Just a little over two hundred years ago, in December of 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), followed by a second volume in 1815. Little did the Grimms realize at that time that their tales would become the most famous “fairy tales” in the world and that the bicentennial of these two extraordinary books would be celebrated in conferences and ceremonies worldwide between 2012 and 2015. Ironically, few people today are familiar with the original tales of the first edition, for the Grimms went on to publish six more editions and made immense changes in them so that the final 1857 edition has relatively little in common with the first edition. From 1812 to 1857 the Brothers deleted numerous tales from the first edition, replaced them with new or different versions, added over fifty tales, withdrew the footnotes and published them in a separate volume, revised the prefaces and introductions, added illustrations in a separate small edition directed more at children and families, and embellished the tales so that they became polished artistic “gems.”
All these editorial changes to the tales in the first edition of 1812/15 should not lead us to believe that the tales were crude, needed improvement, and do not deserve our attention. On the contrary. I would argue that the first edition is just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments. In fact, many of the tales in the first edition are more fabulous and baffling than those refined versions in the final edition, for they retain the pungent and naïve flavor of the oral tradition . They are stunning narratives precisely because they are so blunt and unpretentious. Moreover, the Grimms had not yet “vaccinated” or censored them with their sentimental Christianity and puritanical ideology. In fact, the Brothers endeavored to keep their hands off the tales, so to speak, and reproduce them more or less as they heard them or received them. That is, the tales were not their own in the first place. Though they gradually made them their own, these stories retained other voices and still do. They originated through the storytelling of various friends and anonymous sources and were often taken from print materials. Then they were edited for publication by the Grimms, who wanted to retain their ancient and contemporary voices as much as possible.
It was not until the second edition of 1819 that there was a clear editorial change of policy that led to the refinement of the tales, especially by Wilhelm, who became the major editor from 1816 onward. The break in policy was not a sudden one; rather, it was gradual, and Jacob was always of the opinion that the tales should not be altered very much and tried to resist embellishment. But he was occupied by so many other projects that he did not object vociferously to Wilhelm’s changes as long as his brother preserved what he felt to be the essence of the tales. However, Wilhelm could not control his desire to make the tales more artistic to appeal to middle-class reading audiences. The result is that the essence of the tales is more vivid in the two volumes of the first edition, for it is here that the Grimms made the greatest effort to respect the voices of the original storytellers or collectors.
It is important to remember that the Grimms did not travel about the land themselves to collect the tales from peasants, as many contemporary readers have come to believe. They were brilliant philologists and scholars who did most of their work at desks. They depended on many different informants from diverse social classes to provide them with oral tales or literary tales that were rooted in oral traditions. Although they did at times leave their home—for example, to find and write down tales from several young women in Kassel and Münster and from some lower-class people in the surrounding villages—they collected their tales and variants primarily from educated friends and colleagues or from books. At first, they did not greatly alter the tales that they received because they were young and inexperienced and did not have enough material from other collectors to make comparisons. And, indeed, this is why the first edition of 1812/15 is so appealing and unique: the unknown tales in this edition are formed by multiple and diverse voices that speak to us more frankly than the tales of the so-called definitive 1857 edition, which had been heavily edited by Wilhelm over forty years. These first-edition Grimms’ tales have a beguiling honesty and an unusual perspective on human behavior and culture, and it is time we know more about their history.