January 4 – Happy Birthday, Jacob Grimm

Posted on January 4, 2014

What with the television show called “Grimm,” Jacob Grimm's name has, perhaps, never been more famous than it is now. However, he was born on this date way back in 1785, and way over in Germany.

His name is associated with fairy tales, for he and his brother Wilhelm are the Brothers Grimm. But Jacob Grimm was more than just an editor of a fairy tale collection. He was a philologist, a jurist, and a mythologist.

Let me explain those terms!
 A philologist is someone who studies language in historical sources—in other words, someone who studies old books and other old pieces of writing. It's like a combination of being a book reviewer, a historian, and a linguist.

A jurist is someone who studies, teaches, and/or practices the law. In Grimm's case, he studied and wrote about German laws throughout history and oral legal traditions.

A mythologist is someone who systematically collects and studies myths, which are stories about a group of people—where they came from, their history and gods and ancestors and heroes.

You can see, with all this study of language and stories and myths and traditions, why Grimm ended up collecting and publishing fairy tales.

Fairy tales – not just nice little stories for children!

As anyone who watches Grimm or Once Upon a Time can tell you, fairy tales aren't pretty and tidy and nice little tales meant to soothe little kids as they drift off to sleep. Our more modern versions of fairy tales are nicer and warmer and cuddlier than the original stories—but still, there are plenty of scary villains and dark creepiness and violence!

Fairy tales were originally told and heard, not written and read, and they were meant for adults as well as children. They were often stories that contained warnings of sorts—can you see that “Little Red Riding Hood” warns you not to talk to strangers? And they were often stories about the wrongs inflicted on women and children—in other words, they were meant to be by, about, and for women and children, who were relatively powerless compared to adult men.

It's hard to define what makes a story a fairy tale, as opposed to a myth, legend, fable, or simply a folktale. Even scholars who study and write about fairy tales cannot agree on one firm definition. Still, most fairy tales happen “once upon a time,” rather than in one particular time and place, and they usually involve magical beings—not always fairies, though—sometimes it's elves or dwarves or witches or giants.

It was collectors-of-tales like the Brothers Grimm who probably most solidified what is and is not considered a fairy tale, and it was the Grimms in particular who associated the tales with children. They named their highly influential 2-volume story collection Children's and Household Tales.

Enjoy fairy tales today!
There are all sorts of fairy tale activities to be found on the web:
  • Here is an animated Grimm Fairy Tale website.
  • Here is the Hello Kids website, which includes Grimm stories and activities.
  • Here is a crafts page from DLTK that ties into Grimm fairy tales. 

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