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The new exhibition at the National Library of Scotland celebrates the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm, and runs until 18th November.
The Grimms were academic linguists and the original purpose of their work had been to discover essential truths about the cultural heritage of the common people.
Their 1812 collection, ‘Kinder- und Hausmärchen’, (Childhood and Household Tales) was aimed at a scholarly readership rather than at children.  Subsequently however, they edited their work to take advantage of the market which more child-friendly versions of these tales opened.
Over these two hundred years, the tales have been translated into more than 160 languages and have been adapted for drama, opera, film and other media, the most famous of these likely being Engelbert Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel, an 1895 score for which is part of the exhibition.
The NLS exhibition contains translations in French, English and Irish as well as originals in German.
There is also a direct Scottish connection for one of the great admirers of their work was Walter Scott.  Copies of Jacob’s correspondence with Scott are on display as are Scott’s personal first edition (with his signature on the title page) and his first English language edition (1824).  There is also an 1864 French translation which was in the collection of the Scottish and Gaelic folk-lorist, John Francis Campbell of Islay.  The early work of the Grimms had been crucial in creating an academic discipline and methodology to support the study of folk culture.
There is however an undertone of brutality, cruelty and violence to much of the work which the Grimms collected.  The exhibition’s collection of illustrations to their work tends, in its romantic aspects, to underplay this.   Much of course of their work has been sanitised, bowdlerised almost, and published in formats which minimise the powerful and brutal themes of the originals yet there is little doubt that part of the very attraction for children of these tales is their frightening and violent aspects.
This exhibition has the recurring NLS purpose of advertising the cornucopia of material which the NLS holds but, as ever, in respect of its core subject, it is stimulating, illuminating and thought-provoking.
The above article was first published in Lothian life on 23 October 2012:

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