May 5, 2008

The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World by Jack Zipes

I’m not quite sure how to even begin to write about this book. It was one of those books I had a very long conversation with inside my head, and my temptation is to recount that whole imaginary dialogue here, but if I did, this post would be endless. So I’ll try to be brief.

This book is very accurately described as “part biography, part critical reassessment and part social history”. What Jack Zipes does, among other things, is to dispel many of the common myths about the Brothers Grimm (that they were travellers and collected their tales directly from peasants, that they were fierce nationalists with fascist tendencies, etc.) and to provide a social and historical context that illuminates the origins of their fairy tales while not locking their meaning. In the very first chapter, Zipes asks:
Just who were the Brothers Grimm and how did they discover those tales, which may now be the most popular in the world? Why and how did the Brothers change the tales? And what is the significance of the ‘magic’ of those tales today?
These are some of the questions that he attempts to answer through the rest of the book. The book has nine chapters, all of which deal with different themes. It was to be expected that some interested me more than others. (For example – and please don’t hate me for saying this – I was never very interested in psychological interpretations of the tales in the tradition of Bruno Bettelheim.) There was a change of focus as the book progressed – from the Brothers to the tales themselves. One approach I particularly liked was the inclusion of several tales, or of different versions of the same tale, to illustrate certain points. The example of Rapunzel, whose pregnancy was later edited out of the story, is a classic one.

I’ll now focus on some of the aspects of the book that interested me the most, but these are really only a small sample of what the book is about.

One question that particularly interested me was that of nationalism. Perhaps, like me, you have heard before that the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were among the beginnings of the expression of the kind of German nationalism whose tragic consequences were clearly seen in the twentieth century. Jack Zipes refutes this idea, and places the fairy tales in the same nineteenth century tradition of mythmaking that motivated Sir Walter Scott, among others.

Some of the sources for the fairy tales were women who belonged to families of French origins, and the Brothers Grimm were well-aware that they were working within a tradition that was European, and not exclusively German. However, they did change the tales to make them more Germanic, among other things.

Was their motivation a nationalistic one? Being from a country with a recent fascist past (my parents were raised in a dictatorship, and I was born less than ten years after its end), I am wary of that word, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Jack Zipes points out two important things: first, that Germany as a nation, the way we know it today, did not exist at the time. Secondly, that what the Brothers wanted to do was save German culture from French colonialism. I think I’d better post an excerpt, since Zipes explains it much better than I have:
The Grimms were indeed nationalistic but not in the negative sense in which we tend to use the term today. When they began their folklore research as young men in their twenties, Germany, as we know it, did not exist. Their ‘country’, essentially Hesse and the Rhineland, was invaded by the French, and they were disturbed by French colonialist aspirations. Thus, their desire to publish a word which expressed a German cultural spirit was part of an effort to contribute to a united German front against the French.
Another topic that interests me is the sometimes blurry line between literary fairy tales and folk tales. We all know that the Brothers Grimm rewrote their tales. Jack Zipes argues, however, that when the tales reached the Brothers they were no longer “genuine” folk tales – the change had begun long before. What I wondered while reading this book was whether we, as readers, ever have access to “genuine” folk tales. When stories are collected there is always some degree of rewriting that takes place. This rewriting, however, does not completely erase the "original" story, but rather adds another layer to it:
In approaching the Grimms’ tales from a historical and ideological perspective, we must constantly bear in mind that we are dealing with multiple representations and voices within the narrative structure of each tale. First, depending on the tale, there is the viewpoint of the informant, from than likely often an educated female, who had memorized a tale probably told by a peasant or read in a book. Next, there is the viewpoint of Jacob or Wilhelm, who revised the oral or literary tale that was collected. Nor to be forgotten, there is the viewpoint of the submerged creator of the tale – probably a peasant, artisan, soldier, or journeyman – who sought to represent his or her experience through a symbolical narrative at a given time in history. And, finally, there are the viewpoints of intervening tale tellers, who pass on the narrative from author to listener and future tellers.
I have notes here about other things, but this is starting to resemble an essay rather than a post, so I think I’ll stop here. One final thing: I know I made the book sound very scholarly, and it is, but it’s also very readable. It’s rigorous, but not dry. And you don’t need to be quite as obsessed with these things as I am to find it enjoyable.


  1. I've been fascinated by the Brothers Grimm for forever. . .I've read several histories,biographies, critiques, etc. but this sounds like a fresh approach (the sociological aspect) - and you did NOT make it sound dry. . .I've read "Why Fairy Tales Stick" by Zipes, I think you'd probably enjoy it, as well.

  2. Sounds interesting thanks. I like what I have read by Zipes in the past and this sounds like a great look at the Grimm brothers. My friend is trying to get me to buy a particular copy of their collected tales which shows all the changes they made through the different drafts and I think comments on their reasons which sounds interesting. You might be interested in looking it up yourself.

  3. This book sounds very interesting :)

  4. I think it sounds very interesting! I'll have to put it on my list.

  5. I saw a book the other day at the used bookstore about the Brothers Grimm and I *almost* picked it up, but this sounds better. I'll keep this one in mind!

  6. What an interesting post! I like Jack Zipes very much, agree with you about Bruno Bettelheim, and don't know very much about The Brothers Grimm, so I found this all very informative and fun to read. I'll have to look for this book.

  7. This book sounds fascinating! I can see what you mean about having conversations in your head about it because I'm doing that already just from reading your review :) I think I'm going to have to look into this one sometime...sounds too cool to pass up. I've always hated history, but this is the kind of "history" book that proves that otherwise.

  8. Ken: I've read some other Zipes books but not that one...thanks for the recommendation, I'll look for it!

    Rhinoa: I definitely am! It sounds like a great edition. The one I'm currently reading is the Wordsworth Classics one, and it has the "final" versions of the tales. It would be interesting to explore the earlier ones after I'm done with it.

    Becky and Rebecca: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Trish: Do you remember who it was by? I'm curious now :P

    Robin: yay, I'm glad I'm not alone :P I think you'd enjoy this book a lot!

    Chris: This is definitely the coolest possible type of history!

  9. Oh Nymeth, I don't think you made this sound dry at all! I think it sounds fascinating! I am sooooo hoping our library system has this one, because I really, really want to read it. Thank you!

  10. I don't, but next time I'm over there I'll try to remember to look for it to get the title and author.

  11. This sounds like an interesting book, Nymeth. I was not aware of the nationalim leanings of their writing and that changes how I think of them slightly--more curious, you could say. It's always interesting to learn the origins of writings and an author's views and beliefs in context to the time period.

  12. Debi: yay! I'm glad it has it as well!

    Trish: Thanks!

    Literary Feline: This book made me think of the Grimms more favourably exactly because it contextualized their views. I mean, I never really believed those who associated the fairy tales with fascism, but it was so nice to find a thorough explanation of where they were coming from.

  13. I'm not sure I will ever read this,but it was interesting to read your review, now I would actually be interested in knowing more about the brother Grimms. I only really knew them (aside from the fairy tales) because of the linguistic Grimm's law!! I know, boring.but that's what you get when you study linguistic in college:p

  14. I remember Grimm's Law from my history of linguistics class, lol. I have to confess: I'm a HUGE linguistics nerd. I just love it, to the point that I took advanced syntax classes that would give me no credits just for the joy of it :P And I've been called a freak before for that, yes, but I can't help it :P

  15. I haven't read this one, but I have used Zipes' stuff in my writing, my thesis in particular. In fact, I take him to task for some of his assertions about the death of the oral tradition once it was written down in books. This is another one I need to add to my list.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.