Brothers Grimm World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2342

Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a distinctive German flavor even in English translation. The settings are German: forests, castles, mountains, quaint villages, inns, and huts. The characters are old-fashioned German types: merchants, cobblers, tailors, millers, huntsmen, tramps, robbers, woodcutters, parsons, peasants, kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Even the supernatural beings have a Germanic coloring: witches, dwarves, giants, elves, nixies, and the devil. Yet this very seventeenth century German quality adds to the magic of the stories. If these stories were not so firmly grounded in their time and place, they would lose their essence, their ability to reveal the universals of human experience.

Stories that satirize stupidity and laziness are common to every culture that values practical intelligence and hard work. Tales such as “Die kluge Else” (“Clever Elsie”), “Der Frieder und das Katherlieschen” (“Frederick and Catherine”), “Die klugen Leute” (“Wise Folks”), and “Der faule Heinz” (“Lazy Harry”) show with some wit the folly of the stupid and the idle. Ridicule is a tool to make misfits conform, but when it is directed at characters in an amusing story, the point is made without the sting of personal venom.

There are many animal tales in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, some of which are fables, tales with a moral. In “Der Wolf und der Fuchs” (“The Wolf and the Fox”), the wolf’s rampant gluttony leads to its destruction, while foresight saves the fox. In “Katze und Maus in Gesellschaft” (“The Cat and Mouse in Partnership”), gluttony is symbolic of the greedy and powerful, who swallow the weak under the guise of benevolence. There are realistic stories, too, and these deal with cruelty to the helpless, which is always condemned. Tales such as “Der Nagel” (“The Nail”), “Der alte Grossvater und der Enkel” (“The Old Man and His Grandson”), “Der arme Junge im Grab” (“The Poor Boy in the Grave”), “Lieb und Leid teilen” (“Sharing Joy and Sorrow”), and “Die klare Sonne bringt’s an den Tag” (“The Bright Sun Brings It to Light”) depict the hard, evil side of human nature unsoftened by fantasy. In fact, “The Bright Sun Brings It to Light” eerily foreshadows the Holocaust in a small way. Religious stories also form an important part of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; “Marienkind” (“Mary’s Child”) is an outstanding example. There is a whole section devoted to these stories under the heading “The Children’s Legends.” Finally, there are nonsense tales, brief bits of humor told for sheer exuberance. “Das Hausgesinde” (“My Household”) has cumulative nonsense, “Läuschen und Flöhchen” (“The Louse and the Flea”) contains nonsense on the theme of getting carried away, “Das dietmarsische Lügenmärchen” (“The Ditmars Tale of Wonders”) displays the nonsense of obvious absurdities, and “Die schöne Katrinelje und Pif Paf Poltrie” (“Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie”) reveals the nonsense of the proposal ritual.

It is for the fairy tales, however, that the Grimms are remembered. In them, poetic fantasy and realistic detail blend in startling ways, as in dreams. Yet if these tales resemble dreams with their magic and wish fulfillment, they are consciously crafted stories that follow the rules of the genre.

Fairy tales are meant to be recited or read aloud to children. One thing that a child wants is a good story. The plot must therefore be the main attraction. The story needs dramatic contrast: good versus evil, kindness versus cruelty, loyalty versus treachery. Further, the hero or heroine must have some purpose, such as winning a royal mate, helping others, undoing a spell. The plot also needs suspense, things that hinder the hero or heroine from achieving the goal. That is the reason for the pattern of three so common in fairy tales—three nights in a haunted castle, three riddles to be solved, three magic tasks. Three is the ideal number for building suspense: Four is too long, and two is too short, to hold a child’s interest.

Magic is significant in fairy tales. There are magic helpers who assist the kindhearted to reach their goals. Old women and gnomes furnish magic objects and advice. Talking animals, fish, birds, and insects perform the tasks that the hero or heroine finds impossible. Magic objects enable the hero to do specific feats that would otherwise be beyond him. Besides helpful magic, there is evil magic in fairy tales—spells that turn a human into a beast, spells that petrify a place, and spells used to dupe the trusting. To overcome evil magic, it takes patience and love.

Since everything in a fairy tale is subordinate to the plot, the characters are revealed by their acts and speech. The heroes and heroines lack complexity and often a name. Yet they usually have the qualities necessary to heroism, whether heroism in story or in real life. These are courage, generosity of spirit, and the persistence needed to overcome adversity. The wicked people in fairy tales and in life are proud, unhappy, envious, and mean. They cannot stand adversity and take nasty shortcuts to get what they want. Sooner or later, their treachery is exposed. Fairy tales are grounded in the basic qualities of human experience.

“The Water of Life”

First published: “Das Wasser des Lebens,” 1815 (collected in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 2002)

Type of work: Folklore

In seeking a cure for his father, the third of three sons finds his future wife and suffers the treachery of his older brothers.

“The Water of Life” is storytelling pared to the bone. The tale is so lucid and simple that it almost defies analysis. Situation, speech, and action blend in one flowing narrative. A king is dying. His three sons learn from an old man that the only way to save their father is to bring him the water of life. The dying king reluctantly gives one son after the other permission to seek the water.

When the two proud older brothers meet a dwarf who asks where they are going, they answer rudely, so the dwarf sends them up a ravine, where they become trapped. Arrogance itself is a trap, and the ravines are symbolic of the older brothers’ hard pride that keeps them from progressing. When the third prince meets the dwarf, he answers politely and confesses that he does not know where the water of life is. The dwarf then tells him that the water is in an enchanted castle, and he gives the prince the three things that he needs to enter the castle: a wand to open the gate and two small loaves of bread to feed the guardian lions. The dwarf also warns him to leave the castle by midnight. The prince thanks him and leaves. The amount of information conveyed in a few sentences is amazing: The hero is revealed as courteous, humbly honest, and grateful.

Once inside the castle, the prince acts on his own initiative. He finds a hall with spellbound princes and removes their rings. He finds a sword and a loaf of bread that he takes. He finds a lovely princess, who wakes and kisses him. She says that they will be wed in a year and that her kingdom will be his. She also tells him where the water is and warns him that he will be imprisoned in the castle if he stays past midnight. He falls asleep, however, and barely awakens in time to fetch the water and escape, losing part of his heel as the gate slams shut. The events in the enchanted castle are vivid, mysterious, and dreamlike. Yet they work a change in the hero. He becomes both more affectionate and more effective. His one blind spot, however, is that he trusts his brothers.

Again he meets the dwarf, who tells him that the sword (the wand, magically transformed) can defeat many armies and that the supply of bread will never end. The prince asks about his brothers, and the dwarf releases them, warning the prince about their evil hearts. The brothers are joyfully reunited and travel home together, with the youngest telling of all that befell him. On the way, they find three successive kingdoms ravaged by war and famine. The prince saves each with his sword and bread. Before arriving home, the brothers undergo a sea journey in which the older brothers switch the water of life for sea water while the youngest sleeps. Sleep is a real danger in this tale.

The youngest son is accused of attempted poisoning after giving his father the salt water, while his brothers get the credit for rejuvenating the king. The king then orders his huntsman to execute his third son on a hunting trip. Yet the prince is so considerate of the huntsman’s feelings that the huntsman tells him of the king’s orders and, instead of killing him, exchanges clothes with the prince. The prince hides in the forest for a year. Meanwhile, the king repents his hasty act when three wagons of gold and jewels come for his third son from the three kingdoms that he had saved. When the huntsman tells the truth, the king grants his lost son amnesty.

The princess orders a golden road built to her castle and tells her servants to send away all who ride up by the side of the road, but to admit the one who rides down the middle. The older brothers ride to the side when they notice that the road is gold. The prince, however, never notices, his mind being full of the princess; he rides down the center to his bride, her kingdom, and his father’s love. His wicked brothers set forth on the sea and are never heard from again.

The main symbols in the story almost speak for themselves. The wand and two small loaves of bread that admit the prince into the castle become, magically, the sword and loaf by which he saves three kingdoms. The water of life is balanced by the water of death (sea water). The golden road that leads to success must not be approached gingerly; it must be ridden down the center with all of one’s being focused on the goal.

“Mary’s Child”

First published: “Marienkind,” 1812 (collected in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 2002)

Type of work: Folklore

A young woman is cast out of heaven for her sins and must suffer repeated losses until she repents and confesses.

“Mary’s Child” has three levels operating in perfect harmony. One is the story surface, the actual events and language; another is symbolic, with parallels in everyone’s life; and the third is the spiritual level, eternity revealed through time.

Mary takes a starving woodcutter’s baby girl to heaven to rear as her own. The infant is given the best of care and has angels for playmates. When the girl is fourteen, Mary goes on a long trip and leaves the keys to thirteen rooms in heaven with the girl, telling her that she may open every door but the thirteenth, which is forbidden. The girl opens a new door every day to find an apostle. On the thirteenth day, devoured by curiosity, she opens the forbidden door and sees the Trinity blazing in fire and glory. She gazes in awe and puts out her finger, which turns to gold. Suddenly, she is seized by panic, closes the door, and rushes to Mary, who knows immediately what has happened. Three times Mary asks the girl if she opened the forbidden door, and three times the girl denies it. Mary has no choice but to send her to earth. It is Original Sin repeated, but it is also the way that adolescence is experienced, as a loss of innocence and being cared for by adults. It marks the beginning of suffering as a constant part of the human makeup and the point at which one must accept the consequences of one’s actions.

The girl is isolated from all human contact in a part of the forest surrounded by thorns. She tries to cry out but finds that she is mute. She must fend for herself, eating roots, nuts, and berries, and having only a hollow tree for shelter. She looks back on her life in heaven with longing. That is how things are out in the cold, harsh world of adolescence, where pain isolates one from everyone else.

The girl becomes a woman. Her clothes have dissolved in shreds, but she is covered by her long, golden hair. One spring, a king chases a roe into her area of forest and must hack through the thorns. He finds a beautiful, mute young woman, whom he takes home and marries. At this point, the courtship rite is stripped to its basics. A man chases a sleek, healthy animal into cover. If he persists in his hunt through the thorns of misunderstanding, jealousy, female contrariness, and pain, he will behold the one woman in the world for him, exactly as she is, naked and splendid. She, in turn, will behold a king.

In the following three years of marriage, the queen has two sons and a daughter. After the birth of each, Mary visits the queen and asks if she opened the forbidden door, and each time the queen denies it. Thereupon Mary takes the child to heaven, again leaving the queen mute. After the disappearance of each child, the king’s councillors and subjects accuse the queen of cannibalism until the king can no longer ignore them. The queen is tried, convicted, and sentenced to burn at the stake. Her one sin, compounded by six lies, leads to death. Yet as the flames rise, her icy heart melts, and she cries out, “Yes, Mary, I did it.” Mary then quenches the fire with rain, fully restores the queen’s speech and three children, and blesses her with happiness. Mary herself points out the moral that forgiveness is gained only by repentance and confession. The real miracle is that God is humble enough to accept last-minute repentance.

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Grimm, Jacob Ludwig Karl (1785-1863) Grimm, Wilhelm Karl (1786-1859)