FRAU KATHERINA VIEHMANN (1755–1815) was about fifty-five when the young Grimm brothers discovered her. She had married in 1777 a tailor of Niederzwehren, a village near Kassel, and was now a mother and a grandmother. “This woman,” Wilhelm Grimm wrote in the preface to the first edition of the second volume (1815), “… has a strong and pleasant face and a clear, sharp look in her eyes; in her youth she must have been beautiful. She retains fast in mind these old sagas—which talent, as she says, is not granted to everyone; for there be many that cannot keep in their heads anything at all. She recounts her stories thoughtfully, accurately, with uncommon vividness and evident delight—first quite easily, but then, if required, over again, slowly, so that with a bit of practice it is possible to take down her dictation, word for word. Much was recorded in this way, and its fidelity is unmistakable. Anyone believing that traditional materials are easily falsified and carelessly preserved, and hence cannot survive over a long period, should hear how close she always keeps to her story and how zealous she is for its accuracy; never does she alter any part in repetition, and she corrects a mistake herself, immediately she notices it. Among people who follow the old life-ways without change, attachment to inherited patterns is stronger than we, impatient for variety, can realize.” 
It was from such people that Jacob and Wilhelm collected, through a period of years, the materials for their book: simple folk of the farms and villages round about, and in the spinning rooms and beer halls of Kassel. Many stories were received, too, from friends. In the notes it is set down frequently, “From Dortchen Wild in Kassel,” or “From Dortchen, in the garden house.” Dorothea Wild—later Wilhelm’s wife—supplied over a dozen of the stories. Together with her five sisters, she had been grounded in fairylore by an old nurse, die alte Marie.  Another family were the Hassenpflugs, who had arrived with a store of tales from Hanau;  still another, the von Haxthausens, who resided in Westphalia.  The brothers grubbed for materials also in medieval German manuscripts, and in the Folk Books and collections from the time of Luther.
The special distinction of the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785–1863 and 1786–1859) was its scholarly regard for the sources. Earlier collectors had felt free to manipulate folk materials; the Grimms were concerned to let the speech of the people break directly into print. Among the Romantics of the generation just preceding, folk poetry had been venerated profoundly. Novalis had pronounced the folk tale, the primary and highest poetical creation of man. Schiller had written extravagantly:
Liegt in dem Märchen meiner Kinderjahre
Als in der Wahrheit, die das Leben lehrt. 
Sir Walter Scott had collected and studied the balladry of the Scottish border. Wordsworth had sung of the Reaper. Yet no one before the Grimms had really acquiesced to the irregularities, the boorishness, the simplicity, of the folk talk. Anthologists had arranged, restored, and tempered; poets had built new masterpieces out of the rich raw material. But an essentially ethnographical approach, no one had so much as conceived.
The remarkable fact is that the Grimm brothers never developed their idea ; they began with it full blown, as young students hardly out of law school. Jacob, browsing in the library of their favorite professor, the jurist Friedrich Karl von Savigny, had chanced on a selection of the German Minnesingers, and almost immediately their life careers had stood before them. Two friends, Clemens Brentano and Ludwig Achim von Arnim, who in 1805 had published, in the Romantic manner, the first volume of a collection of folk song, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, gave the brothers valuable encouragement. Jacob and Wilhelm assisted with the later volumes of the Wunderhorn, and began collecting from their friends. But at the same time, they were seeking out, deciphering, and beginning to edit, manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The book of fairy tales represented only a fraction of their immediate project. It would be, as it were, the popular exhibition hall of an ethnological museum: in the offices upstairs research would be going forward, which the larger public would hardly wish, or know how, to follow.
The program proceeded against odds. In 1806 the armies of Napoleon overran Kassel. “Those days,” wrote Wilhelm, “of the collapse of all hitherto existing establishments will remain forever before my eyes.… The ardor with which the studies in Old German were pursued helped overcome the spiritual depression.… Undoubtedly the world situation and the necessity to draw into the peacefulness of scholarship contributed to the reawakening of the long forgotten literature; but not only did we seek something of consolation in the past, our hope, naturally, was that this course of ours should contribute somewhat to the return of a better day.” While “foreign persons, foreign manners, and a foreign, loudly spoken language” promenaded the thoroughfares, “and poor people staggered along the streets, being led away to death,” the brothers stuck to their work tables, to resurrect the present through the past.
Jacob in 1805 had visited the libraries of Paris; his ability to speak French now helped him to a small clerkship in the War Office. Two of his brothers were in the field with the hussars. Just after his mother’s death, in 1808, he was appointed auditor to the state council and superintendent of the private library of Jerome Buonoparte, the puppet king of Westphalia. Thus he was freed from economic worry, but had considerable to do. Volume one of the Nursery and Household Tales appeared the winter of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow (1812); two years later, in the midst of the work on volume two, Jacob was suddenly dispatched to Paris to demand restitution of his city’s library, which had been carried away by the French. Then in 1816, after attending the congress of Vienna as secretary of legation, he was again dispatched, to reclaim another treasure of books. He found the predicament not a little awkward. The librarian, Langlès, seeing him studying manuscripts in the Bibliothèque, protested with indignation: “Nous ne devons plus souffrir ce Monsieur Grimm, qui vient tous les jours travailler ici et qui nous enlève pourtant nos manuscrits.”
Wilhelm was never as vigorous and positive as Jacob, but the more gay and gentle. During the years of the collection he suffered from a severe heart disorder, which for days riveted him to his room. The two were together all their lives. As children they had slept in the same bed and worked at the same table; as students they had had two beds and tables in the same room. Even after Wilhelm’s marriage to Dortchen Wild, in 1825, Uncle Jacob shared the house, “and in such harmony and community that one might almost imagine the children were common property.”  Thus it is difficult to say, with respect to their work, where Jacob ended and Wilhelm began.
The engraved portraits of the brothers reveal two very good looking youths, clear eyed, with delicately modeled features. Wilhelm’s forehead is the larger, his chin the sharper, his eyes look out from arched, slightly nettled brows. With firmer jaw Jacob watches, and a sturdier, more relaxed poise. His hair is a shade the darker, the less curled and tousled. Their mouths, well shaped, are identical. Both are shown with the soft, flaring, highly-stocked collars and the wind-blown hair-trim of the period. They are alert, sharp nosed, sensitive nostriled, and immediately interest the eye.
In the labor on the fairy tales Jacob supplied, apparently, the greater initiative, the stricter demands for scholarly precision, and a tireless zeal for collecting. Wilhelm toiled over the tales with sympathetic devotion, and with exquisite judgment in the patient task of selecting, piecing together, and arranging. As late as 1809, they had considered the advisability of turning over the manuscripts to Brentano. But Jacob mistrusted their friend’s habit of reworking traditional materials—shooting them full of personal fantasy, cutting, amplifying, recombining brilliantly, and always flavoring to the contemporary palate. He complained of the mishandling of the texts of the Wunderhorn. The poet, however, thought the scholar a little dull, and exhibited no interest whatsoever in the ideal of the chaste historical record. Achim von Arnim, on the other hand, aided and advised. Though he strove to persuade Jacob to relent a little, here and there, he did not reject the brothers when they insisted on their program. It was he who found a printer for the collection, Georg Andreas Reimer, in Berlin.
Volume one came out at Christmas time, with a dedication to Bettina, the wife of Achim von Arnim, for her little son, Johannes Freimund. In Vienna the book was banned as a work of superstition; but elsewhere, in spite of the political tension of the times, it was eagerly received. Clemens Brentano declared that he found the unimproved materials slovenly and often very boring; others complained of the impropriety of certain of the tales; newspaper reviews were few and cold. Nevertheless, the book enjoyed immediate success, and prospered. The Brothers Grimm had produced, in an unpredicted way, the masterpiece which the whole Romantic movement in Germany had been intending.
Von Arnim wrote to Wilhelm with quiet satisfaction: “You have collected propitiously, and have sometimes right propitiously helped; which, of course, you don’t let Jacob know.…” Not all the tales had come from such talented heads as that of the story-wife of Niederzwehren. Some had been rather garbled. Many had been relayed by friends, and had lost flavor. A few had been found in fragments, and these had had to be matched. But Wilhelm had kept note of his adjustments; and their end had been, not to embellish, but to bring out the lines of the story which the inferior informant had obscured. Furthermore, throughout the later editions, which appeared from year to year, the work of the careful, loving, improving hand could be increasingly discerned. Wilhelm’s method, as contrasted with the procedures of the Romantics, was inspired by his increasing familiarity with the popular modes of speech. He noted carefully the words that the people preferred to use and their typical manners of descriptive narrative, and then very carefully going over the story-texts, as taken from this or that raconteur, he chiseled away the more abstract, literary, or colorless turns and fitted in such characteristic, rich phrases, as he had gathered from the highways and the byways. Jacob at first demurred. But it was clear that the stories were gaining immensely by the patient devotion of the younger brother ; and since Jacob, anyhow, was becoming involved in his grammatical studies, he gradually released to Wilhelm the whole responsibility. Even the first edition of volume two was largely in the hands of Wilhelm; thereafter the work was completely his.
Volume two appeared in January, 1815, the brothers having received assistance from all sides. “The two of us gathered the first volume alone,” Wilhelm wrote to a friend, “quite by ourselves and hence very slowly, over a period of six years; now things are going much better and more rapidly.” The second edition was issued, 1819, improved and considerably enlarged, and with an introduction by Wilhelm, “On the Nature of Folk Tales.” Then, in 1822, appeared a third volume—a work of commentary, compiled partly from the notes of the earlier editions, but containing additional matter, as well as a thoroughgoing comparative-historical study.  The brothers published a selection of fifty favorites in 1825, and in 1837 released a third edition of the two volume original, again amplified and improved. Still further betterments were to be noted in the editions of 1840, 1843, 1850, 1857. Translations in Danish, Swedish, and French came almost immediately; presently in Dutch, English, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Finnish, Esthonian, Hebrew , Armenian, and Esperanto. Tales borrowed from the Grimm collection have since been recorded among the natives of Africa, Mexico, and the South Seas.