This week marks the birthdays of American illustrator Edward Gorey, and of pioneering German linguist and folklorist, Wilhelm Grimm, who, with his older brother Jacob, created the seminal folk and fairy tale collection, Kinder-und Hausmärchen, better known to us as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the source of such tales as "Rumpelstiltskin", "Snow White", "Sleeping Beauty", "Rapunzel", "Cinderella", "Hansel and Gretel", and "The Frog Prince.”
Part of the revolutionary and romantic spirit of the early 19th Century was the notion that there could be wisdom and delight in the traditions of the rural poor, that such lore would tell you something you might not otherwise understand about your society, a knowledge that had heretofore been hidden from the literate urban elites.
No-one had previously conceived of these tales as being of any value. Now, for the first time, intellectuals sat and listened respectfully to old story-telling peasant women. It was people like the Grimms, in their generation, who began to open urban society’s eyes to the treasurehouse in the imagination of the poor.
Though more than a century separated the Grimm’s from Gorey, their work illustrates a shared insight—that childhood and terror go hand-in-hand.
In the Grimm Brothers stories characters regularly meet grotesquely awful fates. And the evil entities seem to have bubbled up out of some unhealthy Mitteleuropean nightmare, the id of the dank forests and the festering inbred little hamlets. The target of their frequently cannibalistic desires, are almost always children. The Grimms peasant informants knew that in the visionary realm, beauty and horror live close together.
But there’s a golden thread that runs through the darkness. Many of the stories in the Grimms' collection seem to resonate with some primal narrative that we were born knowing. Wilhelm Grimm said that the tales were “fragments of belief, dating back to most ancient times, in which spiritual things are expressed in a figurative manner. The mythic element resembles small pieces of a shattered jewel lying strewn on the ground all overgrown with grass and flowers, and can only be discovered by the most far-seeing eye…Their signification has been lost, but is still felt, and it imparts value to the story.”
And here’s a story you should know about the brothers Grimm:
In 1837, the Brothers Grimm joined five of their colleague professors at the University of Göttingen to protest against the abolition of the liberal constitution of the state of Hanover by the reactionary King Ernest Augustus I. This group came to be known as The Göttingen Seven. The professors were fired from their university posts and three were deported, including Jacob. Jacob settled in Kassel, and Wilhelm joined him there. Their last years were spent in writing a definitive dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the first volume being published in 1854.
Edward Gorey's illustrated (and sometimes wordless) books, with their vaguely ominous air and ostensibly Victorian and Edwardian settings, have long had a cult following. Gorey became particularly well-known through his animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! in 1980, as well as his designs for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, for which he won a Tony Award.
Gorey’s imaginative backdrop is woven out of themes from mystery and horror fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in England. Because of the settings and style of his work, many people have assumed Gorey was British; in fact, this person who made a life’s work out of channeling the elegantly perverse dream life of pre-WWI Britain never actually so much as visited the place. Gorey classified his own work as literary nonsense, the genre made most famous by Englishmen Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
Gorey has become an iconic figure in the Goth subculture. Events themed on his works and decorated in his characteristic style are common in the more Victorian-styled elements of the subculture, notably the Edwardian costume balls held annually in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which include performances based on his works.