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THE WILD GIRL - The story behind the Grimms fairy tales

Sunday, February 23, 2014

To celebrate THE WILD GIRL being named Most Memorable Love Story of 2013 by Australian readers, I'm going to share some vintage Wild Girl posts this week - I hope you enjoy!

The Story Behind the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales
Once upon a time there were two brothers who lived in a small kingdom in the middle of a crazy patchwork of other small kingdoms, each with its own prince or archduke to rule it. Some of these kingdoms were so small the princes could fire at each other from their castle walls. 

The two brothers – named Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm – were the eldest of a family of six, all boys except for the youngest who was a girl named Lotte.

Next door to the Grimm family lived a family of six girls and one boy named the Wilds. They lived side-by-side on the Marktgasse in the medieval quarter of a town named Cassel, famous for its palace set in vast gardens and forests. 

Jakob and Wilhelm and their family were desperately poor. Their father had died, and the two elder brothers struggled to feed and clothe their siblings. 

One day a mighty emperor called Napoleon decided he wished to rule the world. On his way to seize the thrones of the other great kings and emperors of the world, he took over the Grimm brothers’ small kingdom and mashed it together with many of its neighbours to create the Kingdom of Westphalia. He set his young brother Jérôme up as king. In his first week, Jérôme played leapfrog in his underwear with his courtiers through the empty halls of the palace, then spent a fortune ordering new furniture from Paris. 

Life was very hard for the Grimms. Everything changed under French occupation – the laws of the land, the weights and measurements, even the language everyone must speak - and censors meant the newspapers only printed what Napoleon wanted people to know. 

Partly as an act of defiance, and partly in the hope of making some money, the Grimms began to collect old stories from their neighbours and friends, with the aim of publishing a scholarly book. 

The Wild girls who lived next door knew many stories, particularly Lotte’s best friend, the fifth daughter, who was named Dortchen. She told Wilhelm many tales, including ‘The Frog King’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Six Swans’ and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’.  

Wilhelm and Dortchen fell in love, but the Grimms were so poverty-stricken they could only afford one meal a day. Wilhelm’s and Dortchen’s only chance to marry was if the fairy tale collection was a success.
Unfortunately, the book was a failure. It was criticised for being too scholarly, too unsophisticated, and filled with too much sex (some of the stories were indeed ripe with sexual innuendo).

It was a time of war and terror and tyranny. Napoleon marched on Russia. The fields of Europe were burned black, and many hundreds of thousands of people died.

Wilhelm struggled on (his elder brother Jakob was now busy with other scholarly undertakings). He collected more tales, from Dortchen as well as from other storytellers, and he rewrote the stories to make them more palatable to a middle-class audience. He added such terms as ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’, and made sure the princess did not take the frog into her bed anymore. 

Slowly the war was won, and peace returned. Slowly the fairy tales began to sell. Slowly the Grimm brothers’ reputation grew. At last, thirteen years after they first fell in love, Wilhelm and Dortchen were able to marry. They lived together with Jakob happily until their deaths. 

This is the story that I tell in my novel THE WILD GIRL - a story of love, war and fairy tales.


Susan commented on 19-Aug-2013 06:13 AM
Sounds wonderful! I just finished Bitter Greens and can't wait to read The Wild Girl.
I love stories commented on 03-Sep-2013 02:47 PM
Sounds like a good read, I look forward to picking this one up!
Tina commented on 23-Feb-2014 01:31 AM
I've told you before how much I adored The Wild Girl. Not only is it a beautiful love story but I loved finding out the historical facts that you have woven into the book. I never knew anything about the Napolianic wars etc. There are lots of facts in the book but they don't weigh the story down at all.
Kate Forsyth commented on 23-Feb-2014 10:25 AM
Thank you! Lovely of you to pop by and comment - I'm glad you enjoyed the post :)
Tristyn commented on 24-Feb-2014 02:58 PM
That is fascinating. I never even considered that the Grimm Brothers would have gotten married. I suppose I forgot that authors are people too, and not purely word-magicians.

Guess I have a new book to buy. :)
Freya Shipley commented on 22-Aug-2016 11:46 AM
I love *The Wild Girl* so much. I've always wondered how Wilhelm, as a scholar, felt about revising the stories to make them more marketable. Was it very hard for him? Did he feel he was compromising his academic integrity? How did he feel about the stories afterward? Did he enjoy rereading them? Did he still perceive them as artifacts of the authentic Germanic collective unconscious?

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