I get caught up in kids books like some people get caught up in Facebook posts. I get angry and flustered, I sympathize and obsess. It can be intense and I should probably see someone about this issue. Right now I am stuck on The Sisters’ Grimm. Two young, seemingly orphaned sisters are sent to live with a supposedly dead grandmother they have never met in a town in upstate New York populated by fairy tale characters. If that run-on sentence didn’t pique your interest in these books, I don’t know what would.
Written for elementary school readers, the books cover the basics: introducing new words, handling sibling squabbles, crushes and rivalries. But like the actual Grimm tales they also help readers navigate some of the darker themes we find in humanity; jealousy, feelings of not belonging, fear and even death.
These books got me wondering about the resurgence we have seen of fairytales in general and the Grimm legacy specifically1. I may or may not have spent an entire two days glued to the tv watching the first season of Grimm, tossing cereal and hot dogs at my starving family. I am patiently waiting (my family not so much) for the library to send me my hold on season two, but now I wanted to know about the actual men.
Some of the biographies and histories I found were a little dated but gave a good understanding of the history of the Grimms, but my favorite has to be Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. Our own cultural understanding of Jacob and Wilhelm, as Clever Maids author Valerie Paradiz points out, is displayed in movies like Ever After and The Brothers Grimm. Two adventurous men roaming the countryside in order to collect folk tales from peasants and commoners.
Turns out, not so much2. Most of the brothers’ tales were supplied to them by the friends of their sister and several other women in their own circle of the educated middle class. Many were stories the women had heard as girls, lessons on how to be a good woman and respectful wives, told to them by their elders and household maids and the nannies who raised them3. During a time of war and French occupation the intellectual and learned men of Prussia and the German states were looking to idealize the history of the volk as a way to create a sense of unity.4 Many of these stories were collected and transcribed by Jacob and Wilhelm as a tribute to the sensible, pious, hard-working German way of life, regardless of where the stories actually came from. Clever Maids gives us insight to the collection of what we know as Grimm’s Fairytales through their origins and history as well as insight on to the very human trait of needing a shared history. So pick up some books about kid detectives, histories on folktales or a supernatural TV series this week, you might be surprised by what you find!
1. At this point I have a whole scatterbrained (My husband’s term for most of my ideas, and yes this is a parenthetical in a footnote, so what?) theory about how the political atmosphere in the collection of German states at the time mirrors our own political atmosphere, a society looking for something to pull us together, yearning for simpler times hoping to influence the future and politics with that national pride…look I said scatterbrained, okay! Why are you reading a footnote in a blog anyway?
2. Believe me this killed the Margaret Mead wanna-be in me. As a student of Anthropology there is nothing I wanted more than to cling to the romantic idea that Jacob and Wilhelm traveled through the black forest, pen and ink bottle in hand, to collect stories from withered widows smoking pipes outside little thatch roofed cottages.
3. Read Clever Maids. Seriously, you suddenly realize how the fairytales you thought you knew had different meaning in a different time and place.
4. I know, right? I would have never guessed that Napoleon had anything to do with Little Red Riding Hood.