Frontispiece and title page of the 1819 edition, illustrated by Jacob and Wilhelm’s brother, Ludwig Emil Grimm. 

1. Jacob and Wilhelm didn’t write their fairytales.

Many of the stories included in Die Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) were actually hundreds of years old, if not older.

Jacob and Wilhelm were primarily academics and compiled the tales to record German cultural heritage. As a result, the first edition had lots of footnotes and no illustrations. They published the first volume of 86 tales in 1812, followed by a second volume of 70 tales in 1815.

Both sold terribly. This is because the readership for the stories was primarily children and the original text was far from appropriate. So in the second edition Wilhelm adopted a heavy-handed approach to the editing, practically rewriting parts of some of the stories. The result was an illustrated edition published in 1819 that was lighter on sex and violence and heavier on the Christian values.

This is obvious in our tale of choice, Rapunzel. In the original story, Rapunzel and the prince enjoyed some alone time in the tower, which led to a pregnancy and twins. In the second edition there is no reference to any of this funny business.

Wilhelm’s editing went on throughout the six editions printed in the brothers’ lifetime. However, for today’s reader many of the tales included in these 19th-century editions are far from their Disney versions. There is too much murder, torture and other dark acts for the Grimm brothers’ work to be child friendly!

2. It took over 200 years for an unsanitized version of Grimm’s Fairytales appear in English.

In 2014, renowned professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota (now retired), Jack Zipes, published a translation of the original 156 tales contained in the first two volumes of the Grimm brothers’ work.

Professor Zipes’ translation of the first edition doesn’t hold back – it includes several tales that Wilhelm and Jacob eventually removed from later editions due to graphic violence or sexual content. Many tales are pretty shocking, in particular How the Children Played at Slaughtering and The Children of Famine. Others are just slightly more disturbing tweaks like the fact that it was Snow White’s mother, not step mother who wanted to kill her and eat her lungs and liver.

This translation is not only an amazing feat of scholarship but also contains the hauntingly beautiful monochrome illustrations by Romanian artist Andrea Dezsö. I’d recommend picking up a copy at your local bookstore.

3. They wrote a dictionary.

Not just any dictionary but the largest and most comprehensive German dictionary in history.

The Deutsches Wörterbuch or the DWB for short, starts with High German from 1450 and moves to words from other languages that have been adopted into German. The entry for each word is extensive, covering etymology, synonyms, meanings, regional differences, etc. The DWB also provides primary source referencing, making it similar to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Jacob and Wilhelm started the DWB in 1838 thinking it would take them about 10 years to complete 6-7 volumes. In fact the first 8 volumes weren’t published until 1854. They continued until their deaths – Wilhelm worked up to the letter D until he died in 1859, Jacob covered A, B, C and E and died in 1863 while working on the entry for ‘frucht’ or ‘fruit’.

Scholars continued the Grimm’s work until the DWB was finally completed in 1961. It took 123 years! The completed work contains 67,744 text columns, 320,000 keywords and weighed 84 kg. The project is still going strong, with further updates and digitization plans.

4. During the Third Reich, Die Kinder und Hausmärchen was used as propaganda.

Unfortunately, Hitler picked up on Wilhelm and Jacob’s cultural importance and appropriated several of the tales as upholding a romantic sense of nationalism and racial purity. The Nazis even went so far as to demand every household own a copy of the book.

After the war, Allied occupying forces in Germany actually banned the book from classrooms and sought to remove it from circulation. Children’s and Household Tales became seen as a source of grotesque national pride.

However, it’s important to remember that while Wilhelm and Jacob did show reverence for Germany and its traditional values, they were writing in a different context. In the early 19th-century, Germany was not unified but a collection of weak, disorganized states, some of which were under French occupation until 1815. During French control, reforms were put in place to alter German social, religious and cultural norms, and even impose the French language.

5. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had their faces on the DM1000 bill.

All in all, the Brothers Grimm were pretty impressive. Wilhelm and Jacob were in still their 20s when Children’s and Household Tales was published. Jacob went on to write a number of seminal books on German linguistics, law and history, and even has the linguistic Grimm’s Law named after his discovery of consonant pronunciation.

In addition to their joint dictionary project mentioned above, Jacob and Wilhelm wrote Die Deutsche Grammatik, which was the first work to research the origins and development of German dialects.

To top it all off, both brothers were both politically active, fighting, and arguing in favor of a unified Germany.

So it’s not surprising that they appeared on the 1000 Deutsche Mark bill in 1992. The note only ceased to be in circulation with the introduction of the Euro in Germany in 2002.