You probably suspect by now that there's more to fairy tales than the saccharine, smug Disney films. And guess what? You're totally right.
Sure, in Grimms' Fairy Tales, you'll find magic and enchantment, but disobedient children are also burned to death. Yikes. Sure, there are fairies and witches, but there are also fathers who sell their proud daughters in marriage to the highest bidder. Yowza. And of course there are tons of talking animals...along with violence, dismemberment, and cannibalism. Yes, cannibalism.
Not quite what you were expecting from a collection originally called Children's and Household Tales huh? But that's just what you're going to get here, so buckle up Shmoopers.
There are tales in here you've never even heard of, since only a handful of classical fairy tales gained momentum and became super-popular with the Disneyfication of the genre. A lot of the tales got cleaned up for a mainstream, commercial audience, but some are just too gory to be salvaged.
You guys, these tales are dark. Did we mention cannibalism? Plus, we're talking child abandonment ("Hansel and Gretel") and domestic abuse ("Lean Lisa"), among other horrors. But that's exactly why they're still relevant today: fairy tales use the language of the marvelous to mirror the hopes and fears of our own world, and to show us how a lucky few manage to come out on the other side of the terror-infested forest that is life.
So how did these stories come about? Let's start with the basics. The brothers Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob, were intellectual overachievers of their day (the early-to-mid 1800s). They studied medieval law, linguistics—they even have a phonetics law named after them—and, yep, fairy tales.
Why did such academic dudes go for what some might write off as a bunch of kiddo nonsense? Well, Germany at the time was in bad shape. In fact, there wasn't actually a Germany to speak of, just a bunch of little duchies and baronies and principalities and whatnot. Napoleon was all up in their business, too, making everyone's life tough. The Grimms, along with some of their colleagues, believed that Germany should be a nation, and so they set out to prove it by demonstrating that Germans had shared folklore.
If you're gonna get technical, the term folklore is broader than fairy tales, encompassing all creative genres and oral traditions of a given culture, but the Grimms settled on fairy tales for a few reasons. First, some of their buddies encouraged them to, since there was a folktale- and folksong-collecting vogue at the time. Plus, they thought it'd make a valuable intellectual contribution to the world. And finally, they were in it for the dough, seeing as how they had a bunch of siblings to support. Unfortunately, the first edition of their fairy tales, published in 1812, was full of scholarly annotations and things that are of great interest to nerds, but not so much to the general population. It was hardly a bestseller.
Eventually, though, the growing market for children's literature combined with some canny editing skills helped make the tales more and more popular. Once the Grimms cut some of the scholar-talk and cleaned up the tales (a bit) for the kids, the collections started selling like hotcakes.
Once either Jacob or Wilhelm had written down each story, it was revised, and revised, and revised again. For all their talk of the purity of the folk spirit, the Grimms didn't exactly practice what they preached. Though mostly drawn from oral tradition, the tales have changed so much through editing that we can't really call them authentic. But the fact that they continue to speak to scholars and readers alike attests to their enchantment and significance.
Fairy tales are just for kids, right? Er. Kind of.
When the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, were collecting and publishing their tales in the early 1800s, they were blazing new ground in children's literature, sure. But fairy tales have never been just for kids. Smarty-pants nobles in the French court of Louis XIV penned fairy tales as a form of entertainment and social critique. Poets and opera-writers borrowed the plots of fairy tales for their works. And if you have ever watched a sport or game where a "Cinderella" team or an underdog (come on, we've all seen Rudy) unexpectedly comes out on top, then you, dear Shmooper, have encountered the pervasive influence of fairy tales.
Obviously the Grimms' tales aren't the only fairy tales out there, but they are sure as shoeshine the most influential in our culture. There's an excellent chance that if you're reading or watching a version of a fairy tale, or even something that's not a fairy tale but features a downtrodden protagonist or a wicked witch, you're treading in the Grimms' territory. You could spend years trying to track down every cultural reference to the Grimms and still not find them all.
Let's face it, reading these fairy tales will make you primed and ready to understand not only modern-day princess-mania, but also the underpinnings of young adult literature, fantasy and science fiction, cinema (not just cartoons), and gender roles. And then you'll live awesomely ever after.