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.
“For Germans, this collection is about the creation of a national character and spirit,” says Dr Bernhard Lauer, director of the Grimm Museum in Kassel. “They borrowed material from other sources but organised it carefully and systematically, and wrote it up in a wonderfully, spare tone that has become world literature.”
BUT, JUST as the Grimms profited little from their fairytale collections, Germany gained little after Disney stepped in with its sanitised, animated features. A concerted fight-back began in 1974 when a local Kassel politician found himself in St Petersburg, watching a Soviet ballet retelling of Sleeping Beauty – a tale written and based in his own back yard.
A year later, the Fairy Tale Road was born, burnished to a fresh sheen for this 200th anniversary. And not a moment too soon, as a fresh generation of young Germans and visitors are taking a fresh look at a country finally emerging from a war-filled century.
It’s clearly a tourist strategy, but a clever one that draws on the landscape inspiration of both the original tales and the brothers’ retellings.
One of the few places to be explicitly mentioned in a tale is the pretty town of Hameln, home to the famous Pied Piper or, in German, Rattenfänger (rat-catcher).
The Grimm version is a revenge fantasy: a colourfully-dressed musician lures away the town’s children when the city refuses to pay him for getting rid of their rat plague.
Town historians say the most likely basis for the story involves a visitor encouraging the town’s young people to leave the crowded town en masse to settle eastern territories of Poland and Ukraine.
In the town’s newly-renovated museum, including a bizarre but fun robot theatre, visitors can explore this and other theories behind the tale.
“We don’t have a direct source but we know something happened here in Hameln in 1284,” says museum guide Claudia Höflich.
Even today Hameln is a delight for visitors. Against a backdrop of houses recalling the so-called Weser Renaissance, the city offers dozens of nods to the famous tale: daily Pied Piper tours, rat-poison schnapps and even a daily musical, Rats!. Of the many places for fairy-tale hunters to stay along the route, none is as spectacular as the Sababurg, an immaculate, turreted castle build on a hill in 1490.
The castle was derelict for centuries, and local readers of Sleeping Beauty in the Grimm collection insisted the Sababurg was the inspiration for the real Dornröschenschloss, the castle of the Sleeping Beauty who pricked her needle on a spinning wheel and fell into an enchanted sleep until a prince awoke her with a kiss.
Today, the castle is a 17-room family hotel, run in the third generation by the Koseck family. “The Fairytale Road exists because we were here first; the concept was set up at a meeting here,” said Günther Koseck. And what of the legend? “There was a definitely a thorny hedge here that grew up when the castle was ruined, and the location is very out-of-the-way, in the middle of the forest,” he said. “Locals came up here on excursions so, from the late 19th century, word spread that this must have been the place the Grimms had in mind.”
Again, it requires a fairytale leap of faith, but dinner guests in the castle are clearly on board when, without warning, a young couple arrives in renaissance dress to relate their tale in rhyming couplets. It should be a cringeworthy, Disneyland moment but, done with such good grace and humour, it’s impossible not to be delighted at the triumph of young love over enchanted spinning wheels.
“I have cousins in England who knew the Grimms’ tales but were amazed they were from here, around the corner,” says Julia Boenning, a 19 year-old student, who plays the part of Sleeping Beauty. “But we never really learned a lot about the fairytales when we were younger either, to be honest.”
Her prince charming, Kassel university student Andreas Richhardt, suggests that Germany seems to be better known in Asia than Europe as the Grimms’ home. “We get huge numbers of visitors from China and Japan,” he says, in a red velvet suit and floppy hat. “After an hour and a half of smiling for photos my face muscles hurt but the look of wonder in the children’s eyes is worth it.”
Down the hill from the Sababurg, Sir Dietrich in his rattling chain mail ends our tour in the ancient, enchanted Reinhardswald forest, which covers more than 200 sq km. In soft, green shady glades the sight of oak trees up to 1,000 years old makes the last dam of doubt burst. Magic takes hold and the gnarled, mossy branches seem to take on fantastic forms of fairytale creatures.
It is easy to imagine the Grimm brothers passing this way, drinking in the atmosphere that persists to this day, an elixir that has sustained their stories for two centuries. Today, anyone who comes to this land of turrets and towers without feeling a touch of fairytale wonder has either smothered their inner child or missed the woods for the trees.
Yes, Germany is the land of fantastic and fearsome efficiency, of Hitler’s Holocaust and Vorsprung durch Technik. But there has always been more – if you know where to look.
“This is a place of Zuflucht durch Besinnung – refuge through reflection,” says Sir Dietrich. “We hope it opens up visitors to what they know, knew or heard once. This place was – is – once upon a time.”
Grimm's Irish connection fairytale
After collecting German fairy tales, the brothers expanded their gaze around Europe and, in 1826, published Irische Elfenmärchen (Irish Elf Tales).
The book was largely a translation of Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, published a year earlier by Corkman Thomas Crofton Croker.
“Whoever has a sense for innocent and simple poetry will be attracted to these tales,” the brothers wrote in their introduction to the German edition. “The tales have an unusual peculiar aftertaste, not without its charm, and come from a country that we only rarely hear of, and not always on the most pleasant terms.”
The 1820s Irish, the Grimm brothers told their readers, are a people who still show traces of their “antiquity, of which the belief in supernatural beings, presented here, is perhaps one of the best examples”.
Perhaps the best-known tale in Germany in this collection is about the poor man nicknamed “Fingerhütchen”. In the original, this is Lusmore, after the foxglove – which was considered a fairy plant – that he stuck in his straw hat. Fingerhütchen was from Aherlow near the Galtee Mountains, and he falls in with a gang of elves in Knockgrafton on the road from Cahir to Cappagh.
They’re so delighted when he improves one of their elf songs that they magic away his hunchback and give him some smart new clothes.
How to go down to the woods today . . .
The Fairytale Route runs 600km from Hanau, near Frankfurt, to the northern port of Bremen. The southern half is best negotiated by car, the northern half – north of Hameln – runs along a purpose-built cycle path along the Weser river. Worthwhile stops not mentioned above include the pretty university town of Marburg, where the Grimms studied; Hann. Münden, the perfect fairytale town with crooked houses galore, and Bodenwerder, home to the great fabulator Baron Münchhausen.
You can plan trips and make bookings at deutsche-maerchenstrasse.com/en/
Heart of darkness How grim is Grimm?
Forget enchanting bedtime stories: the original Grimm collection makes for grim reading with enough mutilation and cannibalism to make a Disney heroine faint.
In The Castle of Murder, a young woman agrees to marry a rich man who turns up at her family’s door, only to later discover a secret room in his castle in which people are killed and eaten.
The Juniper Tree features a stepmother who beheads her stepson, cooks him in a stew to be served to an unsuspecting father, while traumatising her younger daughter into thinking she is responsible for her brother’s death.
Children frequently come to sticky ends in these tales. In Darling Roland, a witch accidentally chops off her daughter’s head, and a curious and disobedient little girl is turned into a block of wood and thrown in the fire by the witch Frau Trude. In The Girl With No Hands, a father chops off his daughter’s hands because the devil told him to.
Even the best-loved fairytales have, in the original, long-forgotten brutal twists. When the stepsisters in Cinderella try to force their feet into the glass slipper, modern retellings may not mention they cut off their toes and heels in the process. At their lucky sister’s wedding to the prince, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.
In Snow White, the wicked stepmother does not just order the huntsman to kill Snow White, she also orders him to bring back her heart so she may eat it for dinner.
Bringing up the rear of non-child-friendly themes is what Wilhelm Grimm coyly referred to as “certain conditions and relationships”. For in the 1812 version of Rapunzel, the naive girl finds herself wondering why her dress is getting tighter around her belly after the prince has been visiting her in the tower every day.
Another tale stars Hans Dumb, who finds himself with the magical gift of being able to impregnate the king’s daughter simply by wishing it.
However, it’s not all that grim. In the earliest-known printed version of Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault, the wolf is the victor when the story ends after he has eaten Red Riding Hood and the grandmother. Perhaps the Grimms were having one of their more cheerful days when they altered the ending to have a huntsman slash open the wolf’s stomach from which the girl and her grandmother emerge unscathed to live happily ever after.
Once upon a timeline
1785: Jacob Grimm born on January 4th in Hanau, Germany
1786: Wilhelm Grimm born on February 24th
1812: First edition of the Grimm brothers’ collection of stories appears on December 20th
1823: First version of the collection in English, translated by Edgar Taylor. It is published as German Popular Stories
1825: Small edition of the collection. It has the first illustrations by another Grimm brother, Ludwig Emil.
1859: Wilhelm dies on December 16th in Berlin at the age of 73
1863: Older brother Jacob dies on September 20th, aged 78 in Berlin
1893: Copyright lapses and the collection begins to appear in many different formats, including Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel in Weimar 1907: The most famous German illustrated edition with images by Otto Ubbelohde is published
1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens as the world’s first animated feature. Walt Disney builds an entertainment empire with Grimms’ tales: Cinderella in 1950, Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and opens Disneyland in 1955
2012: Grimms’ Fairytales celebrates its 200th anniversary. The collection has been translated into 160 languages, with 120 different editions available in English.