war was won, and peace returned. Slowly the fairy tales began to sell. Slowly the Grimm brothers’ reputation grew. At last, thirteen years after they first fell in love, Wilhelm and Dortchen were able to marry. They lived together with Jakob happily until their deaths.



Dortchen’s Tales:

One young woman named Dortchen Wild told the Grimm brothers almost one-quarter of all the tales in their first collection of fairy stories, when she was just nineteen years old. Stories she told include:


‘Hansel and Gretel’

‘The Frog-King’

‘Six Swans’

‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’

‘The Singing Bone’

‘Sweet Porridge’

‘Mother Hulda’

‘Three Little Men in the Wood (a version of ‘Diamonds & Toads’)

‘Sweetheart Roland’ (about a girl whose betrothed forgets her)

‘Fitcher’s Bird’ (A Bluebeard variant where the heroine saves herself and her sisters)

‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ (a very beautiful version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’)

‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’ (an incest tale)


Dortchen also contributed many folk sayings and proverbs to the tales, and made up some of the rhymes, including the famous verses in ‘Hansel and Gretel’.


Seven Fascinating Facts about the Grimms & their Fairy Tales

  1. the last witch executed in Europe died only three years before Jakob Grimm was born
  2. Although the Brothers Grimm are famous for their collection of old tales, it was actually the younger brother, Wilhelm, who did most of the work, particularly after the first edition was published in 1812.
  3. The brothers transcribed all their stories with a quill dipped in ink. Paper was scarce during the Napoleonic Wars, and so they wrote on both sides of the paper and then turned it sideways to write crossways across the page.
  4. In 1810, they sent a copy of their manuscript to a poet friend, Clemens Brentano, who had promised to help them find a publisher. Brentano lost the manuscript, which was not found until the early 1920s. Wilhelm had to rewrite the whole collection by hand.
  5. Their youngest brother Ludwig was a talented artist who illustrated the first Children’s Edition of their tales, published in 1825. It was this book which became an international bestseller.
  6. The Grimm brothers published many other books apart from fairy tales, including writings on linguistics, folklore, and the beginning of the first detailed German dictionary. This was not finished until 120 years after their deaths.
  7. the Grimm brothers were rebels who were eventually fired from their jobs at the University of Gottingen for protesting the abolition of the constitution by the King of Hanover.



Just how grim are the Grimm tales?

* In the 1812 version of the Grimm’s tale ‘Little Snow-White’, it is the heroine’s own jealous mother that wants her dead. She tells the huntsman to bring back her daughter’s lungs and liver, for her to eat. Wilhelm Grimm later changed the mother to a step-mother.

* The jealous queen was punished by Little Snow-White and her prince by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes till she died.

* In the original (1812) version of ‘The Frog King’, the princess does not kiss the frog to change him into a prince. Instead, she throws him as hard as she can against a wall.

* In ‘Aschenputtel’, the Grimm’s version of ‘Cinderella’, one wicked stepsister cuts off her toes to try and make the slipper fit and the other cuts off her heel. In the end, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.

* In a later edition (1857) of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the dwarf tears himself in two when the queen guesses his true name. This detail was added in by Wilhelm, quite possibly because he thought it was funny

* in one Grimm tale, ‘The Maiden Without Hands,’ a girl’s hands are chopped off by her own father

* The villain of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ is a sorcerer that travels about the countryside, kidnapping girls and hacking them to pieces in a hidden room.

* In ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a girl disguises herself in a coat made from the fur flayed from a thousand animals

* in many cases, Wilhelm made the stories more violent – particularly the punishments for witches and evil step-mothers

* nonetheless, nearly all of the tales end happily, with the hero or heroine triumphing because of their courage, goodness, and wit

Ten Things you didn’t know about Napoleon

  1. When Napoleon was a schoolboy, one of his reports said he was ‘very poor in social accomplishments’.
  2. Napoleon had a great many brothers and sisters, who all did very well out of his triumphs.
  • Joseph, his elder, was made King of Naples and Sicily, and King of Spain
  • Lucien, the third brother, became Prince of Canino
  • Elisa, his first sister, became Grand Duchess of Tuscany •Louis, the fourth Bonaparte son, became King of Holland
    • Pauline, Napoleon’s favourite sister, was made Duchess of Guastalla.
    • Caroline was Grand Duchess of Berg and Cleves, then Queen of Naples and Sicily
  • Finally, the youngest, Jerome, was made King of Westphalia
  1. Napoleon’s wife’s real name was Rose (Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, to be exact), but he didn’t like it and so changed her name to Josephine
  2. Her first husband had been guillotined during the French Revolution
  3. Napoleon only liked women in white, and so Josephine could not wear any other colour for years
  4. He ended up divorcing her to marry Queen Marie-Antoinette’s niece
  5. Napoleon was defeated and exiled, but escaped his captivity and took over France again with only a small army of men
  6. Some people believe he was poisoned with arsenic
  7. His last words were Josephine’s name
  • Napoleon’s penis was bought in 1977 for $3,000 by an American surgeon
Kate Forsyth
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