simple enough for children, too difficult for grown-ups


The Grimm Brothers reproached their friends and fellow collectors, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, for altering the material they brought into print. In the Circular Letter Jacob Grimm sent out in l815, he began by asking correspondents to find songs and rhymes, but he moved on swiftly to the stories for which the Grimms have become the most widely read writers of fairy tales in the world. He specified “Local Legends [Sagen] not in verse, most especially both the various Nurses’ Tales and Children’s Tales [Ammen- und Kindermärchen] of giants, dwarves, monsters, kings’ sons and daughters spellbound and set free, devils, treasures and wishing objects, . . . Animal Fables in particular are to be noted . . .”. Philip Pullman’s half-century of tales includes a handful of the latter, cynical lessons in the world that fairy tales set out to refute with their “cunning and high spirits” (Walter Benjamin’s phrase), their improbable reversals of fate and happy endings. The Letter’s harvest was meagre, the Brothers’ richest sources remaining closer to hand in their own circle of family and friends, but its aims show the Brothers’ pioneering attempt at popular ethnography, around thirty years before the word “folklore” was introduced into English. The Grimms called what they were looking for “Folk Poesy”, and they stipulated that its origins must be unadulterated: “Above all”, Jacob wrote, “it is important that these items should be gathered faithfully and truly, without decoration and addition and with the greatest possible precision and detail, from the mouths of the story-tellers, where practicable in and with their own authentic words.”

more from Marina Warner at the TLS here.