“The consonants of primitive Germanic keep consistently to the same mouth areas as the corresponding consonants in the older Indo-European languages”. So said the Brothers Grimm in stating their famous law for linguists. Dull fellows? Hardly. Their terrifying tales have seized and haunted the imaginations of children for two centuries. …
Walt Disney pit some things in, but he also left some out. The huntsman, ordered by the wicked queen to kill Snow White, is ordered also to bring back the child’s lungs and liver as the token of a job well done. As we know, he lets Snow White run away. As we forget, he takes to the queen the dripping viscera of a young boar. “The cook had to salt these, and the wicked Queen ate them, and thought she had eaten the lungs and liver of Snow White.”
The intention of cannibalism is there, and that’s in some respects, even worse or more traumatic than its fulfillment. At the end of the story- which comes after the riding off, with a smile and a song, into the sunset- the queen is invited to the young prince’s wedding. “And when she went in she recognized Snow White; and she stood still with rage and fear,and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.” Charming. We have to imagine our winsome princess helping to get the iron slippers ready and then, presumably, grinning sadistically from her throne. It is not at all Disneyesque. It is, for want of a better term, decidedly grim.
The English connotation of the name of the brothers who compiled all that tough folklore- was it not confirmed in all our childhood nightmares? For many, the earliest images of the Brothers Grimmwas a couple of hunchbacked manikins hugging each other in nasty glee, the emissaries of some witch who loved to frighten children. Grim decidedly. And the German meaning of their name intensifies rather than diminishes the English connotation. In German “Grimm” means rage and anger.
The Grimm brothers were, as we shall see, capable of rage and anger, though in the best of causes. But it is as well to discard the Gothic caricature, which being formed in childhood, is hard to extirpate: gnomes working by candlelight with scratching quills. The brothers are revealed, in the one engraved portrait in existence, as good looking, with fine eyes, well shaped mouths, sensitive noses, Byronic hair styles. They were products of the Byronic age, born a few years before the French Revolution, and they have as much claim to be thought of as romantic heroes as, say, storm-swept Beethoven or exophthalmic Keats.
But the true romantic hero is a solitary figure, and the brothers Grimm were inseparable. Were they thinking of themselves when they transcribed the story of Snow White and Rose Red? “The two children were so fond of one another that they always held each other by the hand when they went out together, and when Snow White said:’We will not leave each other,’ Rose Red answered:’Never so long as we live,’ and their mother would add: ‘What one has she Must share with the other.'”
Jacob was born in 1785 and Wilhelm a year later. Their town was Kassel- undistinguished, a solid bourgeois gobbet of a Germany that was still a parcel of disunited states. They went to school there, but moved on to Marburg to become law students. In everything they were together. Having played together as children, as undergraduates they studied together, sharing the same room for sleep and the same table for work. They conceived a common devotion to the jurist Friedrich Karl von Savigny, their professor, and through him they were inspired to pursue studies that had little to do with law.
For Savigny had a passion for German literary antiquities; it was in his library that Jacob Grimm, browsing, discovered the old poems of the minnesingers and was at once hooked on the potent drug of medieval language and literature. Wilhelm was quick to become the addict too. While hardly more than boys, the brothers saw in a flash what their life’s work had to be, though not even two lifetimes would be sufficient for its fulfillment. They had dedicated themselves to something that had hardly been thought of before: Germany’s folk heritage.
This could appear as rather dull from a practical perspective. What is the use of studying weird dialects that nobody speaks any more, and groping, unhandy apologies for literature? No use at all, unless it can be conceded that pure knowledge has a use. But Charles Darwin asserted an uncovering of the mystery of the origins of man, and nobody will deny that the hangover and to some excitement of the theory of evolution is still with us. The Grimm brothers were looking for the origins of a language: where did german come from; what slow process or sudden explosion produced a German speaking people? And how did that people use its language for bodying its primitive dreams and ancient myths? The brothers were, if you like, in search of an ethnic soul.
This, remember, was the romantic age. The eighteenth century had been all for reason and elegance, the calm surfaces of a stable civilization. But the French Revolution had shown how precarious such a rational order can be, and the new poets and thinkers, following Rousseau, were exalting the wild, the natural, the untouched. In England Wordsworth made a hero out of a peasant and a religion out of mountains and sunsets. Coleridge, the opium taker, dredged his unconscious mind and found magic.
There was a new passion for the primitive, which meant the anonymous “Volk” . In petry, ballads were collected, read and imitated. Sir Walter Scott made a book of the ballads of the Scottish border, and Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” was deliberately and artfully archaic- the work of a sophisticated poet trying to dream back to the style and one of nameless folk singers. A lot of this new simplicity failed because writers themselves were no longer simple: it is not easy to throw off centuries of complex civilization by a sheer act of will.