The Grimm Hard Facts

February 24: Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two brothers, was born on this dayin 1786. Most commentators describe Jacob as the scholar of the family andWilhelm as the story-shaper, as well as the one responsible for”contaminating” the Grimm tales according to the values which theyheld, or felt their contemporary audience expected.

The brothers’ originalgoal, part scholarly and part patriotic, was to gather and preserve authenticGerman folk tales. When the Grimms realized that similar versions of theirtales had existed in many cultures for a long time, and that their readingpublic was mostly interested in a good story, they adjusted course. Mostlyunder Wilhelm’s supervision, the scholarly tone and footnoting gave way insubsequent editions, and the stories became increasingly sanitized and preachy.(Though the Disneyfication did not go as far as it later would, or as far assome wanted: at the end of World War II, Allied commanders banned publicationof the Grimms’ tales in the belief that their violence contributed to Nazisavagery.)

In The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), Maria Tatarstates that adults today who read the original, unexpurgated tales should beready for “graphic descriptions of murder, mutilation, cannibalism,infanticide and incest”—stepsons decapitated by moms and eaten as stew bydads, bad girls forced to disrobe and roll down hills in nail-studded kegs, orto have their hands and breasts chopped off for refusing father, etc. TheRapunzel of the early editions inadvertently lets her jailer know that she’sbeen spending her nights with the Prince, and doing more than sleeping:

. . . she took such a likingto the young king that she made an agreement with him: he was to come every dayand be pulled up. Thus they lived merrily and joyfully for a certain time, andthe fairy did not discover anything until one day when Rapunzel began talkingto her and said, “Tell me, Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes havebecome too tight for me and no longer fit?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at