The sense of nationalism behind Brothers Grimm’s tales

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            If one has to search for the meaning of romanticism in the context of literature, he could probably be directed to definitions which give the general idea of an expression of beliefs and the nature of man-both positive and negative nature of man. The essence of Romanticism in literature is the tone and mode of expression of one’s view of the world and man. The concept of Romanticism can be seen during the middle ages in the Germanic life. The German romantic writers during the time of the French occupation expressed negative view of their life and their country after being dominated and rules by the strangers. In their writings, 5romantic writers expressed their frustrations on modern Germany and saw it as politically bankrupt and that Napoleon was the biggest threat they are to face.

            Literary romanticism in the Germany was expressed in almost all fields of art-from music, religion, political science; history and philosophy, the negative view of the German world were so much influenced by the political situation of the country during the 17th century. Among the well-known romantic writers was Hoffman who was a musician and a composer for the Church as his expression of romantic feelings. Clemens Brentano on the other hand was a collector of folksongs unto which he expressed his romantic side. The aim of the spread of romanticism in Germany in that century was to awaken the nationalistic spirit of the German people in order to overturn its most formidable foe at that time-the French.

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            Among the most popular figures behind German romanticism during the 17th and 18th century were the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who found themselves interested in preserving the culture and tradition of their beloved Germany through the collection of the folktales native from the country. “These activities set the tone for one aspect of Romanticism: the belief that products of the uncultivated popular imagination could equal or even surpass those of the educated court poets and composers who had previously monopolized the attentions of scholars and connoisseurs” (Brians, Paul 1998). The Grimms were particularly concerned and fearful of eventually losing the Germanic culture and tradition in literature because of the increasing influence of the French colonization. Although they were not at first planning to collect folktales for publishing and for entertaining the people, the Grimms have undoubtedly contributed to such effort of uniting the German people towards defeating the enemy.

            Who never knew of Cinderella, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood? Most kids, teens and adults living today probably are familiar with these tales and would most probably pass these classic stories to their children and grandchildren. The elements of magic, the combination human and animal characters and their extraordinary abilities may have played a great role in making most of them infamous. These stories have been transferred from one generation to another throughout the century and all over the world through oral and written traditions and now are being retold through animated movies. The world has evolved and has considerably changed but the classic tales and the moral stories they contain are undoubtedly incorporated in our culture. It could have been probably because in tales, “everything is possible and dreams do come true” (Abler, Alice 2005).

Fairy tales, like those of the Grimms, are not universal nor are they timeless stories that reflect the culture of a specific time and place where they were told and have been recorded (Zipes, Jack, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion 1991, p.18). Tales, according to research, were not originally intended to teach moral lessons to children nor were they intended to entertain a mass audience. Zipes rather traced them to be stories that were told in exclusive salons “as a sort of soiree to showplace the women’s linguistic talents” (Zipes, Jack, Origins of Fairy Tales, 1992, p.26). It was not until the 1800s that fairy tales were written for younger audience and thus were adapted in simplicity to the extent that they were already regarded as too simple for the educated and sophisticated adults (Shavit, Zohar 1998, p.323). Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were undoubtedly successful and revolutionizing the folktales of Germany from the adult audience to the younger ones.

Of the great names behind the classic tales, the Grimm Brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, were probably two of the most famous and consequently have been criticized for the true reasons behind collecting and rewriting or revising the folktales of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and much more. The Grimms were responsible for the said collection of folktales from the peasants in Germany and have them put into writing, published and made famous all over the world.

Grimm’s tales were not however famous only for their universal appeal to children and their parents who read these tales as bedtime stories. Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty and other tales collected and edited by Jacob and Wilhelm were controversial for the real, hidden yet implied reasons for shaping the stories as they were presented. It is important to note that the tales were being questioned by critics as to the tales’ intention of German cultural preservation and nationalism and romanticism.

In order to trace the nationalistic sense in the Grimm’s tales, it is important to look into the social setting of Germany during the time when the Grimms were collecting or shall we say editing the tales for the purpose of publication. In addition, we shall be looking into the family and education background of the brothers in order to find evidence or at least a hint on the taste of romanticism and nationalism in the tales. Jacob and Wilhelm were natives of Hanau in Hessen, Germany. They lost their father when Jacob was only fifteen and so they grew up and lived in a hard economic situation with their mother the only one who earned and took care of the six children (Michaelis-Jena, Ruth 1990). It is this childhood experience which psychologists and other critics saw as the reason behind the common theme of Grimm’s tales of having evil stepmothers (Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel) and good fathers (The Frog King), and children of a big family overcoming hard situations (The Twelve Brothers) in most of their collected tales (Alister, Ian and Christopher Hauke 1998, p.216).

The collection of the tales were not originally intended for publishing as tales for children but were accidentally part of the brothers’ linguistic research and philological studies (McGlathery, James M. 1998). 2“The Grimms intended their work as a cultural archive of German philology and mythology, and hoped sincerely that the work would serve as a resource for the study of German literature and history.” As one article have noted: “The Grimms were accidental entertainers” 3(The National Geographic). The tales were originally written for middle class adult audience but later broadened to accommodate children of the upper class who are able to read and thus the purpose of the tales for teaching moral lessons during their time were for people at the middle class (Mraz, Barbara).

As part of their studies, the Grimms intended the collection of the tales for the purpose of discovering the etymological and linguistic truths of the German laws and customs as exhibited uniquely its people. This intention was even intensified when the country lost in the war over France in 1808. 2“The humiliation of the French occupation gave the Grimms further impetus to collect stories of the German nation.” Further, critics dug up the intention of the Grimms to have these tales serve as wake up call and unifying material for the German nation to strengthen their feelings of national autonomy.

Being both scholars sponsored by German princes, as Jacob serving as a librarian in Kassel and Gottingen, the brothers were famous for their contributions in German language before they were made famous by the collection of the tales. Being inspired by the colonial situation of their country, the Grimms were evidently influenced by their feelings of national pride even in the midst of the strong influence of France in their culture. They knew that the German peasants were then living most of their lives in fear and anxiety for their families since famine struck the land. Consider for example the setting of Hansel and Gretel wherein the children were left by their stepmother in the woods for the reason that the family was losing resources to feed these children. The situation fits the current economic hardships of that time where children were abandoned by their mothers in exchange for a better life.

In some situations, the German peasant children have to sacrifice living with their stepmothers after their father were forced to get another wife after the death of their mother. 4“Stepparents and early death had been facts of life for much of the population, and the folktales reflected that reality.” Here then lies the nationalistic aim of the Grimms: the realities of economic hardships and harsh social situations were the painful after-effects of French colonization. With this, the Grimms may want to convey encouragement and inspiration for the people to move on and fear no more for there is hope that is coming to save every German individual. These types of settings in the tales convey meaningful messages of nationalism for the German readers to probably work hard to protect the country against invaders.

Accounts of the Grimms said that the stories were collected by the brothers from peasants of Germany by inviting the storytellers into their homes to hear and record the stories being told. 1In other accounts, the source of the stories were said to be from their friends and acquaintances. This might have been the reason why the peasants, being the source of the folktales, were questionable on the part of other critics. According to Zipes , recent studies revealed that the real source of the tales were not the illiterate peasants who transfers the stories through oral tradition, rather accumulated evidences proved that the tales were from the educated members of the bourgeoisie (Zipes, Jack The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World 1988, p.54).

The sources were traced from the reported peasant woman named Frau Katherina Viehmännin who was found to be a widow of a tailor who visits the Grimms when she came to the place to sell fruits. Another major source of the tales was the French woman, like Viehmännin, who was said to be a storyteller and well educated Huguenot woman named Jeanette Hassenpflug (Mraz, Barbara). Zipes also traced some other wealthy storytellers as sources of the tales that Grimms collected. The well-off family of women in Kassel (Wild Family) meets regularly with the Grimms to retell the stories they have heard from their nursemaids, servants and governess. Other sources were also traced by Zipes from the Grimms’ royal friends from Westphalia named Werner von Haxthausen whom they met in 1808 and other friends in 1811. These tales were taken down by the brothers and have them combined together with other stories from books and journals. The motifs and themes including the tradition, norms and culture embedded in the tales, usually of French origin were edited and added a twist of the brothers’ German taste.

The nationalistic aim of the Grimms in publishing their collected tales is evident in their own words. Poetically, they considered their collected tales as “fragments of a shattered whole, comparing the oral stories to small shafts of grass that had been protected by hedges and bushes after storms had flattened fields of crops” (Fritzche, Peter). The condition the brothers were describing appears to the exact situation of their beloved Germany in the hands of the French colonists. For the Grimms, the colonization has been humiliating for the Germans that they have nearly lost their culture and tradition when they were torn into pieces and were shattered. As patriotic Germans, the Grimms encouraged the people to “quietly pick up the leaves and carefully bend back the twigs, so as not to disturb the Volk and to furtively glimpse this small, rare part of nature, smelling like fallen leaves, meadow grass, and fresh rain” (P. Fritzche). For the Grimms, the fairy tales need to be collected before they totally wither away as industrialization projects continue to cover the unique and ordinary life of German people.

            After finishing their studies at Cassel Lyceum, the Grimms started collecting the tales that they planned to contain in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (German Popular Stories) which they published in 1812 as first volume (Zipes, Jack , Once There were Two Brothers Named Grimm, 1992). Kinder- und Hausmärchen contained eighty six German fairy tales although this claim of “German origin” are clearly questionable due to the mentioned major sources which were French storytellers (Kamenstsky, Christa 1992). The tales included in this first volume belong to the category of 2“coming-of-age stories” as one critic described them. This is because most of the tales contained therein were stories of children who are to leave their parents when they grow up and prove something worthy of protecting their loved ones. There are also observations that the major themes of the tales include proper behavior of men and women, sense of responsibility, respect and obedience.

One theme however is held closer to the spirit of nationalism on the part of the German people. The obedience and loyalty to the king including the concept of reverence and honor were evident in the collection. This is especially emphasized in the tales that suggest the importance of serving in the military. By serving in the military and of showing loyalty to the king, the Grimms are communicating to the German people how they could possibly protect their community from the power of strangers.

It was also obvious in the collection of tales the presence of strangers and outsiders who were often represented as evil and individuals who are to be feared. 2“The strangers are representatives of forces that are deemed dangerous to the nationalistic spirit.” The political situation of Germany during the time of the Grimms can also be a sound basis for one critic to find a hint of nationalistic spirit behind the tales. Consider one critic who noted in one article: “Using stories for political ends were not limited to the French… changing tales did reflect each society’s prevailing interpretations of religious themes” (Abler, Alice).

One critic argued that the Grimms claim of being just collectors of fairy tales they published was contrary to the themes that were evident in the tales. According to Ellis, the changes made by the Grimms in the original versions of the folktales were part of their efforts to promote German nationalism (Ellis, John M., p.6). This observation was confirmed by one contemporary critic by stating that 2“the tales have become part of the German national tradition, displaying a genuine German spirit and marking a critical stage in the development of German romantic-nationalism” (Snyder, Louis).

“The Grimms were German idealists who believed that historical knowledge of customs, mores, and laws would increase self-understanding and social enlightenment”, said Zipes in his introduction to the Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. For the Grimms, the tales were not just meant to entertain the audience and to educate the readers with moral lessons which have a taste Christianity, but also to give lessons of survival in the midst of the political instability of Germany at that time. They were to serve as part of the Romantic effort of digging up the remaining loyalty and patriotism among the Germans.

On the other hand, these positive observations did not impress other literary critics. The alterations of the original plot and terms of the collected tales were regarded as “insufficiently German” (Tatar, Maria p.31). Tatar cited in his book entitled, “The Hard Facts of Grimms’ Fairy Tales” that the changing of the Fairy to a wise woman, the transformation of the prince to the king’s son and the presence of the princess as king’s daughter are not innate to the German culture. These were seen by critics are alterations and additions in order for the Grimms to make the tales more appealing to their taste and the audience.  It is for this reason that they were accused of being dishonest over the claim of German nationalistic spirit. The Grimms have been criticized for basic dishonesty, for making false claims about their fidelity—for saying one thing and doing another whether and to what degree they were deceitful, or self-deluding, is perhaps an open question” (Ellis, John M. p. 37).

Let us look into the social setting of the tales in order for us to have an idea of how much of this aspect of the tales have contributed to the nationalistic aim of the Grimms. There is an obvious theme of class separation in the tales. The said theme is evident in the stories of Cinderella, Snow White and the Frog Prince which characters interact with people of the same social status. The tales showed that those at the top of the social ladder do not show compassion to those at the bottom which clearly suggest that the same situation exists in the culture and tradition of the tales’ origin. Who then are deemed Cinderella and Snow Whites in the real German setting? Although in most cases the poor ones who were being humiliated were rewarded in the end by good fortune through spells and magic, the stories conveys hope for the poor German people. Compassion was also integrated in the themes wherein people who show concern to other people were rewarded and those who did harsh things towards these people were being punished. I would say that although the theme is indicative of moral lessons to be extracted from the stories, they also serve to teach people the right attitude towards harsh situations. This then suggest that the same attitude and culture are innate in the German tradition.

The first volume of the tales however had to undergo some revisions or changes in some parts of the stories due to criticisms that the said version had accumulated from the readers and literary critics. The changes included some revisions of the characters, removed sexual overtones and lightened the cruelty and violence contained therein. The second edition of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen became 170 tales and was published in 1922. It is also important to note that the Grimms did not publish exclusively collected tales rather they have used tales which were already published by other writers like Perrault. The brothers however made changes to the settings of the original versions in order to cope with the German taste and culture. Let us take for example the versions of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

Cinderella was an original tale from China which was written as early as 9th century by someone named Tuan Ch’eng-shih whose heroine Yeh-shen was helped by the magical fish. The shoe in the story was a golden shoe which helped the prince who wants to marry Yeh-shen her (Heiner, Heidi Anne 2002). Perrault’s version, which is of French origin, however tells of a glass slipper and instead of magical fish, a fairy helped Cinderella (Yeh-shen). His version was evidently crueler than the earlier version for integrating the character of a stepmother along with Cinderella’s stepsisters in the heroine’s triumph. In this version, Cinderella had to endure the hard work and discrimination from the new family.  On the other hand, the Grimms have quite a different version as suggested by the different tone of the title which is “Aschenputtel” or “Ash Girl”.  Their version does not include a fairy godmother that should help her in her victory over the despisers.  Tatar observed that the German taste of the ending of the story was evident by changing the role of the fairy to the character of the doves. The doves were designed to peck the stepsisters’ eyes after eating from the magical tree planted by the heroine in the grave of her mother (Tatar, Maria 1999, p. 101).

            Perrault was the original author of Little Red Riding Hood which character was being punished by failing to stick to the correct path while she was on her way to the woods. The story taught young girls to dress properly and to stick to the moral standards set for women. Part of that moral standard was that girls were prohibited to talk to strangers which Perrault’s heroine failed to do. Grimms’ version entitled “Rotkappchen” (Red Cap) which tells of a heroine with different character. Here the girl was not afraid of the wolves and did not give in to the enticement of the wolves to pick flowers. Despite her wit, the danger they encountered in the hands of the wolves necessitates the presence of a strong man to save her and her grandmother.

Despite criticisms, the Grimms were in general widely accepted by writers, relative to the use of fairy tales in promoting nationalistic spirit. One writer positively noted that the fairy tales have in large taught the people of the dominance of man’s good side. “In the traditional stories-at least in the stories the Brothers Grimm brought us-revenge and cruelty for its own sake has no place. . . .In the world that is opened to us by the Brothers Grimm good-will predominates: the hero is characterized by courtesy as the heroine by gentleness” (Padriac, Colum The  Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Introduction).

Jack Zipes in his introduction to The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm have applauded the Grimms for their timeless contributions to the culture of German outlook in life and how did this spirit spread all over the world when more and more read of the tales. “Although there were debates about the value of the tales during the Grimm’ own lifetime, they would probably be surprised to see how vigorous and violent some of the debates are and how different the interpretations tend to be.” Zipes also stressed that even the critics of the Grimms were essentially convinced of the truth behind the tales even if magic and spells including wit were most of the means by which the heroes and heroines were able to gain their victory.
The Grimms were able to survive certain circumstances that may impede the publication and fame of the collection of the tales. “With the Romantic Age in the early nineteenth century emerged a fascination with the past, resulting in a flowering of revival styles” (Clark, Nichols H., p.159). Like other works of literature, the nationalism were made evident in the Grimms’ tales. We have seen and discovered that although the collection were not originally planned for publishing, the interest and the desire of the brothers to help the nation in preserving its culture led to a profitable act of taking chances. Although there were still questions of the originality of the texts and stories collected, the effects of the published tales were already proofs that the nationalistic aims were successful enough.


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