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Literature

The Brothers Grimm: Freaks or visionaries?

The Brothers Grimm not only collected fairytales but also researched the German language and laid the foundations for modern-day German literature studies. Their ambition alienated them from many contemporaries.

The Brothers Grimm, who published their first volume of fairytales on December 20, 1812, had a vision. They wanted to honor a piece of German cultural history that looked like it was going to be lost forever.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Germany was divided by political unrest, power struggles and military occupations. That troubled Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They longed for a united nation.

So they began to research their native language and gather folk tales and myths. In doing so, they founded an entire field of research and wrote hundreds of works, including milestones such as "The German Dictionary," "German Mythology" and "German Grammar."

Lack of recognition

An etching of the Brothers Grimm by Ludwig Emil Grimm
(1790-1863)

The Brothers Grimm were controversial figures among their contemporary scholars

The Brothers Grimm created pioneering works of their time. There weren't any German language institutes for them to consult and no publishing houses fighting over the rights to their fairytales. The brothers could never have known how successful their stories would eventually become.

"What's even more astounding is the fact that they were so perseverant with their language research," said Steffen Martus, who's written a detailed double biography of the Brothers Grimm.

Their determination paid off. Their fairytales are now world famous and the brothers are regarded as the founding fathers of German language and literature studies.

Yet the Brothers Grimm were undeterred by the lack of recognition they initially received for their work - they always did their own thing. Their father died when they were just 10 and 11 years old, and they quickly adopted the role of heads of the family.

At 17, Jacob moved to Marburg to study law and his younger brother Wilhelm joined him one year later. After a few semesters, Jacob quit his studies and they both began with their independent research.

The memorial to the Brothers Grimm in the German city of Kassel

A memorial to the Brothers Grimm is located in the German city of Kassel

However, they were never penniless academics. Over the course of their lives, the brothers earned a living as librarians, journalists, diplomats, and later as professors. But their first love remained Old German studies and collecting folk legends and fairytales.

The Brothers Grimm had already published their first books by the ages of 25 and 26, including "Old Danish Heroic Lays, Ballads, and Folktales" by Wilhelm and "About Old German Master Singing" by Jacob.

Provocative newcomers

But what were the Brothers Grimm like as people? That's a question that Andreas Döring, the director of the Youth Theater Göttingen, has also asked himself. This year he's brought the Brothers Grimm to life on stage.

Döring trawled through historical letters and documents in order to get a picture of what type of people the brothers were.

"They were very offensive characters, they were workaholics, moralists and freaks," he explained.

They were known for their acerbic and pig-headed manner, especially when it came to their research. Aside from that, "they had a strong urge to provoke" and were a thorn in the sides of their contemporary scholars.

An edition of the brother's 'The German Dictionary' from 1854

An edition of the brother's 'The German Dictionary' dating back to 1854

There were terrible disputes and many were curious about the two controversial newcomers. Their area of research was entirely new and many aged scholars remained skeptical.

But the Brothers Grimm remained undeterred. They were an unbeatable team, despite their differences. Wilhelm was supposedly the more charming and social of the two, while Jacob had a tendency to be stern and introverted.

But they were there for each throughout their lives, Döring said. "They accepted one another how they were and always stuck together - it was real brotherly love."

Life's work

The Brothers Grimm worked tirelessly until their deaths. Wilhelm died in 1859 at the age of 73 and Jacob died in 1863 aged 78.

But they were unable to finish their biggest project, "The German Dictionary," which was completed by German linguistics scholars 100 years later.

It was a formidable undertaking - as formidable as the Brothers Grimm themselves.

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