Grimmer than your average fairytale
Germany is celebrating the bicentenary of the famous fairytales of the Brothers Grimm with a 600km trail that brings their dark tales to life in its castles, forests and towns, writes DEREK SCALLY
ONCE UPON a time there was a kingdom called Hesse in a place that would later be called Germany. It was a curious place of princes and palaces, forests and fairytales. But all too soon that was blocked out by the clouds of progress and the fog of war.
Fast forward 200 years, the fog is finally clearing and the German state of Hesse has wrested back its tales from Hollywood’s hold. This year it is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the world’s most famous fairytale collection, compiled by local brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm.
Our guide through this fairytale kingdom is Sir Dietrich, also known as Dieter Uffelmann. He’s easy to spot, waiting for us in full knight get-up on the train platform in Hofgeismar, a pretty town of 500-year-old half-timbered houses two hours north of Frankfurt.
Our first stop is Trendelburg castle, known to locals for much of its 700 years as the home of Rapunzel and her famous hair. Once upon a time a prince is said to have climbed up the captive maiden’s locks here. On the day of our visit, he would have an easier job: a yellow crane is extended over the round tower, allowing workers to put on a new turreted roof.
As we pass, two local children sitting on a wall watching the crane, chirp: “Hello Sir Dietrich” to the passing knight, who greets them with a noble wave.
Fact fans will find no historical basis for Rapunzel ever having lived here, but that’s not the point. Instead, Sir Dietrich leads us through a low passage into the castle courtyard and a realm of fairytale, maybe, fantasy and make-believe – not something many people think of when they think of Germany. And there it is: Rapunzel’s XL-plait, dangling from a tower window.
“It weighs 25 kilos,” says Sir Dietrich, matter-of-factly. He should know: he put it there as part of an effort to restore the shampoo-sheen to Rapunzel’s tower, Trendelburg castle – now a beautiful, historic hotel – and other nearby sights.
Just a few minutes in this latter-day knight’s company melts away big-city cynicism. Half-remembered Grimm tales begin to shine through, thanks to Sir Dietrich’s infectious pride of place. Suspension of disbelief has never been so easy.
“This is neither a Disneyland nor do we want it to be; this is our region,” declares Sir Dietrich in full rhetorical flight, red cape flowing, sword safely in its sheath. “Every time our stories are threatened with extinction something comes along to revive them.”
The latest shot in the arm is the Grimm anniversary, offering visitors a chance to reacquaint themselves with long-lost childhood friends on the 600km “Fairytale Route”, running from Hanau in Germany’s south – the Grimm brothers’ birthplace – to the home of the famous Bremen town musicians in the north.
Would-be visitors note: this route is no autobahn but a winding memory lane through sleepy towns with crooked streets and tilting Hansel and Gretel houses. Anyone who veers off the path without leaving a trail of crumbs is quite likely to get happily lost.
A popular place to start is the city of Kassel. Best known for its Documenta art show – currently running until September – it was once the Grimm brothers’ home and where they compiled more than 200 fairytales from regional storytellers.
Visitors to the Fairytale Museum, housed in a Jugendstil villa on a hill, can inspect the brothers’ original copies of their two-volume work Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and House Fairytales) from 1812, festooned with scrawled corrections for later editions.
Although their work of cultural anthropology confused critics – was it an academic work or a children’s book? – the edition was a commercial success. But the brothers had little business sense, failed to negotiate written contracts with their publisher, and lost out on royalties. This was the start of financial problems that would plague them all their lives.
Reading the original edition is a hair-raising experience; it is like a German relative of Roald Dahl. Familiar tales have unexpected, vicious twists while there are dozens of lesser-known stories of jaw-dropping brutality. Ever hear of The Girl with No Hands? (See the panel below.) “It is easy to assume that Teutonic prudishness or the Grimms’ delicate sense of propriety motivated the . . . changes,” writes Maria Tatar in The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. “But it is far more logical to assume that Wilhelm Grimm took to heart the criticisms levelled against his volume and, eager to find a wider audience, set to work making the appropriate changes.” The softened tales are still far harsher than more familiar Disney versions: even in chasing commercial over academic success, the brothers left cautionary morals in their collection to have it serve as an Erziehungsbuch or “manual of manners” for children.
“Some of the tales are graceful and subtle, and others are dramatic and rough-hewn, but there is plenty of humour, spirit, and pitch-perfect narrative timing,” writes Noel Daniel, editor of an enjoyable new selection of Grimm tales published by Taschen, which has a beautiful selection of historical images. “We left all these elements in [our book] to allow readers to make up their own minds about the original tales.”
After their German collections, they turned to European neighbours, including the 1825 Elves’ Tales from Ireland (see panel opposite). Other landmark works include a German grammar and dictionary of the German language. For the two brothers, who lived together almost all their lives, collecting tales was a passion but also a means to an end.
They were leading lights of the romantic movement, a celebration of sentimentality and supernatural that arose as a reaction to the enlightened, industrial world of facts, figures and philosophy.
The Grimm brothers were also active supporters of the movement towards a nation state, but painfully aware that the loose collection of kingdoms that predated modern Germany had no local literary rival to Shakespeare. And so the brothers set about filling the gap with systematic fervour, channelling the energy of the romantic movement into the folklore studies academic discipline they helped create. When the first German state finally emerged in 1871, a decade after their deaths, the literary legacy of the far-sighted brothers helped form the basis of a national canon. Today, their collection is second only to the Bible as the most published book in Germany, a testament to their work’s continued appeal.