They weren’t all that interesting, they lived together for most of their lives and rarely went anywhere or did anything. Yet these two unlikely academics from a little-known town in Germany arguably did more to spark creative minds around the world than anyone else in the last several hundred years. Ultimately, they were the ones I wanted to learn the most about when I started my drive along the German Fairy Tale Route. I wanted to better understand the people behind those classic stories we all know and love and I have to say, I was more than just a little surprised by what I found.
Who were the Brothers Grimm?
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in the 1780s, just two members of a robust and well-to-do family. Spending their formative years in Hanau and then Steinau, the brothers went to university in Marburg, Germany where many argue their interest in German linguistics and ultimately folklore began. That’s something about the brothers that’s important to know, and a fact I didn’t really understand until I drove the Germany Fairy Tale Route, learning all about the Grimms in the process. The brothers were academics in every sense and they were also workaholics. Their entire lives were mostly spent hunched over writing tables, but their influences on the world have been amazing. That’s in large part thanks to their lifelong project, one that meant more to them than the fairy tales – the first comprehensive German Dictionary. The size of this project is difficult to convey, but by the time of their deaths they’d barely made a dent in its construction. In fact the massive Deutsches Wörterbuch or German Dictionary wasn’t completed until 1961 and it’s still being updated today. Think about that for a moment, it took more than a century to complete this epic tome; a testament to German attention to detail, if nothing else. The fairy tales were decidedly not their major life’s work and I imagine if they were alive today they’d be shocked and probably a little depressed that their legacy has trickled down through Snow White and not something more scholarly. Yet those fairy tales, even more than the dictionary, is I think their major intellectual contribution to the world. Through the collection of traditional stories from around the European continent, they preserved cultural histories that surely would have been otherwise lost. It’s a critical part of world history and it’s a history you can discover when you drive along the German Fairy Tale Route. The driving road though is about more than castles and legends, it’s also about meeting the Brothers Grimm, learning about their lives and how their names became so intertwined with the stories now loved around the world. There are many cities and towns that influenced Jacob and Wilhelm, but here are a few where I stopped to learn as much as I could about this somewhat enigmatic duo.
My first stop along the Fairy Tale Route, Steinau may just be a few miles off the Autobahn, but instantly I was transported to another time. This compact community doesn’t look like it’s changed a lot over the years; dozens of colorful half-timbered homes line the center of town along with an old church, square and the 400-year old inn where I spent the night. But the town is also home to another treasure, the Brothers Grimm House Museum. It was here where the Grimms spent an uncomplicated youth, living in the large house given to their father who was the district magistrate. But it’s also in Steinau where their father suddenly died, dramatically altering the fortunes of the Grimms and forever changing the lives of the Brothers in the process. To learn more about the family, the Brothers and even the fairy tales, the Museum is the perfect place to start. Recently remodeled, the museum calls the historic property home, but inside is a beautifully curated and engaging collection of exhibits, sharing the history of the region, the life and times of the family and ultimately what led to the creation of those fairy tales.
Walking around with the museum’s curator, the same man who personally remodeled the entire look and feel of the experience, I couldn’t help but be taken by his passion for the Grimms. For him, this was so much more than just a job, it is his life’s calling which he lovingly refers to as his child. In addition to the museum there are plenty of other ways to walk in the footsteps of the Grimms by visiting the old church where their grandfather was once pastor or just by walking through an old town that really hasn’t changed a lot since the time of the Grimms. There are even tours of this small but lovely town, led by costumed Grimm characters of course. For my tour Puss ‘n’ Boots was my host, guiding me around the city and sharing important historical points of what quickly became a new favorite small town. I felt at home in Steinau, free from hassle and traffic and it’s where I first fell into the pastoral spirit of the Fairy Tale Route, the greatest attribute of this fun drive.
It’s hard not to love Marburg. This university town feels as if you’re floating in the clouds; the old town perched high above the surrounding modern city and enjoying views that are among the best in the region. This is also where the Brothers Grimm attended university and where their interest in preserving all aspects of the German language and associated traditions was first piqued. It was here where they were introduced to the Romantics and where they picked up the skill sets that would define their lives. It’s also where I spent a wonderful afternoon exploring the many small lanes, alleys and hidden little nooks around town. I don’t know exactly what made me enjoy the city as much as I did, it’s probably a unique mix of all of its attributes, but whatever the reason, this is definitely a city where I’d like to return and spend some more time both exploring and doing nothing at all except enjoying Marburg’s lively spirit. Part of that spirit comes from the massive student population; Marburg is still very much a university town just as it was during the time of the Grimms and it still largely defines the city, along with its many historic highlights.
Chief among those is the castle of the Hessian Landgraves that sits at the pinnacle of the mountain on which the old town calls home. From the castle you can see across a countryside that hasn’t changed all that much since the Grimms first saw it. But you can also see evidence of the fairy tales here too. One of the earliest illustrators of the fairy tales was from Marburg and when it came time to create the artwork that would ultimately define our impression of these ancient stories, he chose familiar scenes from Marburg. Walking around with book in hand you can easily find bridges, archways, roads and hills that all exist in real life but which are also featured in those stories. It’s an interesting mix of reality and fiction, which is, after all, the hallmark of a great fairy tale. There’s a lot to see and do here so when you visit spend at least a night not only to enjoy the history but also to enjoy the spirit of the city. Visit one of the many restaurants and spend the evening people watching, as important an activity as following the trail of the Grimms.
Kassel is where my own personal interest in the Grimms and the Fairy Tale Route began and I was thrilled to return not only to experience the city again, but to explore its newest addition – Brothers Grimm World (GRIMMWELT Kassel). This new and exceedingly modern museum has been called one of the top museum openings of the year by just about everyone, and with good reason. I was honestly excited to visit not only to appreciate the museum itself, but to learn more about the Grimms themselves. Kassel is the so-called Capital City of the German Fairy Tale Route though not because of this museum but because it’s where the Brothers spent most of their lives. It was here where they did most of their work not only on the fairy tales but also the dictionary and it’s from Kassel and nearby regions where a majority of the original tales first originated. Kassel is at the heart of the Fairy Tale experience in Germany, even being recognized by UNESCO for the fairy tales and their place on the World Document Heritage list. But today the GRIMMWELT is the center of fairy tale life in Germany and I couldn’t wait to visit.
Recently opened, the museum is modern and interactive and its goal is to accurately share the life and times of the Brothers Grimm, from early days to, of course, the fairy tales. A lot of the exhibit space though is dedicated to the Deutsches Wörterbuch, arguably more important than the fairy tales, but not as well known. It’s hard to get excited about a dictionary, but the story of its creation really is fascinating. Methodical to a degree unknown today, the Brothers spent their lives meticulously collecting words, defining them, assigning origins and use. Ultimately it was more than they could handle, they both died about a century before its actual completion. But the GRIMMWELT does a fantastic job of bringing the dictionary to life, dedicating different aspects of the Brothers’ lives to a different letter of the alphabet, allowing guests to wander through a larger than life dictionary. It’s hard to deny though the popularity of the fairy tales, the most widely translated and republished German book, and its affect on the world. GRIMMWELT naturally also shares this story, how and why the Brothers collected the tales, how they edited and changed them over time and the dramatic impact these stories have had on world culture. Just think about the tales and how well you personally know them: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel just to name a few. These are stories each and every one of us knows and whether we realize it or not, they in large part formed our early creative memories. There is no underestimating the impact the Brothers had on future generations as they thoughtfully preserved a vast body of knowledge that may have been otherwise lost to time.
Driving the German Fairy Tale Route is fun, no doubt there. Castles, small towns and villages, great food and outdoor adventures that are both unexpected but also exhilarating are all key features of this drive. But it’s also about a sort of passive education, learning about the real-life places and people that inspired the fairy tales and the men who thankfully preserved them for us to enjoy today. The Brothers Grimm were not exciting people. They were boring academics that rarely left their offices, nearly buried in a mountain of paper, notecards and clutter. No factual movies will be made of them, but their legacy is one that touches each and every one of us today. They were important, their work was meaningful and that, more than anything else, is why you should devote some time to enjoying every aspect of the Fairy Tale Route. Yes, drive it to experience those iconic moments that can only be enjoyed in Germany, but also do it as an homage to these men who in the most unlikely of ways changed the world forever.