Grimmer than your average fairytale
“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.”