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...
(The entire section is 2342 words.)