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The Grimm German Legends in English

From: Children's Literature
Volume 12, 1984
pp. 162-166 | 10.1353/chl.0.0073

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is somewhat of a mystery why the English-speaking world has had to wait until 1981 for the first translation of the Deutsche Sagen (German Legends) by the Brothers Grimm. After all, the Legends, which first appeared in 1816 and 1818, were translated into French, Danish, and even Rumanian in the nineteenth century and have always been considered a vital source book for folklorists and critics alike. Perhaps we have always assumed that the German Legends had been translated since many of them are known through romances, novels, adaptations, selective translations, films, comic books, and references in critical studies. The two most famous examples are Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser and Robert Browning's The Children of Hameln. The Legends have been very much with us, albeit in some very unusual forms which confuse their meaning and origins. Now, thanks to the efforts of Donald Ward and his excellent English rendition, we can finally clarify some mistaken assumptions and appreciate the Legends in their proper context.

Ward's accomplishment does not stop with the translation, which maintains the singular styles of the colorful legends. Indeed, he has also provided copious notes, bibliographical references, and an epilogue that sheds light on the historical significance of the Grimms' work. Since this epilogue is essentially an introduction to German Legends, I should like to begin by discussing the major points and then to point to the relevance of the Legends for various scholarly disciplines.

After documenting the source which he used for his translation, Ward divides his epilogue into four sections: "Precursors of the Brothers Grimm," "Lives of the Brothers Grimm," "The Brothers Grimm and the Emergence of the Study of Folklore," and "The German Legends." Throughout this long essay Ward endeavors to distinguish fact from fiction about the Brothers Grimm; for, despite a few general accounts of their lives, there is no exhaustive critical biography of the Grimms to date. The two biographies in English, The Brothers Grimm by Ruth Michaelis-Jena (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) and Paths through the Forest by Murray B. Peppard (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), leave a great deal to be desired, and even in German there is a real lack in this area, despite the source book by Ludwig Denecke, Jacob Grimm und sein Bruder Wilhelm (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971). Furthermore, there have been major revisions in the interpretations of their tales due to discoveries about their method of research and the historical reception of their findings. Heinz Rölleke's important research is surprisingly not discussed by Ward. (See Heinz Rölleke, ed., Die älteste Märchensammlung der Brüder Grimm [Cologny-Genève: Fondation Martin Bodmer, 1975] and Gerd Hoffman and Heinz Rölleke, eds., Der unbekannte Bruder Grimm. Deutsche Sagen von Ferdinand Phillip Grimm [Cologne: Diederichs, 1979]). In addition, Rölleke has recently edited the significant 1819 edition of the Grimms' tales and written an epilogue which contains new material about the research methods of the two scholars: Grimms Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 2 vols. (Cologne: Diederichs, 1982).

All this has had a bearing on the status of the Grimms as folklorists and the importance of their Legends as well. Thus, Ward does well to begin cautiously by explaining that the Brothers Grimm were not the founders of modern folklore as has been commonly believed, but that they were a part of a broad movement in the eighteenth century when numerous scholars were undertaking ethnologically based studies of folk customs. Moreover, even the philological orientation taken by the Grimms had been initiated in Germany by Herder and the early romantics (particularly the Schlegel brothers, and also Tieck, Novalis, Fichte, Schelling, and Schleiermacher, all of whom Ward unfortunately slights). Nevertheless, the Grimms did set new standards for field research and textual analysis once they realized the significance of their work on folktales and legends, and they became the foremost pioneers in the field of comparative folklore and mythology in the nineteenth century.

Ward devotes the biographical part of the epilogue to a survey of how the Grimms developed an interest in folklore and mythology. Here, in a few pages, he admirably transmits a vivid picture of their lives and concerns...

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