Brothers Grimm Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3238

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 some “rapunze,” a salad green. He is soon caught by the witch, however, and to save his life he promises to amend the theft by giving her his child when it is born. It was pregnancy that made his wife crave rapunze; the unborn child thus causes the theft and by a rough justice replaces the thing stolen. The witch takes her at birth, names her Rapunzel, and walls her up, even more securely than the plant she replaces, in a tower accessible only by a high window. This generates the central image of the tale: the long-haired nubile girl imprisoned in the tower. Like the husband, the Prince (potential husband of the next generation) climbs over the wall to steal the witch’s Rapunze(l), and he too is eventually caught by the possessive witch. Learning of the Prince’s visits, she banishes Rapunzel to a wasteland, first cutting off her hair which will be used to lure the Prince to a confrontation. He escapes, but in his terror falls on thorns that blind him. After years of wandering, he hears Rapunzel’s voice again, they embrace, and her tears restore his sight.

“Rapunzel” is usually read as a story of maturation, with Rapunzel as the central figure, but she is a passive character throughout, an instrument in the relations of others. It is at least equally a tale of possessiveness and longing. The parents desire a child; in the wife’s craving for greens the reader sees the child at once gained and lost. Like the parents (although more like Rumpelstiltskin) the witch desires a child, and the Prince’s longing is obvious—it is the chief character trait of princes throughout the Märchen. The remarkable dearth of magic is related to these themes. In spite of the presence of the witch, the only magic is the healing tears of love. In other versions the witch’s magic harms the prince; here it is mysteriously not her doing, but ironic coincidence. The pathos of that reticence is owed to the Brothers Grimm; their instinct for invoking folk style is apparent in the repeated motifs but above all in their inspired invention of the phrase, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” which sounds, even when the reader knows better, like the archaic root of the whole story.

Thus, the Grimms reconciled the values of folklore with what were recognized as the requirements of short fiction, but they were scrupulously aware that the versions they contrived were only moments seized out of the continuing tradition of telling and retelling. The proper habitation of the Märchen is in the mouths of storytellers. Form, the proportion of parts, and even readers’ sympathies are always being accommodated to new audiences in new circumstances. As early as 1893, Marian Cox could study 345 variants of “Cinderella” alone. Grimm’s Fairy Tales then were folktales accommodated to print: more symmetrical, more compressed, as a rule spatially rather than linearly conceived, and with formal rhythms replacing the lost rhythm of speech. The brothers’ devotion to their originals or to the sources behind their originals, however, is apparent. As the example of “Rapunzel” suggests, their versions are much less stylized than other literary versions; the reader never feels the presence of an author as in those printed versions that antedate the Grimms, such as Charles Perrault and Giambattista Basile. They would never say, as Perrault does, that Sleeping Beauty was beautiful even though she dressed like someone’s grandmother in clothes out of fashion for a century.

Thanks to the Grimms, the Märchen have survived in a new kind of world, but the process of accommodation continues. One of the measures of how thoroughly these tales have been internalized in the West is the shock every reader feels on first reading the Grimms’ own account of tales so profoundly familiar. This is not how they are remembered, and the difference frankly reveals how tastes have changed in the intervening years. Through several generations of editors, and especially of parents, the Märchen have become more magical, much more romantic, and decidedly less violent than the Grimms’ own versions.

Magic is a most important variable. Although there is plenty of it in the tales, modern readers will find the Grimms often unexpectedly discreet in the use of magic.

“The Little Farmer”

There is even at least one plainly antimagical story, “The Little Farmer,” in which the protagonist defeats a whole town because the people are gullible about magic (eventually they are all drowned when, after the farmer tells them he collected a fine flock of sheep under water, they see fleecy clouds reflected on the surface as confirmation of his story and jump in). There is much use of gratuitous magic, not only for ornament but also, in particular, to establish a tone of fantasy at the start of a story. The beginning of “Sleeping Beauty” offers an extreme example: A frog jumps out of the water, prophesies that the queen will soon bear a daughter, and disappears never to be mentioned again. Indeed, supernatural helpers put in abrupt appearances throughout the tales.

“Snow White”

Often in reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales, however, the reader finds coincidence or rationalization where memory led him to expect magic. Thus, in “Snow White,” although the wicked queen has her magic mirror, much that could be magic is more nearly pharmacology. Even the revival of Snow White is not, as Walt Disney and memory would have it, by the magic of a kiss from Prince Charming, but like this: The dwarfs gave the coffin to the Prince, who had his servants carry it away.Now it happened that as they were going along they stumbled over a bush, and with the shaking a bit of the poisoned apple flew out of her throat. It was not long before she opened her eyes, threw open the cover of the coffin, and sat up, alive and well. “Oh dear, where am I?,” cried she. The King’s son answered, full of joy, “you are near me. Come with me to my father’s castle and you shall be my bride.” And Snow White was kind, and went with him.

An earlier generation of commentators would have woven from bush and fruit a myth of fall and redemption, but at least as interesting is the calculated avoidance of overt magic even in resurrection. The blinding of the Prince in “Rapunzel” is treated with similar ambiguity.


Apart from the treatment of magic, the most unexpected feature of the Grimms’ tales is their violence. The stories are full of treachery, mutilation, cannibalism, and over and over again the visual and visceral impact of the sight of red blood against pale skin, white snow, black wood, or stone. This is most shocking in the well-known stories. When Snow White’s stepmother cannot resist coming to the wedding to see if the girl really is “a thousand times more fair,” she finds that “they had ready red-hot iron shoes, in which she had to dance until she fell down dead.”

The ending of “Cinderella” is similar, although it is better integrated with the shape of the story. The two stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the tiny slipper, but as each in turn passes the grave of Cinderella’s true mother, which is marked by a hazel tree grown from a twig she asked as a gift from her father and watered with her tears, two birds perched in the tree, her helpers earlier, make known the mutilations so that at last Cinderella can put on the shoe that was made for her. As a result, she marries the Prince, and the tale ends with the same birds pecking out the eyes of the stepsisters.

Violence in Grimm’s Fairy Tales nearly always has a human origin. The reader grows accustomed to witches, stepmothers, and evil elder siblings, but the overwhelming sense of the world here is optimistic. The stories regularly assert a harmony between humans and nature, often seen as more reliable than human harmony: The birds will help when other people will not. By their plotting, the stories also project a harmony in time. In the end, the good live happily ever after, while for the evil there are dire and, to most modern readers, disproportionate punishments. The harmonious close of a Grimm tale is grounded on a faith in justice. Indeed, several of the tales have this as their theme: No crime can remain hidden; truth will come to light. Behind this is a sense of divine Providence, for beneath all the magic the milieu of these tales is thoroughly Christian. There is hardly a trace of the tragic weight of Germanic myth in even the most harrowing of the Märchen.

“The Singing Bone”

Consider “The Singing Bone”: Through the clear water of a river, a herdsman sees on the sandy bottom a bone as white as snow. He retrieves it to make a mouthpiece for his horn, and at once it begins to sing its own story, “I killed the wild boar, and my brother slew me,/ Then gained the Princess by pretending it was he.” The marvel is brought to the King, the victim’s skeleton is found, the wicked brother is ordered drowned, and the bones are “laid to rest in a beautiful grave.” This is quite brutal, even in summary, but the formal symmetries of the violence here reinforce the demonstration of justice. If a modern reader tends to worry about the bereft Princess and is less than satisfied with a beautiful grave, it may be that he has lost faith in any ultimate distribution of justice. That may be the chief reason that so much of the violence of the Grimms’ tales is now suppressed in the telling.

The Grimms’ theory of folklore as the doctrine of a mythology is now discredited, but they were right to sense the tremendous resonance of these tales in the imagination. More recently, psychological approaches from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung down to Bruno Bettelheim have pointed to the archetypal force of these stories. This force is not the Grimms’ creation; it is a wisdom concentrated through a long process of transmission. What the Grimm brothers contributed was an array of formal devices learned in the context of literate fiction— devices that increased the strength and resilience of the tales in the period when their survival was most threatened.

Along with the form of the stories, what the Grimms’ retelling often particularly enhanced were the visual images. The traditional tales were full of images of seminal power from which much of the psychological impact emanated. In stories meant to be heard, however, the visual imagination is free, and images can be invoked by a word or two. Consciously or not, the Brothers Grimm realized that in the act of reading, the visual imagination is engaged, so images must be sharpened and developed in order to act on a preoccupied eye. As a result, Grimm’s Fairy Tales is crowded with images of emblematic power such as the gingerbread house, the palace of sleepers, Snow White in her glass coffin, and Little Red Riding Hood and the bedded wolf. These images have attracted the finest illustrators (and animators) of every intervening generation to join with storytellers in transmitting a body of tales that speaks to readers, it seems, in the native language of the imagination.

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Brothers Grimm World Literature Analysis