The Brothers Grimm Did Much More Than Tell Fairy Tales

A recent discovery in a Polish library of 27 books that were thought to have been lost sheds light on the breadth of the German scholars’ work

One of the lost works discovered in AMU's University Library with annotations from the Brothers Grimm Adam Mickiewicz University

Throughout their lifetime, Jacob Ludwig Carl Grimm and Wilhelm Carl Grimm, better known as the Brothers Grimm, collected and compiled hundreds of oral stories told by adults and transformed them into enduring written tales, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel.

Their story collection, “Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children and Household Tales in English),” conveyed simple moral lessons that resonate universally, making them accessible to all.

“The Grimms thought the stories and their morals emanated naturally from the German people in an oral tradition, and they wanted to preserve them before the tales were lost forever,” Jack Zipes writes for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Yet, the brothers were more than folklorists; they were linguists who advanced the study of German classical literature and the German language. The pair began work on the Deutsche Wörterbuchwhich is considered the most extensive German dictionary today. This lexicon—completed more than a century later by scholars determined to complete the Grimms’ unfinished work—features 32 volumes, over 331,000 entries and approximately 4,000 sources cited.

To aid their research on folklore and linguistics, the brothers looked to their private library of 8,000 books. Today, most of these books reside in a library in Berlin after Wilhelm’s son, Hermann, transferred them there, according to Adam Mickiewicz University's (AMU) Ewa Konarzewska-Michalak. Others were scattered and lost over the decades.

Last year, however 27 works from the Brothers Grimm's private collection were found in AMU’s library in Poznań, Poland. The works, dating from the 1400s through the second half of the 1800s, fit into three categories: incunables, prints and books, Artnet's Vittoria Benzine reports. According to AMU curator Renata Wilgosiewicz-Skutecka, the librarians were able to identify them thanks to handwritten notes by the Grimms. These inscriptions also gave insight into the Grimms’ working method and choices of themes and motifs in their work.

The scholars also were able to track how the books arrived in Poland, with one path dating back to the end of World War II when librarians sought to protect the books from Allied airstrikes and sent them off to Poland. The works will remain at AMU as the library digitizes them and makes them publicly available online. Eliza Pieciul-Karmińska, a linguist with AMU, expressed her hope that this is just the beginning of gaining a better understanding of the Grimms as creators of the German language dictionary. 

This discovery suggests that other libraries may also possess lost works from the Brothers Grimm's private collection, The New Voice of Ukraine explains.

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