Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
If the Brothers Grimm were not trying to tell charming bedtime stories, what were they trying to do? Why are the original versions of their stories so often violent and disturbing? The first answer to these questions is that the Brothers Grimm were simply being true to the stories as they existed in the early 19th century. The Brothers saw themselves as faithful recorders of a living German tradition. They wanted to preserve these stories in their true and exact form. The second answer is this: The violence of the folktales is part of their power. The Brothers Grimm understood this fact. They wanted to tap into that power. They thought that the tales would revitalize a German people fallen on hard times. But we leap ahead of ourselves.
The story of the Brothers Grimm begins in a small town, Henau, in what is now the western part of Germany. But Germany was not yet a country in 1785, the year when little Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm was born. Germany was a disorganized collection of principalities and fiefdoms. And Germans were still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War, which had wreaked much havoc in the middle of the 17th century. It is impossible to explain the Thirty Years War briefly or clearly. Let’s just say that the War left many regions of Germany devastated, depopulated, divided and unstable. It was a condition that would continue through the 18th century.
In the early 19th century, just when it seemed that Germans might be coming out of their funk, Napoleon came along. Young Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were to see their region turned into a French satellite state in 1806. At the time of the initial publication ofGrimm’s Fairy Tales, the Brothers Grimm were living under a kind of military occupation.