Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm lived through interesting times. The sudden loss of their father to pneumonia in 1796, before either brother had reached his teens, effectively ended their childhood and their cushioned middle-class life. But for the support of their maternal grandfather and an aunt, they and their four younger siblings would have faced dire poverty and even starvation. By the time they reached their twenties, their homeland in central Europe had become a territorial buffer zone, one of more than 200 frequently warring principalities, and a convenient battlefield for Napoleon in his quest for domination of the continent.
In this unstable environment, the brothers, then working as librarians in the town of Kassel, began collecting popular tales, initially as a favour to a friend who was preserving German folk songs. Both were devoted to promoting a united Germany, an ambition they believed they could serve by recording German Volkspoesie (folk poetry), a crucial element of their fractured nation's collective cultural identity.
They would likely be bemused, however, by the journey made by their stories in the 200 years since their first volume, Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children's and House Tales), was published on 20 December 1812.
Despite the book's title, the 86 stories including The Frog Prince, Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel were never designed for children. The volume was aimed at academic audiences, as was another that followed three years later, containing a further 70 stories. Neither was wildly successful. It was not until 10 years later, when a 50- tale "small edition" was produced, that the brothers finally saw some success.
To smooth the path from academic shelf to children's nursery, the Grimms systematically sanitised aspects of the tales - eliminating in particular earthy sexual elements such as Rapunzel's pregnancy, and references to cruel mothers - so that they should better conform to middle-class sensibilities. This was the first of many rewrites and adaptations the stories would endure over the years. Yet curiously, the violence, often of a strikingly horrible kind, remained largely intact.
It is shocking to read the 1825 version of Faithful John, in which the king beheads his own sons and uses their blood to restore life to a cherished servant who had been turned to stone. And what would today's children, raised to believe that the princess kissed the frog in The Frog Prince to effect its transformation, make of the brutal original version in which she hurls the creature against a wall?
In the early decades of the 19th century, it seems beheadings, cannibalism and myriad tortures were acceptable childhood fare, including birds plucking out ugly sisters' eyes (Cinderella) and Snow White's evil stepmother dancing at the heroine's wedding in a pair of red-hot iron shoes that kill her.
Yet it was natural that the work should evolve. It was a process that the Grimms had already set in motion, collecting the tales more often than not from their bourgeois (even French-speaking) friends and acquaintances. Stories that they travelled the countryside gathering the tales from peasants, soldiers and woodsmen are a myth.
Wilhelm, the more gregarious of the two, died in 1859. Jacob, who grew increasingly reclusive, survived him by four years, his last work being a comprehensive German dictionary, a vast scholarly undertaking.
Yet the tales' evolution continued, sometimes in highly contradictory ways. Many 19th-century editors expunged their violent content, but under the Third Reich this was positively celebrated, with Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel transformed into role models for Nazi youth, resourcefully and ruthlessly dispatching wolves and witches (rendered in illustrations and descriptions as crude Jewish stereotypes).
Damned by association, the tales were banned in Germany immediately after the Second World War by the Allied occupying forces. Yet Walt Disney had recognised their potential, altering them to celebrate American values. In the original stories, for example, Snow White told of dubious old men welcoming a young girl into their midst. But by the time of the now iconic 1937 Disney animation, the dwarves had been transformed into genial child- like figures, the heroine a picture of all-American wholesomeness.
Now another generation is challenging the perceived gender stereotyping and cruelty of some of the Grimm stories. Rumpelstiltskin, for example, is no longer split in two over his fury and frustration at being named. One recent refashioning has him invited to share family life and companionship as part of the royal household. It's a neat trick, and one that entirely does away with any nasty connotations attendant on the little man's desire for the queen's firstborn. It also follows a modern preference for evil characters to be offered redemption.
Yet advocates of the tales in their original form still celebrate their more unpleasant and challenging elements, with writers such as the late child psychologist and concentration camp survivor Bruno Bettelheim claiming that many of the themes have the potential to build children's emotional resilience and develop maturity.
And the work of revision continues. A new volume of the Grimm tales has recently been published, retold by Phillip Pullman, author of the best- selling His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman says he was eager to strip the tales back to their original state of "authenticity", though critics claim that he has in some cases embellished them. That, however, is very much in the great Grimm tradition of sewing together fragments of tales and stylistically smoothing out the different sources.
When I taught the tales recently to key stage 1 children, I stuck to the original versions with their sometimes grim details. This prompted raised eyebrows from some parents, and even I was a little worried that five- and six-year-olds might find some aspects of the stories difficult to cope with. I needn't have been. The workshop underlined how young children can delight in the dreadful, as long as any horrors along the way are presented in a playful manner in an environment of safety. And it helps that many of the Grimm tales have a happy ending - for the virtuous, at least.
Jerome Monahan is a teacher and education writer. For further information about his Active Grimm Tales and other Active Approaches workshops, email firstname.lastname@example.org
To read some of the original tales try The Classic Fairy Tales (not all stories are by the Grimms), which is edited by Iona and Peter Opie and boasts fantastic illustrations. An introduction explores story origins and possible hidden meanings. Or try the detailed and lavishly illustrated The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by Maria Tatar.
The BBC Radio 4 In Our Time broadcast on 5 February 2009 focused on the Brothers Grimm. The programme can be streamed or downloaded at: www.bbc.co.ukprogrammesb00h8t18
For more details of the Grimms' first edition of Kinder und Hausmarchen go to: bit.ly17fn55
Key stage 1: Traditional tales
Try antalieee_a's scheme of work and resources on well-known fairy tales and fantasy. bit.lyTradTales
Key stage 2: History of fairy tales
From ancient folklore to the Brothers Grimm, pupils explore literary history in ICTmagic's comprehension task. bit.lyFairyTaleHistory
Key stage 3: Grimm tales
Explore the differences between Cinderella and her alternative incarnation Ashputtel (from Carol Ann Duffy and Tim Supple's Collected Grimm Tales) in a drama unit by helenfrobertson. bit.lyGrimmTalesDrama
Key stage 4: Storytelling
Encourage students to write their own stories using this lesson plan from Teach First. bit.lyStartStories
Key stage 5: In a time, not so long ago.
Have some fun with traditional fairy tales in emilyfd's activity, which asks students to update them for modern times. bit.lyModernTales
Image credit: Alamy