Raphael Kadushin discovers one of Germany’s most underrated destinations, the Fairy-Tale Road north of Frankfurt. On the bicentennial of the Brothers Grimm’s first volume of stories, he experiences the history of the authors and the inspiration behind their work.
INTO THE WOODS
The first time I was introduced to the Brothers Grimm, at the age of four, I collapsed onto the floor of a movie theater. Bawling and clawing like some sloppy old drunk, I was peeled off the tiles and hauled out by two big ushers. “He’s scaring the other kids,” the theater owner told my sister. And while my sister isn’t the most reliable family historian, the incident does sound like a plausible start to my long and storied career as an alarmist, always the first to hit the ground.
The moment probably says more about the enduring power of the Grimms’ fairy tales than any personal neuroses. What sent me into such a seizure was a Disney cartoon retrospective. My first shock came at the face of Snow White’s stepmother—all arched boomerang eyebrows, cutting cheekbones, and unhinged fury. (Ultimately, of course, she is much more beautiful than the moonfaced Snow White.) But it was the Pied Piper who pushed me over the edge. The only lesson I took when I dropped and rolled was the haunting lesson every kid fears most: Some curses can’t be lifted and some villains succeed. Children, it turns out, can simply disappear.
The fact that the sucker punch of the Grimms’ stories could survive even Disney’s neutered translation suggests the way the tales can still throw down their own kind of curse. Sure, there is usually a happy ending. But before the wedding comes a cavalcade of our fears, marching out like the seven pitiless dwarfs: abandonment, infanticide, boiling cauldrons, chopped limbs, witches warped and creaking like old wood. And those missing children. Where did they go?
The fear was still haunting enough to make me pause before opting to drive the official Fairy-Tale Road. The route, often dismissed as the gooey epicenter of Teutonic kitsch, is worth reconsidering. Twisting approximately 370 pastoral miles north of Frankfurt, mostly through the back roads of Hesse and Lower Saxony, before petering out in Bremen, it reveals one of the most underrated pockets of a German dreamscape. And there is no better time to go: 2012 is the bicentennial of volume one of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales, the collection that includes Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, The Pied Piper of Hameln, Snow White, and Rapunzel and which launched the Grimms’ lifework as aggregators of fables. The route follows both the trail of the brothers’ evolving careers and the tales themselves. If the villages and castles (some now converted, timed to the bicentennial, into chic schloss hotels) look twee enough to inspire fairy tales—the pitch made by every European pit stop boasting a thatched cottage or two—this time, at least, you know the claim is justified. That adds its own kind of gravitas. The winding backdrop for so many of our earliest shared stories and nightmares is an example of that thing travelers always hunt for: the place as bona fide muse.
So I set out, on a cloudless mid-July day, nerves steady. Behind me was Frankfurt, the shiny, largely rebuilt city, as anodyne and familiar as a strip mall, and ahead was the same scary trip all lost boys and girls make—and the proof you shouldn’t leave home—into the bramble, the forest, the strange place. At least I was seasoned enough to know that every journey features its own bogeyman or two, even if it’s just the stranger in the window seat next to you unwrapping a really big sub sandwich. My first stop, in Steinau, was an apt start to the route, because it began with the storytellers themselves.
Fittingly, Steinau is picture-book ready; it’s mostly a one-street town framed by half-timbered houses that leave you wondering how any of the region’s forests are still standing. While the brothers were born just south, in Hanau (Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm in 1786), this is the town where they moved as young boys and that they would remember most lovingly. It’s easy to see why. Their childhood home—the recently renovated Brüder-Grimm-Haus museum—is a sprawling manor sprouting one small aspiring tower.
If you’d rather not be afoot after dark near the Devil’s Bridge, in 590-acre Wilhelmshöhe Park outside Kassel, fear not— the Fairy-Tale Road now has several swank renovated schloss hotels.
“The brothers were unfortunate,” Burkhard Kling, the museum director, told me as we toured the house. “Their father had a high court position as a magistrate, but when he died, in 1796, their childhood was finished.” Exiled from their happy household, they literally wound up in the town poorhouse, just next door.
Fortunately, the museum isn’t a study in gloom. True, downstairs there is the restored kitchen with an open oven big enough to spit-roast some kids, but otherwise the house is a cabinet of curiosities that reads like an homage to the brothers’ coming success. There is a gallery of foreign translations of the tales, a contemporary David Hockney edition, and a collection of storybook toys that includes a Little Red Riding Hood doll kitted out like a goth vamp in scarlet miniskirt.
After the poorhouse, the brothers surfaced an hour north in Kassel, where they lived for almost thirty years, working partly as court librarians. En route I was looking for the brewery and tavern Brauhaus Knallhütte, and the address was vague. That’s true of a lot of Fairy-Tale Road addresses, which tend to forgo street numbers for the lyrical “schloss under the oak tree” approach, which approximates a treasure hunt.
Inside the Brauhaus I discovered a lumberyard of beams—ceiling beams, wall beams, beams apparently supporting nothing but other beams—and maybe the only men’s room on the planet featuring framed fairy-tale illustrations hanging above the urinal. The menu, like most along the route, is a traditional roll-call of all the schnitzels, Wiener to apple, and brats (clearly I could have stayed home in the Midwest) plus some flourishes. There are beer-infused offerings (start with beer goulash, end with beer tiramisu), and you can special-order a Cinderella meal that includes a baked potato carved into the shape of a slipper. Most people stop at the Brauhaus Knallhütte for the sense of history, because the inn is where one of the Grimms’ top fairy-tale suppliers, Dorothea Viehmann, was born, in 1755. Serving mugs of beer in the family pub, she grew up listening to the fables of tradesmen, soldiers, and peasants, which she later brought to the brothers.
This occasionally made for rawer versions of stories like Cinderella, which is fairly genteel in the Gallic, Perrault rendition but takes a macabre turn in the German telling. Forget dainty French girls. The Grimms’ stepsisters, who slice off a toe and a chunk of heel to squeeze into their bloodbath of a slipper, are the kind of muscular Hessians who get the job done with the can-do spirit that can plant a field fast. They’re still standing at Cinderella’s wedding—stoically hemorrhaging, like the world’s worst bridesmaids, even after pigeons pluck out their eyes.
I knew about Dorothea, the collection’s peasant figurehead. But when I sat down with Grimm scholar Bernhard Lauer, back in Kassel after lunch, he revealed a corkscrew twist to the story. Erase the image of the brothers hacking through primordial forests, knocking on cottage doors, and chasing after every village crone. It was a loose sisterhood of women who collected the vast majority of the tales, led by the Grimms’ upper-class friends and relatives—more Virginia Woolf than Mother Goose—who were steeped in local lore and fancier French and Italian folktales. By most counts the brothers themselves contributed only two stories, though the puny haul doesn’t diminish their pioneering concept or the fact that this was much more than child’s play.
“The brothers were serious academics—they initiated the first definitive dictionary of the German language—and their story collection was the original scientific collection of folktales from all sources, really the starting point for German studies and folklore studies,” said Lauer. “It is also part of a larger nineteenth-century German Romantic movement. For Germans, especially at a time when France threatened to overtake European culture, the emphasis on a return to national roots and traditions—to the beauty of the past, and to stories full of castles, princesses, symbolism, and repetition—is essentially Romantic.” Lauer is overseeing the large-scale restoration of the local Brüder Grimm-Museum Kassel, which he directs. Among the museum’s hoard will be a first edition in two volumes of Children’s and Household Tales, insured for a cool $22 million.
But you don’t need to immerse yourself in the Grimm archives to locate the flavor of the tales. It’s everywhere in the region, and even my hotel that night told its own kind of romantic story. The Schloss Waldeck makes the case for a new class of cleanly refurbished castle hotels that avoid the old-school approach (think tinny armor, musty rooms, lots of bad family portraits documenting the downside of inbreeding) which has given the Fairy-Tale Road’s accommodations a bad name. The reception hall I walked into, footsteps echoing, was all dramatic high limestone arches; my streamlined room, glossy with locally sourced woods, featured floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over a Brueghel-worthy landscape of lake, forest, and meadow.
Even the castle torture chamber, which could reek of touristy showmanship, offered a history lesson. The racks and the witches’ pit, topped by a grim muzzle of steel, were familiar. More sinister were the heavy stones etched with grimacing faces, which were hung by a chain around the neck of the condemned, sometimes until the neck snapped, or the revolving cage in the town square so the village idiots could spin the convicted until they passed out cold.
Set aside four days to take a cultural and kitschy journey down this road. We map out the best places to stay and dine.
The place was so perfect, despite the sad dungeon, that I stayed at Waldeck for a few days. I was looking for the settings of the stories themselves. In the southeastern Schwalm region of the road, you can still see village girls dressed, for folk festivals, in a variation on Little Red Riding Hood’s red cap. But too many of the other landmarks and villages posing as storybook backdrops can claim only very loose, and occasionally bogus, associations. In a way, though, it didn’t matter. The fairy tales, I would start to see, really encode strands of history, saints’ lives, legends, and pagan myths, half remembered and twigged together like the nests Disney’s singing birds are always building. What you mostly find, in the road’s towns and villages, is subtle echoes of the stories that resonate in haunting ways. In Marburg, for instance—a typically ethereal Hessian town cascading in tiers down a hillside, where the brothers studied at the local university—there is a less rosy version of Sleeping Beauty. She is Saint Elisabeth, a thirteenth-century Hungarian princess who married King Ludwig IV of Thuringia, donated her wealth to the poor, and wound up living in a pigsty before dying of exhaustion at the age of twenty-four.
Hannoversch-Münden, better known as just Münden, may be the route’s finest spot for beauty and the essence of the brothers’ lush romanticism. There aren’t any specific fairy-tale landmarks here, but in a way that’s for the best; you can impose whatever tale you want. On the day I arrived, when I was growing jaded from an overload of quaint, the sun was out and the town, sitting beside the Fulda River, looked like one big pop-up picture book. A visual feast, a rush of storytelling was inscribed on the half-timbered houses and ornately gabled Weser Renaissance buildings in a riot of statues, door plaques, allegorical figures, and bas-reliefs. And everywhere on the buckling, stooped town houses were painted pinwheels and sunrises, palmettos, garlands, hexagrams, and pentagrams, as if the town were fortifying itself against any passing curse.
But doom didn’t pass Münden by. Hansel and Gretel and their abandoned fairy-tale siblings, the feral orphans and dethroned princesses—all sick, exiled, and ravenous enough to eat a house—are partly a collective memory. Crop failure, the Great Famine, and the Black Death reduced Germany’s population by about forty percent in the fourteenth century. “Bremen and Hamburg seem to have lost up to two-thirds of their inhabitants,” according to Simon Winder’s Germania. “Whole villages ceased to exist,” and people “were driven to eat the seed corn needed for the following year’s crop,” knowingly devouring their own future. And the long curse would prevail, creeping into our own history, when Münden’s thriving Jewish community was deported as the Nazis marched through.
The curse seemed to haunt all of Lower Saxony, and in the end it was Hameln, an hour and a half north, that I was itchy to get to, because it brought me back to my first shaky encounter with the Brothers Grimm and their Pied Piper. The city, an odd mix of elaborate Weser Renaissance gabling and some bad sixties bunker architecture, felt slightly harsh and gritty. The official Pied Piper who greeted me—a man named Brian Boyer, working as a tourist board guide—was wearing yellow curly-toed shoes, a multicolored tunic and tights, and a feathered cap.
Following him through Hameln, we met with lots of eye-rolling, but enthusiastic Asian tour groups made up for the disdain with their Sure Shot cameras. Twenty years from now, an entire Beijing suburb will no doubt be puzzling over a photo of me and the piper taking turns on a green plastic flute. And how can one resist the haul of kitsch: the “rat-killer” herbal liquor (100 proof), the soap rats on a rope, and the Pied Piper hoodies? You can snap up the worst of the lot before you dine on “rat-tail” flambé at the Rattenfängerhaus (Rat Catcher’s House) and catch the weekly performance of Rats: Das Musical.
All this was almost enough to recast the single-minded town as more goofy than scary, until the piper said something that made me freeze: “You know the story is part of the Brothers Grimm’s collection of German legends, not the fairy tales. And legends are based on historic fact.”
The proof, it turns out, is scrawled all over town—if you know where to look. The original clue was contained in a glass window of the town’s Market Church, mounted around 1300, that pictured the piper towering above a mob of smaller figures. The window—now itself missing—is framed by an inscription that is also entered, slightly altered, in the Hameln Church book, dating to 1384. It reads: “In the year of 1284, on the 26th of June, the Day of St. John and St. Paul, 130 children, born in Hameln, were led out of town by a piper wearing all kinds of colors. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.”
What is chilling is the specificity of all this, after the wispy vagaries of the other fairy-tale backdrops. Everything—supposedly based on eyewitness accounts—is recorded like a crime log: the date, the number of children, their destination. And the event resonated in seismic ways. “After the disappearance,” Boyer told me, “the town was paralyzed. For more than a century, nothing was built.” In 1352, the Hameln book of statutes, the Donat, still registered the collective sense of shock, lamenting all those “years after our children left.”
Although Steinau Castle loomed over the Grimm brothers’ posh-to-poorhouse childhood, their own story had a happy ending—they became renowned academics and cultural ethnographers.
So what happened? Among the more prevalent explanations: The children came down with the plague and were exiled from town; they joined the Children’s Crusade; they were afflicted with dancing disease; they emigrated to new colonies in Eastern Europe or northern Germany; their ship sank in the Baltic Sea; or they died in a bridge collapse. Among the dicier suggestions: They were abducted by aliens or—why not?—beheaded by Dracula.
The bloodless emigration theory wins the most votes from traditional scholars, and it comes backed by some proof: Still-existing family names in parts of Eastern Europe seem to have roots in Hameln. But as I walked through town, the argument felt shaky. Emigrations tend to happen slowly, people are prepared for them, and families stay in touch. Hameln’s children disappeared suddenly, leaving behind a reeling sense of dislocation. I was more drawn to a less-accepted notion proposed by another, quirkier bunch of local historians. The region was known to be slow to convert to Christianity, and underground pockets of pagan worship persisted all over medieval Hesse and Lower Saxony in the Middle Ages. Midsummer (“the 26th of June”) would have been the time of the most lavish pagan rituals, and those celebrations were traditionally held in the surrounding Koppen, the old German word for hills (“after passing . . . near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever”). “Some theorists, though not many, believe,” Boyer told me, as I listened to a rising rush of drumming in my ears, “that the city council or the local monastery approved a massacre of the pagan worshippers as they headed off to their rituals, to convert the town for good.” Playing hypnotic music and decked out in shamanistic colors, the piper would have been the very image of the bacchante. Lukas Stock, an eighteen-year-old who has performed in the local Pied Piper play for four years, was more philosophical when we met for lunch. “It is a cruel story but true. Children were treated like slaves then—they had no rights. They couldn’t say no to anyone.”
Maybe it’s this simpler reading that suggests why the stories can still trigger that primal shiver. The legends and fairy tales endure because they capture a child’s sense of surrealism, trailing mesmerized through an adult world that’s half comical, half sinister, and entirely bewildering. But in the end, that’s true for all of us, reduced to spellbound passivity by every kind of historic insult and every sort of private injury. The Pied Piper, like most of the Grimms’ tales, isn’t really a parochial story at all; it’s a universal dirge, the elegiac understanding that everything we love can vanish in a minute, and everything we know come tumbling down. Eventually, the witch will come cackling after all of us. The only salvation is the story itself, which reclaims something, and in that sense Hameln offers one big consolation: The loss will get passed on from one generation to the next and become an eternal story, the one thing the piper could not take with him.
At nightfall the tourists swept out, and I could hear footsteps sounding hollow on the cobblestoned streets. On the facade of the flamboyant Stiftsherrenhaus (circa 1558), a jumble of carvings, burnished in the sunset, offered a mashup of cultural detritus: There were figures of Jesus and the Apostles; a semi-nude, proudly pagan Venus; and one dandified burgher in a big green hat with his busty wife. “Note, though,” Boyer said, “that the husband and wife are separated—she is included in the row of dragons and demons.” By now, of course, I knew what that meant. There was bound to be some kind of story there.