Regency Bicentennial:   Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Children

Today, the fairy tales which are published as having been collected by the Brothers Grimm are thought to be quite suitable for everyone. However, the original versions of most of those tales were highly criticized as being very inappropriate for children. The Grimm brothers took those criticism to heart. In 1819, they began to edit their stories, not only so that they would be more appropriate for children, but also to protect the image of motherhood.

Some of the changes the Grimm brothers made to their fairy tales . . .

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in the German state of Hesse-Kassel, to a family of nine boys and girls. Jacob (b. 1785) was just one year older than Wilhelm (b. 1786) and the two brothers were very close all their lives. As teens, the brothers attended university together, originally studying the classics, followed by the law. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, they had become interested in German philology and literature. They were indefatigable researchers who spent many years working on a massive German Dictionary which was first published in 1854. Jacob would also publish a landmark German grammar, in 1819. Neither brother had ever thought to publish an anthology of fairy tales.

That began to change, around 1805. One of the Grimm brothers’s friends, the poet, Clemens Brentano, was planning a book of literary fairy tales. Brentano asked his friends to help him by gathering any folk tales which they might encounter. The brothers collected folk stories from a number of different sources, including oral stories told by peasants; as well as from their friends and family, and even from their servants. By 1810, the Grimms had compiled fifty-four folk tales for Brentano, which they sent him in a fair copy manuscript. It was over a year before the Grimm brothers learned that Brentano had lost the manuscript of fairy tales which they had sent him and had already published the book he was planning, without the Grimm brothers’ contribution. Another friend, Achim von Arnim, urged the brothers to publish their collection themselves. They had continued to gather folk tales, and, in 1812, the Brothers Grimm had a total of eighty-six fairy tales which they published that year, under the title Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales. In 1814, they published a second volume, of another seventy folk tales, under the same title.

Both volumes of Children’s and Household Tales were strongly criticized by many of those who read the stories, since the title led many people to believe these were simple stories written for children. The brothers had chosen the title because children figured in many of the stories, and most of the tales were related to the domestic life of the past. As dedicated scholars and German nationalists, the Grimm brothers had published the tales just as they had come to them, in the belief that these folk tales captured details of the folk culture and thus, the German national identity. But those original versions included numerous instances of sex and violence, not to mention adultery and incest, topics which most parents considered inappropriate for children. As committed academics, the Grimm brothers were also careful to provide detailed footnotes to the stories for the aid of other folk tale scholars. Again, something which was of no real interest to most children. Just as important, the Grimm brothers saw no reason to include illustrations in these volumes of fairy tales, which they initially assumed would be of interest only to other scholars of German culture and literature. What they did not consider was that, by the turn of the nineteenth century, nearly all books intended for children had at least a few illustrations.

By 1819, the Brothers Grimm were ready to publish a new edition of their fairy tales. They were not wealthy men and they needed the income from the sales of their fairy tale books. The brothers had been paying attention to their critics and decided that they must forsake absolute accuracy for versions of the stories that were more appropriate for children, and families in general. By making the fairy tales more appealing to a wider range of readers, including children, they hoped to increase their sales of the book. All instances of overt sexual activity, in or out of marriage, was eliminated. Some of the darker aspects of the stories were removed and the endings to a number of stories were changed from brutal or sad to something more pleasant or happier. In the original stories, a number of the antagonists or villains were the natural mothers of one or more of the characters. Later scholars believe that the Grimm brothers changed most of those biological mothers to stepmothers in order to preserve the concept of the innate goodness and the sacredness of motherhood. Of course, all footnotes were eliminated from this new edition as well, since their target audience was no longer scholars of literature and culture.

Curiously, though most sexual activity was removed from the stories and the concept of sacred motherhood was shielded in the new versions of the fairy tales, much of the violence in the tales was retained. Even more shocking, particularly in stories intended for children, quite a lot of the violence which appeared in the 1819 edition of the fairy tales was directed at children. A child might be killed by various brutal methods, some children were even eaten, while many others were changed into strange creatures or objects, or they might be beaten or otherwise abused in the course of the story. Apparently, parents in the early nineteenth century were much more put off by sex than violence, since few parents objected to the violence which appeared in the 1819 edition of Household Tales published by the Brothers Grimm. This addition also featured a number of illustrations to complement the stories. This new volume of fairy tales sold very well throughout Germany and was soon translated and published in many other countries in Europe, including Britain.

The Grimm brothers continued to gather more and more folk tales over the course of the next thirty years. Both brothers, but particularly Wilhelm, continued to edit and sanitize their stories for publication, with their main audience of children in mind. Their seventh edition, published in 1857, included 211 different fairy tales. It is now considered the definitive edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, since the brothers both died just a few years after its publication. This anthology of primarily German folk tales made this book especially popular in Germany and it is reported that there only the Bible and the works of Shakespeare have sold more copies.

Though it does not appear that an English version of Household Tales was available in Britain until 1820, the earlier 1812 and 1815 editions of the fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers were available there. Of course, a copy of the 1819 edition, in German, could easily have been brought back to Britain by a European traveller. Even before the Regency began, many scholars, in both Britain and on the Continent, like the Brothers Grimm, were growing increasingly concerned about the tradition of oral storytelling, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. More and more people were learning to read, and many were travelling beyond the area in which they were born. Thus, ancient folk tales were no longer learned and retold to families as they had been for centuries before. The Grimm brothers were not the only scholars concerned about the loss of these age-old tales. Prior to their work, in the late seventeenth century, Charles Perrault, in France, had spent years gathering many of these ancient tales in his own homeland. In the 1830s, the Danish author and scholar, Hans Christen Andersen, began to publish fairy tales he remembered from his childhood in Scandinavia. He would go on to publish many more fairy tales over the course of his life. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the Australian-born historian and author, Joseph Jacobs, began to compile the folk and fairy tales of England.

Dear Regency Authors, though the works of Hans Christian Anderson and Joseph Jacobs were not known during the Regency, the works of both Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm were available. Mayhap one or more of your characters is interested in the study of folk tales, and has some or all these books in their library. What will happen when the heroine, perhaps the governess, is found reading early editions of the Grimm brothers tales, which are laced with numerous instances of inappropriate sexual activity? Or, might the heroine and her hero, both literature scholars, become involved in discussions on the merits of the more scholarly early editions versus the more recent, sanitized versions of the fairy tales published by the Brothers Grimm? Then again, might your hero, or your heroine, be inspired to gather the folk tales of England after reading the Grimm brothers’ Household Tales? Are there other ways in which one or more of the fairy tale books by the Brothers Grimm might add some color to an upcoming Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Children

  1. Is it possible to get hold of the original versions for study? I’m interested in folk tales as a hobby, Moreover, if using them, I’d like to know what the heroine involved might be actually reading.
    I’ve used reference to Perrault’s tales extensively, of course, and Charles Lamb’s retelling, to make reference to a man with disfigurement as not exactly being an Orasmyn, or losing one’s finery at midnight like Cendrillon. I was not permitted Grimm’s tales as a child as they had badly frightened my mother, so had only Andrew Lang’s retelling. And my later researches seem to have been on the Medieval versions retold by Italian tellers and later Perrault [and they were equally full of sex] so I missed the Grimms.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There is an English translation of the 1812 edition, edited by Jack Zipes, which was published in 2014. From what I understand, Zipes is a big proponent of the original versions of the tales. Another set was published that same year, by Oliver Loo. Those are also described as being the original versions. If your local library does not have copies, I am sure their Inter-Library Loan Department can get them for you. I do not know if there is a similar republication of the 1815 edition. However, the Loo book is listed as Volume 1, so he may have published the 1815 stories in a second volume

      I did find several editions of Grimm’s tales online, but they were all later, sanitized versions. One at Project Gutenberg and another at the Internet Archive are dated 1812, but when one launches them and views the title page, they are editions from the later nineteenth century. I hope this helps.



      • Oh thank you, I should have looked for Zipes, only I’d forgotten him, he’s a real academic, my son used some of his books in his module of legend and lore for his masters in medieval studies

  2. Sherry A says:

    Thank you for post, question, and answer. I, too, would prefer to read the original version.

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