A trip through time

Last updated 05:10 04/03/2014
Yomiuri Shimbun

FAIRYTALE CITY: In Kassel’s Niederzwehren district, the many half­-timbered houses echo the city the Brothers Grimm lived in about 200 years ago.

Brothers Grimm
Yomiuri Shimbun
BACK IN TIME: “The Brothers Grimm” usually refers to Jacob Grimm (1785­-1863), right, and Wilhelm (1786­-1859) the second and third sons of an upper-class family with nine children.
Yomiuri Shimbun
FOLK TALES: A building in central Kassel, Germany, where the Brothers Grimm lived on the second floor for about two years.

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The Brothers Grimm were only in their 20s when they published their first collection of fairy tales, but more than 200 years later, characters such as Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood are still captivating children's hearts.

It was here, in the ancient city of Kassel in central Germany, that the two men began collecting local folk tales, during the city's occupation by French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte.

About five kilometres south of the city centre is a street lined with charming half-timbered houses that are more than two centuries old.

This street in Niederzwehren district is called Maerchen Weg, literally "fairy tale way," because Dorothea Viehmann, a local resident who shared folk tales with the brothers, lived there for more than 10 years from 1787.

My guide, Irmgard Heusener, said the houses there are typical of those from the time of the Brothers Grimm.

The brothers were born to an upper-class family in Hanau, a provincial city about 200 kilometres from Kassel. After their father died from disease, the two then-teenage brothers left their home in 1798 to study in Kassel, which was their mother's hometown and the capital of the principality of Hessen.

For about 25 years they lived in the city, which grew to be an important home base for the brothers and where they made outstanding contributions to linguistics in addition to collecting folk tales, according to Bernhard Lauer, director of the Brothers Grimm Museum.

The era the Brothers Grimm lived in, from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, was a tumultuous time for the city. France took control of Kassel in 1806, and made it the site for the palace of Napoleon's younger brother Jerome.

Jacob Grimm, the elder of two brothers, spoke fluent French, and became a librarian at the royal library.

But while Jacob was studious and detailed, his younger brother Wilhelm was a more sociable personality with a penchant for poetry and a fragile constitution. The pair began soliciting folk tales from local women around this time.

Their first volume was a collection of 86 folk tales for children and families, and was published in 1812 at a time when the city was under French occupation. In 1814, Wilhelm followed in his older brother's footsteps and became a librarian.

"I believe the brothers tried to resist the foreign occupation through their efforts to create bonds among the people through folk tales that have been handed down through the generations in Germany," Heusener said.

The brothers moved to Berlin in 1841, but continued publishing their books in seven editions through 1857.

Their achievements in studying ancient German and constructing the foundations of Germanistic studies were also notable. Their portraits were featured on the former Deutsche Mark paper currency of Germany. Jacob was active in politics and was elected to the Frankfurt national assembly of 1848, launched with the aim of German unification.

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Kassel served as a military-industrial stronghold during World War II, which led Britain to begin bombing the city in 1943.

While the sections of Maerchen Weg in the suburbs escaped the ensuing fires, the old city area where the brothers' house stood was burned to the ground.

"Many buildings in the old city area were rebuilt after World War II," said Heusener.

The museum displays translations of the brothers' books into a variety of languages, illustrating how their dedication to overcome war and share finer points of culture created worldwide bestsellers.

- The Yomiuri Shimbun

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