Once upon a time, two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set out to gather folk stories for posterity. Little did they know that the collection of tales they published would become one of the most widely read works in history, capturing the popular imagination around the world for generations.
Two hundred years ago, on December 20, 1812, the Grimm brothers published the first edition of their "Kinder- und Hausmärchen," or "Children's and Household Tales," now commonly known as "Grimms' Fairy Tales." Aside from the Luther Bible, it is the considered to be the most widely distributed literary work of German origin, with translations in more than 160 languages. Not only were the Grimms pioneers in the scientific documentation of folklore, they also provided a seemingly endless source of inspiration for writers, artists and filmmakers.
"The fairy tale genre is fascinating because it's all around us all the time," says prominent fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes. "We imbibe it without even knowing we're doing it. It's in film, opera, ballet, in our daily lives, in publicity -- we refer to fairy tales as a reference point in our lives. We even try to lead our lives like fairy tales."
So what is the secret of Grimms' Fairy Tales' nearly universal appeal? The Grimms were dedicated linguists and philologists who saw fairy tales as a living record of cultural history. Their unique approach somehow managed to tap into our collective consciousness.
"The 'Kinder- und Hausmärchen' are like a concave mirror that captures a fairy tale tradition marked by several cultures, compiles it in a new form, bundles it together and reflects it in such a way that a new tradition emerges and, bound to the work itself, unfolds with worldwide impact," reads the description of the work in the successful nomination for membership in UNESCO's Memory of the World Registry in 2005.
'Our Oldest Testament'
This reference to the traditions of more than one culture addresses a common misconception about the fairy tales -- that they somehow represent the German ethnic soul. While they may have been collected by Germans, who in their editing and writing in that language certainly coated the tales with a Teutonic veneer, scholars have found that the scope of their origins stretches beyond even the borders of Europe.
"The Grimms did not call their tales 'German' household tales," says Zipes, who has studied how their elements trace back to Russia, Slavic countries, Greece, Italy and even ancient Sanskrit texts. "They very quickly realized that these tales were all over and that there is no such thing as a genuine, authentic German folktale," he says. One of the volume's best-loved stories, "Cinderella," for example, has been found in about 500 different incarnations around Europe, says Zipes, professor emiritus at the University of Minnesota.
"What we don't know is where exactly these tales come from, when they originated and how they were disseminated," says Zipes. "This is the great mystery. They go back to pagan times. We can only surmise how far back."