Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm

Unlike nations such as France and Spain, where a central power was responsible for the diffusion of a common language, in Germany, which in Goethe’s era was divided into three hundred principalities and did not achieve state unification until the late date of 1871, it was the intellectuals who proposed the creation of a language that would allow mutual understanding between the people, who, nowadays continue to speak languages as different from each other as French and Italian. Germans call them ‘dialects’, and instead of calling the language that unifies them ‘German’, they call it ‘High German’ (Hochdeutsch), which could also be translated as ‘Cultured German’. By definition, it is the language of theatre and press, the one taught in schools, and the one used by writers and scientists, and which does not have to be identical to the one Germans speak at home. The conception of High German is seen as one of the miracles of human history (if by ‘miracle’ we mean the imposition of something by force of reason and not by the dialogue of weapons). Generations of intellectuals consciously contributed to this miracle. Conscious was also the effort to defeat the ominous French cultural subordination. To provide a well-known example: the work of Carl Friedrich Gauss was framed by the desire to create a German science —in this case, German mathematics, physics, and astronomy— that would not be subordinated to the French.

In this context of the creation of a German language, we must understand the work of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, at a time when the nobility spoke French and when Frederick II the Great, in Prussia, only used German to address his horses. And it was during the reign of Frederick II, although not in Prussia, but in Hesse, in the city of Hanau, when the two brothers were born in 1785 and 1786, respectively. They were raised in Kassel and studied in the University of Marburg, and, as told by Hermann Grimm, son of Wilhelm Grimm, in the preface of a posthumous edition of Children’s and Household Tales, ‘in Hassel they became librarians at the Hassel Library, where they felt like home among its wide and silent halls’. Those idealised reminiscences of Wilhelm Grimm’s son have little to do with reality. Their work as librarians mainly consisted in filling out forms, a tedious and unrewarded labour, on which they would have wasted their lives had they not been rescued by the liberal politics of enlightened absolutism and taken to Berlin to be incorporated into the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences. There, they would carry out their great scientific work. Together they would write one of the most significant works of German philology, The German Dictionary, an etymological dictionary that comprises more than forty volumes, such as the one the Royal Spanish Academy has begun to write in our country. The brothers were also authors of four volumes of History of the German Language and German Grammar, among many other titles. Although in Spain we commonly know them as the ‘authors’ of the stories that carry their name, the Brothers Grimm are the creators of German philology and are considered among the founders of modern linguistics.

At the beginning of Elemental Spirits, Heinrich Heine, who was inspired by the German Legends compiled by the Brothers Grimm when creating his work, said about them: ‘The merit of these men for Germanic antiquity is inestimable. Jacob Grimm alone has done more for linguistics than your entire French Academy since Richelieu. His German Grammar is a monumental work, a Gothic cathedral in which Germanic peoples raise their voices like large choirs, each one in their own dialect. Perhaps Jacob Grimm sold his soul to the devil, so he could supply him with the materials and serve as his accomplice in that colossal linguistic work. In fact, it takes more than a human life and much more than the patience of a mortal being to carry those ashlars of wisdom, to pound mortar out of those hundreds of thousands of quotes’.

Although it is true that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm maintained friendships with the romantic poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, who published a collection of popular chants, with corrections and retouches that were, admittedly, the object of criticism by the Brothers Grimm, and if it is also true that the predilection for the primitive was a distinctive trait of Romanticism, we would disfigure the truth if we were to place within that movement the Kinder und Hausmärchen, collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815, respectively. The interest of the two brothers was strictly scientific (it was necessary to determine how the people spoke) and with that task they built the pillars of what would later become the study of folklore as part of cultural anthropology. There is nothing better to examine their methods than reading what Wilhelm Grimm wrote in the prologue of the 1819 edition: ‘We have been collecting these tales for thirteen years. The first volume, which appeared in 1812, contains for the most part what we again and again found in oral traditions in Hesse, in the Main and Kinzig regions of the Earldom of Hanau, where we hail from. The second volume was completed in 1814 and came together more quickly. (…) It was one of those lucky coincidences that we happened to make the acquaintance of a peasant woman in Niederzwehrn, a village near Kassel, who recounted the best and greater part of the fairy tales in the second volume. Frau Viehmann was still vigorous and not much more than fifty years old. (…) She preserved the old legends in her memory and admitted herself that this gift is not bestowed on everyone and that many are incapable of keeping track of the intricacies. Her manner of storytelling was deliberate, confident, and uncommonly lively – she clearly took pleasure in it. At first, her narrative was very free, then, if one wanted it, once again slowly, so that with practice one could transcribe it. In this way, much could be preserved word for word and its truthfulness unmistaken. Whoever believes that sloppiness and distortion are the rule with oral traditions, and that they therefore cannot endure, must hear how exacting this woman's narrative was and how she strove for accuracy. When she repeated something she never changed it. As soon as she recognised an oversight, she corrected it, even when she was in the middle of her story. The devotion to oral traditions among people who continue to live in the same way is stronger than we, who are so accustomed to change, can comprehend. (…) The epic basis of folk literature can be compared with the greenery which in its manifold forms is omnipresent in nature at various levels, something which satisfies and refreshes without ever becoming monotonous’.

The further study of popular fables and legends would reveal their great complexity. The Grimm Brothers believed to be collecting specifically German stories, but it would then be discovered that some, such as Little Red Riding Hood, for example, were of French origin, taken to Germany by the Huguenots who fled from Catholic fundamentalism, or even from India. However, all of this, as well as the sociological analysis of the classist and sexist nature of most of these stories, remains outside the margins of this commentary.

Pedro Gálvez

Portrait of the authors by Oliveiro Dumas