The Brother’s Grimm

The Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm [1780s–1860s] were German academics, linguists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who together specialized in collecting and publishing folklore during the 19th century.

They were among the best-known storytellers of folk tales, and popularized stories such as “Cinderella”,  “The Frog Prince”, “The Goose-Girl”, “Hansel and Gretel”,  “Rapunzel”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Snow White”.

They wrote during a rise of romanticism and in response to trends valuing popular culture in the early 19th century. This revived interest in fairy tales, which had declined since their late-17th century peak and the Grimms rode the crest of this revival with their  collections.

The brothers  began the collection with the purpose of creating a scholarly treatise of traditional stories and of preserving the stories as they had been handed from generation to generation—a practice that was threatened by increased industrialization. According to scholars, some of the tales probably originated in written form during the medieval period  but were modified in the 17th century and again rewritten by the Grimms.

The brothers gained a reputation for collecting tales from peasants and story tellers, although many tales came from middle-class or aristocratic acquaintances. They discovered that versions of tales differed from region to region,

…picking up bits and pieces of local culture and lore, drawing a turn of phrase from a song or another story and fleshing out characters with features taken from the audience witnessing their performance.



It was this appropriation of culture and language with the retelling of the stories that led them to the conviction that a national identity could be found in popular culture from the common folk.

The brothers’ methodology for collecting and preserving folklore became a form of nationalism and “intellectual resistance” to external occupiers, a model to be followed later by writers throughout Europe during periods of oppression.

Their collections have become national and international masterpieces, classics retold in cinema, theatre, art and literature the world over.

A few points can be gathered from this brief summary of the work and significance of the Brothers Grimm.

  1. Folklore, legends and mythical stories have always had a deeper significance than simply being children’s morality tales. Their significance goes deeply into forming a sense of national and personal identity.
  2. The rise of romanticism and the threat of industrialisation created a flourishing interest in local folk lore which endures until today in some form or other. Where spirituality flourishes so does art, narrative, language, story and myth.
  3. When told in the vernacular of a region and with the nuances and influences of the customs and culture of a region, local stories can constitute “intellectual resistance” to outside influences.

frog prince

The enduring popularity of the  Grimm’s Fairy Tales indicates there is much untapped potential in the folklore, myths and legends of every region and language and ethnicity if only we had the persistence of the Grimms to catalogue and retell it.



Ring, a ring o’ Roses

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.

So goes “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” the well known nursery rhyme and playground singing game.


It’s childish poetry has been recently associated with the tragedy of the Great Plague of the 1600s, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England from 1300s. Experts in nursery rhyme lore write:

The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.

However, other folklore scholars regard the theory as baseless for several reasons:


  1. The plague explanation did not appear until the mid-twentieth century.
  2. The symptoms described do not fit especially well with the Great Plague.
  3. European and 19th-century versions of the rhyme suggest that this “fall” was not a literal falling down, but a curtsy or other form of bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.

ring a roses

An alternative theory attributed to folklorist Philip Hiscock –  that the nursery rhyme probably has its origins

in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the ‘play-party.’ Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too.

In fact, many nursery rhymes have political or historical contexts quite different to the innocent childish games they are today. Some in fact are quite sinister. You can read more about The Dark Origins of 11 Classic Nursery Rhymes here.

Ruth Park, Australian author of the children’s class Playing Beatie Bow, picked up this tendency of children’s games to hark back to dark history, weaving the motif into her children’s novel.

First published in 1980, Playing Beatie Bow tells of 14 year old Abigail who is drawn into a curious children’s game named “Beatie Bow.” The chidlren believe they are summoning the ghost of Beatie Bow, who died a hundred years prior.

playing beatie bow

Little does Abigail know but the game has opened a door way in time and the real Beatie Bow is lured through time from 1873 colonial Sydney town, summoned by the children chanting her name. Abigail pursues the girl back through her doorway in time and becomes stranded in 1873, living with the Bow family and their subsistence life in the Rocks of Sydney harbour.

The family believe she bears a “gift” for future generations of the Bow family. The novel is a lovely retrospective on colonial Australia, adolescent love and growing up. The narrative is tied together with the motif of a playground game which stitches generations together across time.

playing beatie bow 2