> Skip to content

Article  •  05 July 2017


The Origins of Grimm

Kate Forsyth lifts the lid on the origins of your favourite fairy tales.

Everyone has heard of the Grimm brothers. Everyone has read some, at least, of their famous fairy tales. What few people know, however, is who originally told the stories to the Grimm brothers. The names of the original tellers have been lost to all – except those fairy tale scholars who have painstakingly pieced together clues taken from the brothers’ notes and diaries in order to discover the sources of some of the world’s best-loved fairy tales

For example, ‘Aschenputtel’, (better known today as ‘Cinderella’), was told by an old woman in a poorhouse in the small medieval town of Marburg where Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm went to university. Her name is thought to be Frau Creuzer.

‘Hansel & Gretel’ was told to Wilhelm in the house of the local apothecary, Herr Wild, which was next door to where the Grimm brothers lived. It was most probably told by Herr Wild’s second youngest daughter, Dortchen. She certainly provided the famous rhymes, usually translated into English as ‘Little mouse, little mouse, who is nibbling at my house?’ with the children replying, ‘it’s the wind so wild, the heavenly child’.

‘Little Red Cap’ was told by Jeannette and Marie Hassenpflug, young women in their late teens and early twenties, who also told ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ and ‘Brier Rose’ (better known as ‘Sleeping Beauty’), as well as many others. Their brother, Louis, married the Grimm brothers’ younger sister, Lotte.

‘The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes’ (sometimes called ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’) was told to Wilhelm by Jenny von Droste-Hülstoff, the niece of a university friend. She had a warm and tender friendship with Wilhelm, so many thought they might marry, but the wedding never came to pass.

‘The Bremen Town Musicians’ was told to Wilhelm by Jenny’s aunts, the sisters of Werner von Haxthausen, who studied law with the Grimms at Marburg University.

‘The Goose Girl’ was told to the Grimm brothers by Dorothea Viehmann, a poor old woman, widow to an innkeeper, who came to the Grimms’ house selling vegetables and butter.

‘Snow White’ was originally thought to have been told by the Wild family’s housekeeper, Marie Müller, better known as Old Marie. Now many scholars believe it was told by Marie Hassenpflug instead (though the Grimms had not yet met the Hassenpflugs when this story was first recorded). The argument continues.

‘The Twelve Brothers’ was told by Julia and Charlotte Ramus, daughters of the local pastor.

‘Rumpelstiltskin’ was told to Wilhelm by his next-door neighbour, Dortchen Wild. She also told him ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves & the Shoemaker’, ‘Sweetheart Roland’, ‘Mother Holle’, ‘The Three Little Men in the Wood’, ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’. In fact, she told almost one quarter of the Grimm brothers’ first collection of fairy tales.

Dortchen and Wilhelm fell in love during the collection of the fairy tales, but were unable to marry for many years thanks to the Grimm brothers’ poverty. It was not until a small collection, chosen especially for children, was published that the tales at last became popular and the two lovers were at last able to wed. They lived together happily with Wilhelm’s brother Jakob until their deaths.

The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth

One of the great untold love stories - how the Grimm brothers discovered their famous fairy tales - filled with drama and passion, and taking place during the Napoleonic Wars.

Buy now
Buy now

Looking for more articles?

See all articles