The Lost Tales of the Brothers Grimm

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: November 6, 2013

"Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear," wrote the famous folklorist Jacob Grimm in 1885. Of course, fewer recognize the name than what Grimm, alongside his brother Wilhelm, successfully accomplished, which was committing so many prominent fairy tales throughout the whole of Europe to paper for the first time, in the state that we recognize them the most.

Yet, judging from this letter, it is clear that even the Brothers Grimm envied at the work of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, who in his day was one of the most respected oral historians of the region, successfully collecting some five hundred different fairy tales as he made his way through rural Bavaria, in a quest that would make Lady Gregory proud, collecting superstitions, beliefs and stories and granting them immortality through his words, all of which were recorded precisely as they were orated, Schonwerth giving the stories only the character of regional dialect, which to him was more important than trying to give the works any literary depth, for it was in their stories that Schonwerth sought local wisdom, and perhaps believed that the language was a byproduct of the mythology. He knew that deep within these stories were views of the world that could be lost forever if he did not act quickly. 

His research was compounded into a three-volume set Aus der Oberpfalz and published in 1857, literally “Outside the Oberpfalz,” a principality of Bavaria in southern Germany, the Upper Palatinate region to be exact, which boasts a rich cultural heritage, dating back to the Holy Roman Empire of the High Middle Ages, and a rich intermixing of cultures, including that of the Bohemian region (currently the Czech Republic). Therefore, while von Schonwerth records some familiar retellings of stories like Rumpelstiltskin or Little Red Riding Hood, a story which some speculate has its origins in Norse mythology, traced back to a portion of the Prose Edda, which is complete with the cross-dressing motif intact, relating the story of how Thor god of thunder was sent to slay the giant Mjolnir, posing as the maiden Freyja in a red dress to be offered as the giant's bride, and Thor providing the excuse that his unladylike eyes are from not having slept on the long journey.

Surprisingly, the three-volume set left no immediate impact upon the world, quickly fading into such obscurity that not even J.R.R. Tolkien in all of his great linguistic accomplishments and lectures of mythology referenced it. It would seem that this great oral historian would have perished in obscurity, his determination to commit to the world's memory the lore and wisdom of an illiterate populace to be in vain, a seemingly cruel irony. Fortunately, his work caught the eye of curator Erika Eichenseer, who discovered among his items, a volume of 500 fairy tales occupying the archives of the University of Regensburg, and published several of the newly discovered stories under the title The Scarab Beetle, one of which was recently featured in The New Yorker. Ms. Eichenseer's efforts saved not only the recognition of someone who well deserves it, but also the voices of an entire way of life long gone. 

Other Stories by James Sullivan
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