Brothers Grimm Short Fiction Analysis

Grimm’s Fairy Tales came into being in the context of German Romanticism, particularly with its renewed interest in the medieval past. Just as European society was becoming urban, industrial, and literate, a growing nationalism turned attention to folk culture. The Brothers Grimm first began collecting songs and stories for the poet Clemens Brentano and his brother-in-law Achim von Arnim, who had themselves collaborated on an influential collection of folksongs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805, 1808; the boy’s wonderhorn), still familiar from Gustav Mahler’s many settings of its songs. The Grimms drew on oral as well as printed sources, interviewing both peasant storytellers and middle-class urban informants. The resulting collection of some two hundred stories preserved a substantial body of folklore, fortuitously, at the very moment when its milieu was being irreparably destroyed by the modernization of nineteenth century Europe. Translated into at least seventy languages, Grimm’s Fairy Tales stands as the model for every subsequent collection of folklore, however much more sophisticated in theory or method. The brothers’ own notes and commentaries on the tales, included in the second edition, form the basis of the science of folklore.

One source of the appeal of these tales is their complex chemistry of both art and artlessness. The Grimms did not think of themselves as authors of short fiction but as what would now be considered anthropologists. They set for themselves the task of contriving, from many different versions of any tale, an account that achieved artistic integrity without sacrificing folkloric quality. This meant sometimes restoring details that seemed to have been dropped or distorted in the course of oral tradition, or deleting what seemed purely literary invention. Many decisions were arbitrary since this was, after all, the beginning of a discipline, and the Grimms sometimes changed their minds, as differences between the first and second editions make clear. They were guided on the whole, however, by an aim of reconstructing prototypes which they assumed to be oral. Thus, in each tale they were responding to two different challenges. First, they attempted to preserve and even enhance the atmosphere of performance through traditional rhetorical devices such as repetition of songs and narrative formulas in which the audience would share and through the general circumstantial quality characteristic of every spellbinding teller. At the same time, their versions were meant to be definitive and fixed in print, a medium with aesthetic demands of its own that had to be met.

“Six Soldiers of Fortune”

As a result, within the Grimm style, which is instantly recognizable as a matter of motif, several substyles of narrative are apparent. There are some tales that strike the reader as archetypal for their transparency of structure. “Six Soldiers of Fortune,” for example, assembles a group of soldiers, each with a unique preternatural power, makes use of, and so in a sense exhausts, each power in a deadly contest for the hand of a princess, and then dismisses the group with a treasure to divide. Perhaps most lucid of all is the haunting “The Fisherman and His Wife”; this tale combines heightening ambitions and lowering weather against the measured rhythm of wishes demanded and granted, all strung on the thread of a summoning spell sung six times to the generous fish, an enchanted prince who disturbingly remains enchanted throughout the tale, until in the end everything is as it was. In this tale, no wish is offered at first, until the wife, knowing with the logic of fairy tale that enchanted fish grant wishes, sends her husband back. After wishing herself from hovel to cottage to castle, however, her third wish is for a change not of station but of identity. She wishes to be king, and this moves beyond the rule of three to the inordinate and outlandish: emperor, pope, ruler of the sun and moon, things she cannot be.

“The Lady and the Lion”

Other tales seem authentic not for their clarity but for a sense of free-ranging invention in loose, barely articulated forms. “The Lady and the Lion” is a prime example of a tale that seems ready to go anywhere a teller is inclined to take it. It relies heavily on familiar but heterogeneous motifs, and so while it fascinates readers from moment to moment (especially if heard rather than read) with an almost Asian opulence of invention, it seems in the end unmotivated.

“Godfather Death”

The tension between the commitment to transcribe tales as told and the need to devise viable written artifacts can best be exemplified by contrasting two stories. In “Godfather Death,” a man seeking a godfather for his thirteenth child rejects God himself and the Devil but accepts Death because he “makes all equal.” When the boy is grown, Death gives him an herb that restores life with these instructions: “If I stand by the head of the sick-bed, administer this herb and the man will recover; but if I stand at the foot, the man is mine, and you must say that nothing can save him.” The boy becomes a famous healer. Once when the King is sick, with Death at his feet, the boy risks using the herb to save him, but Death pardons him with a warning. Later, however, the King’s daughter is in the same situation, and for love of her the doctor again overrules Death. Death seizes him with an icy hand and leads him to a cave where thousands of candles are burning, some very large, some mere stubs. “Show me the light of my life,” says the doctor, and he finds it guttering. He begs his godfather to replace it, and the story ends like this:Death behaved as if he were going to fulfill his wish, and took hold of a tall new candle, but as he desired to revenge himself, he purposely made a mistake in fixing it, and the little piece fell down and was extinguished. The physician too fell on the ground; now he himself was in the hands of Death.

“The Wonderful Glass”

Grimm’s Fairy Tales preserves another version of this story, “The Wonderful Glass,” which is, from the point of view of a written tale, almost incoherent. It is less carefully composed than “Godfather Death”: Only one stranger appears, the child is merely “another child,” and the gift of healing is given oddly not to the child but to his father; in fact the child plays no role at all. The father never misuses the gift but one day decides to visit the godfather. Five steps lead to the house. On the first a mop and a broom are quarreling, on the next he finds a “number of dead fingers,” on the next a heap of human heads give him directions, on the next a fish is frying itself in a pan. At the top the doctor peeks through the keyhole and sees the godfather with a set of horns on his head. When he enters the house, the godfather hides under the bedclothes. When he says, “I saw you through the keyhole with a pair of horns on your head,” the godfather shouts, “That is not true,” in such a terrible voice that the doctor runs away and is never heard of again. “The Wonderful Glass” is hardly worth preserving except as a transcript of a clumsy horror story. The immense superiority of “Godfather Death” may suggest how the Grimms’ decision to proceed by artful selection among versions rather than by wholesale recasting in another mode produced masterpieces. Again and again their editorial tact added formal power to the visual interest and psychological depth of the inherited stories.


“Rapunzel,” for example, begins like many of the Märchen (“Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Almond Tree”), with a couple who wish for a child. A small window in their house overlooks a witch’s garden, and one night the husband climbs over the high wall to steal...

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