View Full Version : Brothers Grimm, Folklore, and Nationalism

Taras Bulba
Wednesday, September 7th, 2005, 01:57 AM

Brothers Grimm, Folklore, and Nationalism

Just the other day I saw the movie "The Brothers Grimm" (http://movies.yahoo.com/shop?d=hv&id=1808439549&cf=info) starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the famous pair (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brothers_Grimm) as they battle to save a village from a wicked princess. It contains all the elements from the famous fairy tales they made famous (and the film depicts the adventure as the inspiration for the brothers to commit to writing down these stories). I must say, I personally enjoyed this movie, yet there seems to be more to it than might appear at first glance to the casual movie-goer.

Most moviegoers who see this movie will probably not understand the greater historical context during which the story takes place, yet in my opinion to do so would shed much greater light onto the film. Understandably so, the historical events within the film take a backseat to the main story of the brothers fighting against enchanted spirits. Hopefully however, this short outline of the historical context provided here will help give a basic understanding.

The year the movie takes place is around 1811, and Germany is under occupation by the French. This is the eve of the War of Liberation (http://members.tripod.com/Gary13_Shively/BKhome.htm), in which the German people would later rise up against their foreign oppressors. In the midst of this war, German nationalism would emerge as a major force in society and the brothers Grimm were connected to this process.

The historical brothers were firm German nationalists and they saw their work of writing down old peasant folk tales as doing their duty of preserving their peoples heritage. They were devoted to the ideals of the 18th century Germany thinker Johann Gotfried Herder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Gottfried_Herder)(recognized as the father of modern nationalism); who viewed folklore as representing the soul of a nation and not just merely cute little bedtime stories.

Herder was speaking in defiance of the zeitgeist of his age, the age of the Enlightenment. The ideals of this period depended on rejecting traditional ways of doing things, putting faith in reason and science as opposed to religion (which men of this age denounced as just silly superstition), and looking past narrow loyalties to ones folk and instead believing in a cosmopolitan world order. France was the intellectual center of the Enlightenment, and its ideals would later launch the French Revolution. As the armies of the French Revolution marched out across Europe, they brought the ideals of the Enlightenment with them.

Yet when the French occupied the German territories in the aftermath of the Battle of Jena (in which Napoleon defeated the Prussian army), a great intellectual backlash against the Enlightenment emerged. Led by figures as diverse as Johann Fichte, Ernst-Moritz Ardnt, Frederich Jahn, the brothers August and Friederich Schlegel, among others; these men encouraged the German people to reject the ideals the French wished to impose of them and instead take pride in their heritage. Fichte even rallied the German people to arms in his famous Addresses to the German Nation (http://foster.20megsfree.com/20.htm). This intellectual backlash would in time culminate in the War of Liberation and eventually the unification of the Germans under Bismarck.

Yet even that’s not the entire story (which sadly cannot be fully outlined here), for out of this intellectual backlash emerged the philosophy and aesthetic known today as Romanticism (http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html) and its ideals spread far beyond Germany. Intellectuals from across the European continent (and even to America) themselves started rejecting the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment as well and looked instead for inspiration in their ethnic heritages, especially their folklore. This in turn would later lead to a great development in the arts, literature, music, and especially politics.

The historical Grimm brothers were very much part of this process, and in small doses could be seen within the film. When they’re fighting against the enchanted spirits of traditional German folklore(whom they would later make famous in their writings), in a strange sense one can say they’re also fighting the French occupiers and the ideals they represent. Against the secularism and cosmopolitanism of the French (which is depicted in the film, as they look with contempt upon the superstitious Germans), the brothers Grimm are making a fight for devotion to folkish and spiritual traditions. They’re unknowingly taking part in the cultural and intellectual process that would later inspire their people (not to mention other nations of Europe) to rise up and fight against Napoleon in the years to come.

Indeed in the film, the brothers do engage in some minor fighting against a French general(played by Jonathan Pryce) , but this takes second-place to the greater struggle against the wicked princess. The actual fight against the French occupation is simply not the focus of the story, but as mentioned above it can be seen allegorically.

This is very much an interesting film to watch, and I encourage others to watch it.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005, 06:50 AM
writing down old peasant folk tales

I read, can't remember where, that many of the tales they collected were not from peasants but from the minor nobles (?) (relatives?) they stayed with much of the time as they were collecting data. Not to refute all validity of the tales but they may not all have been collected in quite the manner we imagine by modern anthropological standards.
I plan on seeing the movie;-)