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Once upon a time: the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm

Updated: Mar 13, 2021

“Once upon a time…” Sound familiar?

This classic opening is the English equivalent of the German construction “es war einmal” (there was once...), used to introduce a fairy tale. Many of the fairy tales we know and love today such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood are based off stories from the Grimm brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales).

An illustration of a scene from The Six Swans by the Brothers Grimm. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 20th December 1812, the volume contained over 80 oral European folk tales collected and translated by brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Born in Kassel in 1785 and 1786 respectively, the brothers both studied law at the University of Marburg, but their real passion lay in philology, the study of language in historical texts, especially folk tales. Their work is now considered one of the most culturally significant literary developments of all time, preserving German folk culture for future generations to enjoy.

From evil stepmothers in beautiful castles to magical dwarves and frogs, the stories have all the classical features of a Disney film, although the Grimm’s collection was intended for adults as well as children.

However, whilst English speakers might think of fairy tales as sweet, whimsical stories, the German versions are considerably darker. In Aschenputtel (Cinderella) for example, the two stepsisters suffer a horrific fate: having cut off a toe and a heel between them in order to try and fit in the shoe, they later have their eyes pecked out by birds in recompense for their mistreatment of Cinderella.

In Schneewittchen (Little Snow White), the evil queen is punished by being forced to put on red-hot iron slippers and dance until she drops down dead, whilst the innocently titled The Juniper Tree tells the story of a young boy who is murdered and fed to his father in a stew by his stepmother.

Other stories feature incidences of child abuse, graphic violence, sexual abuse and anti-Semitism, which were edited out or toned down in later versions as fairy tales began to be angled more towards children.


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