Happy Birthday, Jacob Grimm

Jacob (right) and Wilhelm Grimm (left) in a portrait by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, oil on canvas, 1855. Wikimedia Commons.

On this day in 1785, Jacob Grimm was born in Hanau, Germany. While today Jacob and his brother Wilhelm are best known for the highly successful—and at times widely varying—editions of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen ('Children's and Household Märchen'—usually known  in English as some variation of 'the Grimms's Tales'), a collection of folktale retellings produced by the brothers, their influence was iconic in a variety of fields, ranging from folkloristics to philology and well beyond.

In a sense, modern linguistics began with Rasmus Rask's and Jacob Grimm's outlining of the First Germanic Sound Shift, popularly known today as Grimm's Law. It's primarily due to this discovery that, for example, academic Thomas Shippey refers to Grimm as the 'Darwin of the humanities' in his Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimms' Mythology of the Monstrous and in part why, in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology, academic Rudolf Simek divides Germanic studies into a pre-Grimm and post-Grimm era. Jacob and Wilhelm additionally began the the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the first and—easily most comprehensive—dictionary of the German language, comparable to the role the Oxford English Dictionary plays for the English language.

Jacob Grimm's influence on ancient Germanic studies extends far beyond dry mining of the arcane mysteries of historical linguistics. Diligently working through a landscape of obscure texts relating to the ancient Germanic peoples far beyond the era of the internet and the many developments that mark today's field, Grimm's multi-volume Deutsche Mythologie (published in English by James Stallybrass with the rather more broad title Teutonic Mythology) remains influential, providing commentary and theory on the topic of Germanic mythology that scholars continue to turn to today, particularly for obscure topics rarely discussed elsewhere.

It's hard to overstate the far-reaching influence of Jacob Grimm. It's nearly impossible to avoid some reference to Kinder- und Hausmärchen on a daily basis, whether by way of Disney's retellings or some other means, and many of us were raised hearing retelling after retelling of the Grimms's own retellings of tales such as Snow White.

Influential folklorist Jack Zipes recently published a translation of the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen on the 200th anniversary of the German publication of these highly influential retellings. I highly recommend Zipes's essay on the topic hosted over at The Public Domain review.