Max Lüthi (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "Sleeping Beauty: The Meaning and Form of Fairy Tales," in Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970, pp. 21-34.

[In the following essay, Lüthi analyzes the Grimms' version of "Sleeping Beauty" and considers other variants of the tale.]

Our attitude toward fairy tales (Märchen) is ambivalent. "Don't tell me any fairy tales," we say, in the derogatory sense. Here, the term is only a politer expression for cleverly contrived lies. On the other hand, when we admire something especially beautiful, the word märchenhaft (i.e., like a fairy tale) almost spontaneously comes to mind. Here, it does not mean unreal in the sense of untrue, but in the sense of unearthy or divine. Thus, even in everyday usage, our language suggests both rejection of, and fascination by, the fairy tale.

For centuries, educated people have looked down on popular fairy tales as stories properly belonging in the nursery and the servants' quarters; yet great writers have repeatedly drawn inspiration from them. Great literature of all ages has borrowed from fairy-tale motifs and often exhibited an imaginativeness not unlike that of the fairy tale. In the life of the individual, there are periods when one is fascinated by fairy tales and periods of indifference. After the actual fairy-tale age (between five and ten), there follows a realistic stage during which one is ill-disposed toward fairy tales. Some people persist in this attitude all their lives. But in others, understanding and love for these once-coveted stories returns later in life, not only because now as mothers or grandfathers they themselves are called upon to tell fairy tales, but just as much because they again feel moved by their peculiar charm.

When something has the ability both to attract and repel one so forcefully, one may assume that it deals with fundamentals. One is challenged to take sides, explicitly or implicitly. The role fairy tales play in the lives of children, and the role they played in the lives of adults in the millennia prior to the coming of the printed word, strengthens us in the belief that we are dealing with a peculiar form of literature, one which concerns man directly.

When we speak of fairy tales today, we cannot help thinking of the collection by the Grimm brothers—and this applies not only to the region where German is spoken. Grimm's Fairy Tales, which first appeared in 1812 and 1815, is in many countries the most popular, the most oft-reprinted German book. Even among primitive folk they show their great effect: the Grimm tales missionaries have told to natives in some cases have the power to supplant indigenous tales. In the following passage from "Sleeping Beauty," one of the best-known tales in the Grimm collection, certain basic features of the fairy tale can be discovered. The introductory section reads as follows:

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen and every day they said, "O, if we only had a child!" But they never had one. Now it happened one day while the queen was sitting in her bath that a frog came out of the water, crept ashore and said to the queen, "Your wish will be fulfilled; before a year goes by you will give birth to a daughter." This happened just as the frog had said it would and the queen gave birth to a girl so beautiful that the king was beside himself with joy and ordered a great feast. He invited not only his relatives, friends and acquaintances, but also the Wise Women, so that they would be well-disposed and feel kindly toward the child. There were in his realm thirteen of them, but because he had only twelve golden plates for them to eat from, one of them had to stay at home. The feast was celebrated with great splendor, and when it was over the Wise Women presented the child with their magic gifts. One gave virtue, the next beauty, the third wealth, and thus everything desirable that there is in the world. Just as the eleventh had announced her gift the thirteenth suddenly walked in. She wanted her revenge because she had not been invited, and without a greeting or even a glance at anyone she cried in a loud voice, "The princess shall in her fifteenth year be pricked by a spindle and fall down dead." And without saying another word she turned around and left the hall. Everyone was dismayed. Then the twelfth Wise Woman who still had her wish came forward, and because she could not break the spell but only modify it, she said, "But it will not be death. The princess will fall into a deep sleep that will last for one hundred years."

Everyone knows how the tale goes on from here. The king's decree "that all spindles in the entire kingdom be burned" cannot save the child. When she is fifteen years old, she pricks herself with a spindle (which arouses her interest for the very reason that she has never seen one before), and at once falls asleep under the magic spell, together with the king, the queen, and the whole royal household. All around the palace there grows a dense hedge of thorns. The princes who try to force their way through are caught and held in the thorns, where they suffer greatly. After exactly 100 years, another prince ventures forth. Now, instead of thorns, there are only big, beautiful flowers which separate by themselves, permitting him to pass through unharmed, and then they close again behind him. The prince's kiss brings the sleeping princess back to life again, the whole household awakens with her, and a splendid wedding is celebrated.

The Grimm brothers themselves wondered about the meaning of this fairy tale, which appears in a similar form among other peoples. What is its core, its essence? What does it stand for? Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm saw in fairy tales remnants of ancient myths, playful descendants of an ancient intuitive vision of life and the world. Sleeping Beauty, wonderously endowed and mysteriously threatened, suffers death or a sleep similar to death. But she is awakened again and begins to flourish—and with her, the world about her. Our fairy tale tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of the new day. Processes which eternally recur have taken shape in "Sleeping Beauty"—processes in nature which surrounds man, but also processes in the human soul. Sleeping Beauty is fifteen years old when she comes under the spell: the time of transition from childhood to maidenhood. Every important turning point in development, every transition from one stage of life to another, is felt as a threat. At this age it is natural for the young man to be self-conscious and the young woman retiring, for both sexes to become for a period either shy and withdrawn or caustic, defiant, and unfriendly. A hedge of thorns seems to grow around young people and to shield them from the world. But in the protection such seclusion affords, the youth matures and will awaken to a new, larger, and brighter life.

The characters of the fairy tale are not personally delineated; the fairy tale is not concerned with individual destinies. Nor is it the unique process of maturation that is reflected in the fairy tale. The story of Sleeping Beauty is more than an imaginatively stylized love story portraying the withdrawal of the girl and the breaking of the spell through the young lover. One instinctively conceives of the princess as an image for the human spirit: the story portrays the endowment, peril, paralysis, and redemption not of just one girl, but of all mankind. The soul of man again and again suffers convulsions and paralysis and, each time—with luck—it can be revived, healed, redeemed. With luck! The abnormal individual, of course, can also remain in the paralyzed condition, unable to rediscover the fountainhead of life in himself and to reestablish contact with his surroundings. But the fairy tale does not portray the abnormal case, but natural development, and it fills its hearers with the confidence that a new, larger life is to come after the deathlike sleep—that, after the isolation, a new form of contact and community will follow.

This mercy and threat is depicted in a number of variations in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The fairies are both a blessing and a curse for the child; the royal palace is for Sleeping Beauty both paradise and prison; the deathlike sleep both a spell cast upon her and a refuge. The hedge of thorns, which can kill but which finally bursts into bloom with magnificent flowers, expresses most vividly this all-pervading polarity of death and resurrection.

In the dominant image just mentioned (palace and tower, thorns and roses, humans and fairies), there is revealed another peculiar capability of the fairy tale, not just in "Sleeping Beauty," but in the popular fairy tale in general. Despite its brevity, it embraces in its own way the world: nature both dead and living, man and the works of man, and the supernatural. In the beginning of "Sleeping Beauty," the world in its essential elements is already present: animal, man, and material objects all together. Only plants are missing. Not until the later episodes and the development of the tale will trees, thorns, and leaves also grow and flowers burst into bloom. Of the visible elements (the fairy tale clings to what is visible), water and earth are already mentioned in the introductory section. The third, fire, will flare up later on; and wind and breath will also be mentioned. The human world is represented by man, woman, and child. Objects of the workday and those of the festive day will appear: spindles and golden plates. The precious metal, the figures of the king and queen, and the festivities indicate that matters of significance are involved. Human feelings—like privation, longing, grief, joy, horror, hope, bitterness, irritability, vindictiveness, and compassion—are expressed. Loud talk and startled or threatening silence stand side by side, yet words of consolation are also not wanting. Sorrow, mistakes, and helplessness testify to the peril in which even royalty stands. In the figures of the prophetic frog and the fairies who give their blessings and imprecations, a supernatural world, again clearly visible, is joined to the world of man. The fairy tale is a universe in miniature; and since every good work of literature displays its peculiar characteristics even in its individual parts, the tendency of the fairy tale to embody the world is strongly evident even in this brief introduction to "Sleeping Beauty."

We love the fairy tale not only for its wisdom, but the manner in which it is told; its external appearance, which varies from people to people and from narrator to narrator, also delights us. The Grimm brothers' genius for storytelling is likewise evident in the very first part of the fairy tale. The entire first section is based on the motif of prophecy. Once stated, the theme is varied and intensified. The birth of the little girl is heralded by a frog and the Wise Women bestow on her virtue, beauty, wealth, and other miraculous gifts, that is to say, they proclaim all this. But the thirteenth fairy—and here one anxiously holds his breath—prophesies that the princess will die in her fifteenth year. Following this climax—which is strongly underlined by the sudden bursting upon the scene of the fairy who had been neglected, by her short, loud words and her silent departure—the tension in the story gradually subsides. A final variation on the prophecy motif, the conversion of the death pronouncement into the proclamation of the 100-year sleep, relieves the inner tension, but at once gives rise to the question of how and whether the proclamation will come true and what will happen during and after the enchanted sleep. A truly dramatic exposition!

A comparison of the Grimm brothers' original notations with the final version of "Sleeping Beauty" shows what their poetic imagination and genius for language has added. No one familiar with the tale can forget the humorous description of the palace as it sinks into sleep and reawakens. The passage reads:

This sleep spread throughout the palace. The king and queen, who had returned home and had just entered the hall, began to fall asleep along with their entire royal household. The horses, too, fell asleep in their stables, as did the dogs in the courtyard, the pigeons on the roof, and the flies on the wall. Even the fire flickering in the hearth subsided and went to sleep, and the roast stopped sizzling. The cook, who was about to pull the kitchen-boy's hair for forgetting something, let him go and slept. The wind, too, subsided, and not a leaf stirred any more in the trees around the palace.

What, now, was in Jacob Grimm's notes when he first recorded this fairy tale, which previously had been transmitted by word of mouth? Only this: "Since at this moment the king and his royal household also returned, everybody and everything in the palace—right down to the flies on the wall—began to sleep." The little parenthetical remark "right down to the flies on the wall" inspired the Grimm brothers to draw this picture with its leisurely descriptions and wealth of characters. They give even freer play to their imagination in the concluding section. The original notes ended in this way: "Now as he entered the palace he kissed the sleeping princess, everyone awakened, and the two were married and lived happily ever after." In the Grimm brothers' collection, this single sentence becomes the following:

In the courtyard of the castle he saw the horses and the spotted hunting dogs lying asleep, and on the roof the pigeons sat with their little heads tucked under their wings. And when he entered the house the flies were asleep on the wall, the cook in the kitchen still had his hand stretched out as if he were about to grab the boy, and the maid sat before the black chicken which was to be plucked. He continued on, and in the hall he saw the entire royal household lying asleep—and, up by the throne, the king and queen. And he went still further, but everything was so quiet that one could hear himself breathing, and finally he came to the tower and opened the door to the little room where Sleeping Beauty lay asleep. She was so beautiful that he could not turn his eyes away from her, and he stooped down and gave her a kiss. When his lips touched her she opened her eyes, awakened, and looked at him very kindly. Then they walked down together, and the king and queen and the entire royal household awakened and looked at each other in great astonishment. And the horses in the courtyard stood up and shook themselves, the hunting dogs leapt up, wagging their tails, and the pigeons on the roof took their little heads out from under their wings, looked about and flew off to the fields. The flies on the wall continued crawling, the fire in the kitchen flared up and cooked the meal, the roast began to sizzle again, the cook gave the boy such a slap that he howled, and the maid finished plucking the chicken. Then the marriage of the prince and Sleeping Beauty was celebrated with great pomp, and they lived happily to their life's end.

In the final sentence the Grimm brothers return to the actual fairy-tale style, which, in a few well-chosen words, merely suggests the sequence of events, and which has a preference for action rather than lengthy descriptions. We are delighted that here the editors paint a leisurely picture of the two central events: when the palace falls asleep and when it reawakens. In other places they avoid detailed descriptions. They do not go into any details of the wedding celebration, and they summarize the birthday celebration at the beginning in a manner characteristic of the fairy tale, in a single sentence: "The celebration was observed with great pomp." On the other hand, when they allow themselves the pleasure of describing in its grotesque aspect how life comes to a halt and then suddenly begins to dance again—it is as if the figures on a music box had stopped and now, after the apparatus has been rewound, automatically begin to turn again—there is an irony at work which appeals to children as well as to adults. The love scene is thereby deprived of all sentimentality; it develops and unfolds unperceived and pure in the protection of the comical elements which surround it.

It must now be clear that the Grimm brothers did not retell the fairy tales exactly as they heard them. On the contrary, they carefully edited them, simplifying or embellishing them according to their poetic inclinations and pedagogical intentions. Not infrequently, they combined several variants of one and the same fairy tale: they chose from each tale what seemed to them the best. Naturally, they were not completely independent of the spirit and the taste of their times, the era of romanticism and the Biedermeier culture with its painful loss of idealism and acceptance of reality. The romantic charm of forest and flowers and playful romantic irony combine with the warmth and intimacy basic to the outlook on life in the Biedermeier. But if Grimm's Fairy Tales have lived on far past their era and have won the hearts of the world, if they also appeal to us today, and if not only the story, but the manner in which it is told delights us—all this shows once again that both styles are not merely historical: the era of romanticism and the era of the Biedermeier merely revealed in a particularly pure and powerful form feelings that are possible at all times and in every person.

The classical fairy-tale collections of other peoples date from other eras. The most famous Italian fairy-tale book is the Pentamerone, fifty stories which the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile compiled at the beginning of the seventeenth century, many of them popular tales previously kept alive by oral tradition. While they are written in the dialect of Naples, Basile also did not retell the fairy tales exactly as he heard them; he fashioned them to his taste. It was the taste of the baroque era. Since our own century has developed a new understanding for baroque style, we are now especially receptive to Basile's charming and humorous tales. The fifth story on the fifth day bears the title "Sun, Moon and Talia." It is similar to our "Sleeping Beauty." The beginning reads as follows:

Once upon a time a nobleman had a daughter, and when she was born he had all the wise men and soothsayers in the kingdom come together for the purpose of prophesying her fate. Now after much deliberation they asserted she was in great peril because of a thread of flax. For this reason, and to guard against any mishaps, her father sent out a strict order that neither flax nor hemp nor anything like them should ever be brought to his palace. But one day when Talia had grown older and was standing at a window, she saw an old woman who was spinning as she walked by. Since the girl had never before seen either distaff or spindle and was intrigued by how they turned back and forth, she was overcome by such great curiosity that she had the old woman sent up and, taking the distaff in hand, began to spin the thread. But while doing this she unfortunately was pricked under a fingernail by a hemp fiber and at once fell down dead. As soon as the old woman saw this, she fled down the stairs; but the poor father, informed of the mishap, paid for this cup of sorrow with barrels of tears. Then he had his dead daughter set on a velvet throne under a canopy of brocade in the summer palace where he was then staying, and at once closed all the doors and forsook this place which had been the source of such calamity, so that he might banish the memory of these events for ever and ever.

Thus, Basile makes no mention of either the prophetic frog or the wishes of the fairies, an indication of how unrelated such figures are to the core of the tale. But here, too, the motif of prophecy and with it the threat of an unavoidable fate is clearly expressed. As in the Grimm tale—and even more clearly here—it is just the attempts to avoid fate which provoke the calamity: only because the girl is unaccustomed to the sight of spindle and hemp is she so anxious to take them in hand. One instinctively thinks of the use of prophesy in the ancient Oedipus myth. It is fascinating to see how the baroque style of the seventeenth century is manifested in Basile's narrative: the baroque love for pomp sets the dead Talia on a velvet throne under a canopy of brocade; the baroque sense of humor has the father cry barrels full of tears; the manneristic-baroque fondness for abrupt changes has him forget his beloved daughter immediately thereafter "for ever and ever." The following section from the Italian fairy tale introduces a motif we do not find in Grimm:

But it happened one day when the king was out hunting that a falcon slipped from his hand and flew in through a window of that castle. Since the bird did not come when they called it, the king, believing the castle to be occupied, ordered his men to knock on the door. But after they had knocked a long time in vain the king sent for a vintager's ladder, so he might enter, too, and see how it looked inside. After he had wandered all through it he was completely beside himself with astonishment at finding not a living soul inside. But finally he came to the room where the enchanted princess lay, and he called her, believing her to be asleep. But since she did not awaken no matter how much he shouted at her and shook her, and since he was enraptured by her beauty, he took her away in his arms to a place where he lay down with her and there picked the fruits of love. Hereupon, leaving her lying on the bed, he returned to his kingdom, where he did not think of this event again for a long time.

But after nine months had passed Talia gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl who were like two precious jewels and were well cared for in every way by two fairies who appeared in the palace and put them to suck on their mother's breasts. Now when the twins wanted to suck again and could not find the nipples, they took hold of a fìnger and sucked on it until they pulled out the fiber. Hereupon Talia seemed to awaken as if from a deep sleep, gave suck to the little angels she found next to her and grew to love them with all her heart. But she had absolutely no idea what had happened to her, since she saw that she was completely alone in the palace with the two sucklings and was brought food and drink by invisible hands.

Jacob Grimm considered it especially delightful that the child sucks the flax fiber out of the sleeping mother's finger. And, indeed, this type of awakening, which combines, in baroque fashion, the natural and the fantastic, has its own charm. The kiss which redeems Sleeping Beauty in the Grimm version has no obvious connection with the cause of the enchantment, the prick of the spindle. But Basile's variant has a sort of artistic economy; the flax fiber which puts Talia to sleep plays a role again in her awakening. And it is especially delightful and significant that the children unintentionally and unknowingly bring about the actual redemption of Sleeping Beauty.

We also find a variant of Sleeping Beauty in the oldest French fairy-tale book, the Contes de ma mère l'Oye of Charles Perrault. Perrault was an architect of the late seventeenth century and a member of the French Academy during the high point of French classicism. In 1697 he published eight fairy tales which, in contrast with the many freely embellished tales of fairies and pixies in fashion at the time, give clear evidence of their origin among the common people. La belle au bois dormant ("The Sleeping Beauty in the Forest") stands at the head of the collection. The passage of the awakening of the princess may serve as a sample of Perrault's style:

The prince, trembling and full of wonder, approached the sleeping woman and fell on his knees before her. Because the end of the spell had now come, the princess awakened and looked at him with fonder eyes than is really proper at first meeting and said to him: "Is it you, my prince? You have been a long time in coming." The prince was delighted by these words, and even more by the way she said them. He did not know how he might show his joy and declare his affection for her. He asserted that he loved her more than himself. His speech was a little incoherent, but this just made it all the more pleasing—little eloquence, much love. His embarrassment was greater than hers, and that is not surprising: she, after all, had had time to think about what she would say to him.

Later, the story goes on:

The prince, trembling and full of wonder, approached the splendid attire. But he was careful not to tell her that she was dressed like his grandmother with her stiff collar—she was no less beautiful because of it. They entered a hall of mirrors and dined there, attended by the princess's manservants. The violins and oboes played old compositions—excellent pieces, though they had been seldom played for nearly 100 years. After the supper no time was lost: the priest married them in the chapel and the maid of honor drew the curtain. They had little sleep: the princess did not need it just then and the prince left her early in the morning to return to town, where his father must have been worrying about him.

Here again we find a style differing from that of the Grimm brothers; it is the irony of the seventeenth-century courtly salon, and it is directed at the pair of lovers themselves, not just at their surroundings. But here, too, the irony adds spice to the tale without impairing its basic structure. Perrault cannot forgo the pleasure of making the passage of the 100 years clearly felt by his repeated observations. In doing this, he violates the style of the popular fairy tale, with its characteristic disregard for the passage of time, as the Grimm brothers do when they refrain from calling Sleeping Beauty's dress old-fashioned. But Perrault's irony is only on the surface of his tale; its indifference to the decay which time always brings about in the world of men is stressed all the more by his smiling allusions. The second part of his fairy tale resembles Basile's. Perrault's heroine also gives birth to two children, but their names are not Sole e Luna (Sun and Moon), as in Basile's tale, but Aurore et Jour (Dawn and Day). Basile and Perrault both relate how these children and the heroine herself have to suffer persecution at the hands of an evil queen, how they are to be killed and how they are saved through the compassion of the hired assassin. Is this last part of the fairy tale merely an accidental appendage, taken arbitrarily from another fairy tale in order to lengthen the tale? The theme of the death prophesy and the fortunate deliverance is once again called to mind. Even if this last section should be of external origin, it fits in well as a variation on the basic theme.

The comparison of the different variants shows that we must be cautious about our interpretation of details. The names sun and moon, dawn and day, as they are found in Basile and Perrault, strengthened the Grimm brothers in their belief that a natural process is reflected in the Sleeping Beauty tale. In this respect, we will not raise any objection. But when they claim to see a symbol for dawn in the hedge of roses and, likewise, in the wall of flames surrounding the sleeping Nordic Brynhild, we arrive at a point where interpretations become problematical. Narrow and rigid interpretations cannot be ascribed to a dynamic story. Can we see, in the twelve fairies, the twelve months which bestow their manifold gifts on the earth and on nature? The thirteenth fairy who has been provoked to anger would then be—yes, such suggestions have been made in all seriousness—the personification of the unthroned, neglected thirteenth month; and the whole thing would portray the transition from the lunar year, with its thirteen months, to the solar year, with its twelve. The 100 years, it is explained, is nothing more than a poetic overstatement for the 100 days of winter, when the earth lies imprisoned in sleep. With such sophistical allegorizing the natural-mythological interpretation is carried to absurdity. We need look no further than Perrault's variant, where the entire theory is unacceptable, for Perrault speaks not of twelve good fairies, but of seven. One must guard against the desire to interpret every single feature, every thorn and every fly. Some of these details are mere ornamentation added by whomever told the story last. Seven and twelve are popular fairy-tale numbers, and one should not presume each time that a mystery lies behind them. Yet the three variants discussed—joined by a large number of versions recorded at different times and among various peoples—lead us to believe that, in the over-all course of events, a significant, constantly recurring process is at work: danger and redemption, paralysis and rejuvenation, death and resurrection. The individual compilers cast the fairy tale in the garb of their time, and the tension between the inner form and the outer garb of the fairy tale can be particularly charming for those with fastidious tastes. In any event, we would not care to do without the elegance and incisiveness of Perrault, the sensitivity and refinement of the Grimm brothers, the power and vitality of Basile—or the humor which characterizes all three tales. Basile's often indelicate jokes are not intended for children; but the two other tales have the power to charm and exhilarate both children and adults.


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

German philologists and collectors of folk tales.

Renowned for their collection of European fairy tales, entitled Kinder-und Hausmärchen (1812-1815; Grimms' Fairy Tales), the brothers Grimm are additionally celebrated for their study of the Germanic literary tradition. Distinguished philologists, they are credited with rediscovering the richness of Germany's medieval language, literature, and culture in the early nineteenth century. While both brothers individually produced significant works of scholarship, their most enduring literary efforts were produced in collaboration. These include the Deutsches Wörterbuch, a German dictionary, which is recognized as comparable in importance to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Grimms 'Fairy Tales, their world famous collection of folk tales. Transcribed from stories purportedly recounted by peasants in the German countryside, Grimms' Fairy Tales reflects the brothers' effort to preserve the oral tradition of folklore.

Biographical Information

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in Hanau, Germany. The death of their father in 1788 and consequent lack of family income required that they be placed in the care of an aunt in Kassel, where they were educated at the Lyceum Fridericianum. Throughout their lives the Grimms shared a close intellectual and emotional relationship. Both studied law at Marburg University in Kassel and both were distracted from their studies by their interest in medieval German literature. Beginning in about 1806 the brothers began collecting oral folklore, which they revised and published as Kinder-und Hausmärchen, a work that Wilhelm considered of minor importance but which proved to be among their finest contributions to literature. In 1816 Wilhelm and Jacob accepted positions in the Library of King Jerome in Kassel. Their duties as librarians allowed them significant time to devote to scholarship and to complete their early collection of essays on folklore, published as Deutsche Sagen (German Legends) in 1816. Both men further established their academic reputations in the ensuing years with the publication of individual works, including Jacob's Deutsche Grammatik (1819-37) and Wilhelm's Die deutschen Heldensage (1829). In 1930 Jacob was offered a position as professor of law and linguistics at the University of Göttingen, while Wilhelm became a lecturer in medieval literature at Göttingen in 1831, acceding to a full professorship in 1835. The brothers' formal protest of the restrictive civil policies imposed by Ernest August of Cumberland, the new King of Hanover, led to their discharge and exile in 1837. Their subsequent financial difficulties following a return to Kassel were ended in 1840, when the Grimms were offered posts at the Berlin Academy of Sciences by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Both lectured on German politics, literature, and folklore, but their principal duty was the compilation of a German entymological dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, a sixteen-volume set that would not be completed until the mid-twentieth century. Jacob published the first volume of the Wörterbuch in 1854. Wilhelm's death in 1859 prevented him from completing his portion of the dictionary, though Jacob produced two more volumes before dying in 1863.

Major Works

The Grimms' two-volume Fairy Tales contains more than 200 folk stories transcribed from the oral tradition of the German peasantry. Among the best known of these tales are such recognizable stories as "The Frog Prince," "Hansel and Gretel," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Snow-White." The stories generally feature medieval settings and concern a variety of characters easily familiar to any schoolchild—beautiful princesses, fools, tricksters, witches, naïve heroes, talking beasts, bumbling craftsmen, fearless boys, and clever girls. Their principal technique is one of exaggeration and dramatic contrast between representations of good and evil, though the tales generally lack the harsh tone of moral didacticism. In large part, these stories preserve the simple, unadorned style of the peasant storyteller. While the core of the works come from Germany, specifically the region of Hesse, many of the tales derive from geographically broader sources and others are literary rather than oral in origin.

Critical Reception

Upon publication, Grimms' Fairy Tales became immediately popular with children. First intended for the student of folklore rather than as entertainment, the tales reflect the brothers' efforts to define their literary heritage. Critics have acknowledged that the Grimms' statements regarding the Fairy Tales indicate their belief that these were authentic expressions of peasant speech. However, modern analysis of Grimms' Fairy Tales has questioned some of the Grimms' methods in collecting and recording these stories. Several critics, including Jack Zipes and John M. Ellis, have contended that Wilhelm's extensive revisions fundamentally contradicted the stated purpose of literary preservation by overlaying the peasant tales with a bourgeois sensibility. Other folklorists have countered that the Grimms' embellishments simply indicate the process of evolutionary change that is fundamental to the oral tradition. While scholars continue to study the appropriate literary and oral significance of the tales, others have sought to formally analyze the individual stories using the techniques of psychoanalysis and cultural criticism. Such interpretations have attributed an assortment of psychosexual and socio-historical themes to the works. Overall, the Grimms' Fairy Tales have provided folklore scholars with valuable information regarding the art of storytelling, and children of every age with fantasy and delight.

M. Schmidt Ihms (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "The Brothers Grimm and Their Collection of Kinder und Hausmärchen," in Theoria, Vol. XLV, October, 1975, pp. 41-54.

[In the following essay, Ihms details the lives of the Grimm brothers and investigates the political and social dimensions of their fairy tales]

The stories now known as Grimm's Fairy Tales appeared in English translation during the nineteenth century as Popular Stories1 or Household Tales.2 These titles correspond closely to the original German Kinder-und Hausmärchen. When nowadays we refer to the Fairy Tales, or in German to the Märchen, we use a one-sided and inadequate term which applies only to a certain part of the collection (to approximately 60 out of 210 tales).

The men who recorded these stories, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, were just one year apart in age, and were particularly close to one-another from childhood. To understand their work, it is necessary to consider not only the men themselves, but also these bonds between them,3 and beyond that the social and political conditions of the times in which they lived.4

Jacob, the older of the two, was in appearance a little man, slightly built, but with an impressive head and a characterful clearcut profile. He did not find it easy to make contact with other people. He had no wife—and so he clung all the more to his brother Wilhelm who remained his loyal friend throughout. Jacob was an unusually gifted man with a bold approach to problems which he formulated for himself, thereby laying the foundations for the new discipline of Germanistics, which is the study of the development of the Germanic languages and their creations both in oral and written tradition.

He had started his studies at the University of Marburg in the Faculty of Law. He soon attracted the attention of a truly creative scholar, Friedrich Karl von Savigny. Savigny taught that legal science should be both historical and systematic, and opposed all attempts at codifying German civil law before the content of the existing law had been established through historical research. He appointed Jacob Grimm as his assistant, although the latter had not yet completed his studies with a university qualification. Together they went to Paris to search in the National Library there for medieval legal documents. That set Jacob on his way not as a jurist but as the founder of Germanistics. He concerned himself mainly with the systematic and critical study of the history of the Germanic languages and the ways in which their creative spirit manifested itself.

The list of his published works is formidable—too vast to be given here. All that can be offered is a glimpse of the range of his knowledge. He published a collection of ancient legal documents;5 he edited a number of older texts and added his own commentaries (e.g. two Anglo-Saxon legends,6 Latin poems of the tenth and eleventh centuries,7 and old Spanish ballads8); he translated Serbian folksongs and a Serbian grammar;9 and he wrote two volumes on German mythology.10

His main claim to fame, however, is based on his German Grammar which appeared in four volumes. The title is misleading, for Jacob Grimm concerns himself here not only with the German language but with a whole group of related Germanic languages.

The first volume11 is dedicated to Savigny. It deals with the sound system and contains the principles now known as 'Grimm's Laws'. The first of these explains the difference between certain sounds in the Germanic languages on the one hand and the related Indo-European languages on the other. The second accounts for the differences within the Germanic languages between High German on the one hand and Low German and English on the other. It explains certain regular correspondences like: High German Wasser = Low German and English water, or High German Pfeife = Low German or English pipe.

The second volume12 investigates word formation, one of Jacob Grimms favourite topics; the third,13 dedicated to his brother Whilhelm, deals with gender; and the fourth14 analyses syntax.

Of greater importance than these details is the linguistic modernity of Jacob Grimm's approach. Through his careful analysis of the historical development of linguistic forms he revealed also the underlying structure of the history of society and of the mind.

His contribution to our knowledge of the development of German culture (mythology, folklore, law, language and literature) was such that many universities tried to persuade this self-made scholar to join their faculties, and honorary doctorates were bestowed on him by several universities. He was made a member of the French Legion of Honour and he was also one of the first to be decorated with the newly created Prussian 'Pour le mérite'.

His brother Wilhelm always had to stand in the shadow of Jacob. However, he never showed any signs of resentment or jealousy, and why should he? He led a humanly much richer life. He was an attractive man of impressive stature. It is said that Jacob was peeved that he was made to stand when the photograph (one of the early daguerreotypes) was taken for the first volume of their German Dictionary, because the photographer was trying to balance the difference in height between him and his brother. Wilhelm easily made friends and led a happy family life with his wife and children in a comfortable home which provided shelter for Jacob too. And as far as academic achievement is concerned, he could hold his own. He had finished his university studies with a degree in law, but like his brother he had changed direction and turned to the new discipline of Germanistics. His contribution to knowledge was recognised. He was held in high esteem by his students. His old University of Marburg honoured him with a doctor's degree in philosophy.

He had his specialised area of research, and published a number of works under his own name, amongst them a collection of old Nordic epics, ballads and tales,15 a voluminous work on Runic characters (a form of Germanic script),16 and a history of rhyme.17 In addition he published critical and annotated editions of a number of medieval texts.

The careers of the two brothers ran absolutely parallel from their thirtieth year on. Before that, Jacob held several public offices where he could apply his remarkable legal knowledge and his command of foreign languages, notably French. But in the end he decided to become a librarian in Kassel, like Wilhelm, who by then had already held such a position for two years. Together they moved to Göttingen—still as librarians but also accepting teaching commitments at the university, Jacob as full professor, Wilhelm as associate professor. When, for reasons which will be explained later, they had to leave Göttingen, they moved together to Kassel, Jacob as exile and Wilhelm to be near him. From there they were called to Berlin to the University and the Prussian Akademie der Wissenschaften, and it was in Berlin that they died, Jacob outliving Wilhelm by almost four years.

So far not a single date has been mentioned, but if the social and political situation in which they found themselves is to be examined, dates become essential.

The brothers were born during the last decades of the eighteenth century, Jacob in 1785, and Wilhelm in 1786. There were six children in the Grimm family: five brothers and one sister. They spent their youth in Steinau, a small town in Hessen where several generations on their father's side had lived before them. Their grandfather had been a parson. Their father was a jurist; he held the highest administrative office in the area and was also a judge in the court of law. Their childhood was a happy one; they felt secure among people whom they loved and respected. The early death of their father came as a deep shock to them, and although their mother succeeded in securing for them an education at school and university as was in keeping with the family tradition their place in society was no longer ensured by their father's position, and Jacob, particularly, reacted to the humiliations they encountered.

At the time when the brothers were born, Germany consisted of a number of small sovereign states. The political power was in the hands of the aristocracy. All the inhabitants—whether they were educated or not, whether they were rich or poor—were politically minors, 'subjects' of a higher Will. To quote just one example, Frau Grimm had to apply to the ruler of Hesse for permission to send her sons to university.

The call of the French Revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity was heard in Germany too. Even Napoleon's rule over the German lands to the left of the river Rhine brought a breeze of freedom. So it is not surprising that Jacob accepted a position with Napoleon's brother, Jérôme, who had become King of Westphalia. He first served him as a librarian, then as auditor and assessor member in the Conseil d'état. This, however, did not prevent him from joining his brother in donating the considerable proceeds from their edition of a medieval text to the cause of the freedom fighters of Hesse who took part in the wars of liberation (1813). For, while he appreciated the contact with individual, civilised, congenial Frenchmen, he did not approve of the domination of his fatherland by a foreign power, and he resented the oppression by the French army of occupation.

It is a little more difficult to understand why he and Wilhelm should have been so enthusiastic about the return of the Elector of Hesse-Kassel that they joined the crowds for a rousing welcome. For they knew as everyone else did how this princely house had sold their subjects as soldiers to England and had bled them dry with taxes and duties. But too firmly engrained in them still was the conviction that these rulers held their office by divine right and that their failings as human beings did not testify against the need for this God-willed order.

In 1813 Jacob became secretary of the legation to the minister for Hesse at Paris and later served at the Congress of Vienna. However, he resigned in 1815 and took on the humble and unpolitical position of librarian in Kassel. But, when it was necessary to make a stand, e.g. in the question of censorship, he proved himself to be a man with a marked sense of right and wrong and a great respect for individual freedom.

This became evident in particular when he and his brother Wilhelm joined five other professors of Göttingen in a protest against the new King of Hanover. This king, Ernst August, formerly Duke of Cumberland, an ultra-Tory, had declared as invalid the existing—for that time relatively liberal—constitution of 1833. In his decree he replaced the acceptable designation 'civil servants' by 'royal servants' and demanded that they should be sworn in under the old reactionary constitution of 1819. This caused general concern and opposition but very few people had the courage to voice their protest. However, the seven professors signed a statement in which they rejected the action of the king on ethical and legal grounds. This they submitted to the university authorities, who were directly concerned as the professors belonged to the class of 'royal servants' who had to swear loyalty to the king and the constitution. The authorities advised caution and patience and suggested a withdrawal of the document. The seven, however, remained adamant; they were prepared to bear the consequences. And these followed faster and firmer than expected: all seven were immediately dismissed from office by the king; three of them, among them Jacob, had to leave Hanover within three days. But the way across the border was not very far—and the students of Göttingen, who by an order from above were forbidden to hire horses and vehicles, accompanied their professors' coaches on foot, and celebrated their exile in a rousing function on the other side of the border. The whole world took note, and funds were set up in and outside Germany to assist the professors and their families who overnight had lost their livelihood. That was in 1837.

In 1840 the brothers Grimm went to Berlin. There they joined other leading German scholars both at the University, which had been founded in 1810, and in the Prussian Academy, which had been in existence since 1700. Many of these men spent their energies in the pursuit of knowledge in various fields of specialisation because this was the only outlet they had in a political situation like theirs. However, in the end this led to a 'politicization' of what originally had been academic pursuits: law, history, language and literature, they all became political. What is meant by this can be demonstrated by the role that the brothers Grimm and Germanistics began to play in the political sphere.18

In 1846 the first 'Germanistentag' was held in Frankfurtam-Main, an old imperial city which was still politically independent. Lawyers, historians and philologists gathered to discuss problems of common concern which turned out to be political in nature. It was the same in 1847 when the professors gathered in Lübeck, another of the free cities. Jacob Grimm was elected chairman of both conferences. A third meeting, planned to take place in Nürnberg in 1848, became superfluous. The revolution of March 1848 had led to the National Assembly in St. Paul's Church in Frankfurt. The delegates had been elected by the people to draw up a constitution for Germany. Most of the political professors—among them Jacob Grimm—found themselves members of this National Assembly. This was the highlight of Jacob Grimm's political life. That the Professoren-Parlament did not fulfil the high hopes men had set on it was hardly his fault, since after some active participation, he resigned his mandate during 1848.

Wilhelm was less active in politics and possibly also a little more conservative than his brother, but he shared Jacob's basic convictions. He would have subscribed to the preamble which his brother had suggested for Paragraph 1 of the new constitution: 'The German people are a free people. German soil does not suffer slavery. Such foreigners as are in bondage are liberated when they set foot on German soil'.19 It also casts some light on the political attitude of the brothers that—showered with honours as they were—they were never offered the elevation above their bourgeois rank to that of the nobility. Both Goethe and Schiller had seen nothing wrong in accepting the distinguishing von in front of their names—while the family of Wilhelm's wife had renounced the privileges of the aristocracy and dropped the trappings that went with it—like the von before the family name.

Against this background of private and public life of the Brothers Grimm, their collection of Popular Tales takes on a new significance. There are various reasons why they collected and published these Popular Tales, 'popular' meaning here 'of the people and liked by the people'.

First of all, there existed at that time among men of letters a general and lively interest in the poetic creations of the unlettered people of the lower classes. In the 18th century Bishop Percy had published Relics of Ancient Poetry, mainly old Scottish ballads. Then James Macpherson had mounted various traditional bits and pieces into a creation of his own and claimed that it was the work of a blind Gaelic bard from the third century A.D., called Ossian. Herder collected folksongs and published them; his collection became known as The Voice of the Nations in their Songs. Goethe kept a little book into which he entered ballads which he heard in Alsace.20 In the 19th century Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim published their famous collection of folk songs. All this was part of a movement which had its philosopher in the Frenchman, J. J. Rousseau, who taught that only a turn away from civilisation and a return to nature would restore decadent mankind to new vigour and creativity.

The brothers Grimm shared this conviction and they began to look for what so far had not yet been collected and put down in writing, namely the stories which were told by the simple folk mainly in the rural areas where traditions tend to survive longer.

The term Märchen is a diminutive of the noun Mär. Martin Luther used this word for the good news of Christ's birth. Goethe still knew it in the sense of news, but in his time it began to take on the connotation of fiction, though not yet of fanciful fiction in which fairies and magic play a part.

The collection of the brothers Grimm consists of tales from the nurseries, the spinning rooms, the village inns. The stories were told in order to educate, to warn, to shock, to frighten, to escape from reality, to indulge in dreams, or to have a good laugh.

In making their collection, the brothers were also motivated by a certain kind of nationalism. They believed that in these folk tales, which were passed on from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation, the spirit of the nation itself had become creative and found expression. That is why they regarded it as urgent to write down these stories before they were forgotten. They hoped too that through this work they might make the German people aware of their common heritage and promote the spiritual, if not the political, unification of the whole nation. With these tales they hoped to reach across the artificial borders of the innumerable little sovereign states and break down the barriers between the sophisticated bourgeoisie and the simple people.

The prototype of the story teller was, for them, Dorothea Viehmann, the wife of a village tailor. That is why in the second edition of their collection her picture appears in the place which at that time was usually reserved for a portrait of the author. Dorothea Viehmann was, however, not the only person they consulted and amongst the others were some educated well-read women, one of whom was responsible for the inclusion of the tales found in Les contes de ma mère l'oye by the Frenchman Charles Perrault (1697).

As scholars the Grimms looked upon their collection as a contribution to knowledge, as a source for further investigations. History proved them right; even today, more than 150 years after the first appearance of their collection, there can be no discussion on any aspect of fairy tales without some reference to the brothers Grimm. Jacob undertook to write the commentary. He noted the name of the person who had told them a particular story, frequently also the place and hour of the recording. He made careful comparisons between the different versions of the same story which they discovered in various regions inside and outside Germany. He revealed links with customs, legal traditions, beliefs and superstitions as they existed outside the world of the tales. Originally, his commentary was included with the individual stories but ultimately it was published as a separate third volume.

To safeguard the authenticity of the story, they set themselves the task of keeping close to the words of the story teller. If one considers that they had neither a tape recorder nor even shorthand, this alone seems a formidable task.21

A comparison of the manuscript with the final printed version reveals, however, that the brothers too took the liberty of the story teller by embellishing the story, by inserting a bit of verse here and there, by adding detail, by rounding off the story, or even by twisting the plot to give it a new ending. Wilhelm was particularly good at that, and this is possibly the reason why Jacob stuck to the more academic task of annotator.

By writing down the stories, Wilhelm Grimm created the classic style of the Märchen -language. Since the collection appeared in print in 1812 and 1815, the Household Tales have been read again and again with the same words and phrases, and the plots, having been fixed in the mind, resist attempts at changing. The impact and the influence became even greater when a selection of 50 fairy tales, especially prepared for children, became available.22 Then night after night in bourgeois homes all over Germany nannies and aunts, grandmothers and mothers read these fairy tales as bedtime stories to the children—and once the children had mastered their letters, they pored over the same stories in their illustrated copies or came across them in their school readers.

Nowadays the original language of the brothers Grimm has a slightly antiquated tone but also something almost sacred like the language of the Bible.

Translations into other languages are easier to modernise. In this connection it is interesting to observe that many of the translations into other languages are based on an English version. The Grimms' fairy tales are available in 70 languages from Afrikaans right through the alphabet to Vietnamese and Welsh, and also in Braille and Esperanto.

The men who have had this extended influence lived, as we have seen, in stirring political times; and one is left wondering what influence the political convictions of the brothers Grimm might have had on the stories, or at least some of the stories, which they wrote down. It has been suggested, for example, that 'Little Red Riding Hood' has very clear and obvious political implications. I have in mind in particular an article with the title: Did Rotkäppchen wear a Jacobin cap?'23 Well, did she?

To answer this question one must also consider two earlier versions of the same story: viz. that by Perrault (seventeenth century) and the dramatised version by Ludwig Tieck24 which is a kind of skit on the political situation at the end of the eighteenth century. We find some striking similarities and revealing differences if we compare the three versions—'Rotkäppchen' by the brothers Grimm being the third one. The main figures are the little girl with the red cap—Chaperon rouge in French, Rotkäppchen in German—and then the wolf.

The wolf tempts Rotkäppchen to disregard warnings about the big bad wolf because he is so suave and so convincing when he tells her of the beauties of nature. The little girl is punished for her naïve trust in the wolf by having to end up in his belly. Perrault stops here—but he adds a few lines of verse with the 'moral': little girls must not trust wolves, especially not those who are suave, because they are the most dangerous; they follow the little demoiselles right into the house and into the ruelle, the narrow passage between bed and wall! One cannot help feeling that Perrault told the story for the children and wrote the 'moral' for the nanny.25

Tieck added the hunter. However, he made him turn up too late and Tieck's Rotkäppchen finds the same end as Perrault's Chaperon rouge.

Grimm, however, lets the hunter succeed. He turns up in the knick of time, but he does not kill the wolf outright. He first rescues both Rotkäppchen and her grandmother from the belly of the wolf. Then the wolf gets his deserts—stuffed with rocks he cannot move and drops dead there and then. To prove that Rotkäppchen learnt her lesson Grimm relates a second incident. Another wolf attempts to enter the house where Rotkäppchen and her grandmother are. This time they need no hunter. They are able on their own to lure the wolf to his death.

Because of the interest the brothers Grimm took in mythology it has been suggested that the cycle of the seasons, of death and rebirth, is re-enacted here. Rotkäppchen's resurrection from the dark belly of the wolf is interpreted as the triumph of spring over winter. The hunter—in this context—would represent the sun or another life-giving force. 'Rotkäppchen' thus would fall into the large group of fertility stories which have been told by many nations since time immemorial.26

While there is something appealing and convincing in such a reading of 'Rotkäppchen', there is also another possible interpretation which in our context is of greater interest and relevance. We return to the question, did Rotkäppchen wear a Jacobin cap of liberty? We need not go into details of the signal character of the colour red. We all know that the red pointed cap of liberty was worn by the Jacobins as a sign of their revolutionary mood; we also know that the pole of liberty was usually topped with a red cap, and that there were some provocative and progressive German papers which included the word red in their names: e.g. Das rote Blatt (1791 Regensburg, 1798 Koblenz).

Less well known is the fact that at the beginning of the nineteenth century 'wolf was not just another name for a powerful cunning enemy, but very specifically for the French under Napoleon. Tieck in his political skit calls the wolf monsieur wolf,27 and Kleist,28 a very well-known German dramatist of the time, also speaks of the wolf and the hunt of the wolf and means Napoleon and the French and the war against them.

If we now note that the brothers Grimm had been collecting these folk tales since 1806, and that the two volumes appeared in 1812 and 1815, then we realise that their version of 'Rotkäppchen' belonged to the period of the Napoleonic wars and the wars of liberation from the Napoleonic yoke. Within this framework it is possible, without straining credibility, to answer the question of the political significance of the red cap in the affirmative. The interpretation then would go something like this: Rotkäppchen represents Germany; like Rotkäppchen Germany allowed herself to be persuaded by the cunning wolf—the French revolutionaries—to seek the beauty of nature and the freedom of the forest. Like Rotkäppchen, she is lured to her doom in the belly of the insatiable wolf (the Napoleonic Empire). However, through the timely intervention of the hunter she ultimately is saved and able to help the hunter to send the wolf to his death. Far-fetched?—no. Ingenious?—yes, and very likely true, not in the sense that Wilhelm Grimm was consciously looking for a parable, but rather in the sense that while he set the tale down he allowed his own fears and hopes to shape it in the same way as the story tellers before him had done.

'Fear' and 'hope' are key words when one interprets some of the better known tales in the social setting of the times during which they came into being. The brothers Grimm were inclined to look upon these stories as relics of a past long gone by. In that they were mistaken—some of the stories were of relatively recent origin, reflecting the oppression of the common people by the aristocracy.29 Just think for a moment of the main fairy tale figures: there is the frustrated youngest son who is always missing out where his brothers just make it; there is the stepdaughter who is deprived of what is by right hers; there is the lad who appears to be a nitwit only because he has no scope to show his true talents. Nearly all of these are vindicated in the tales, mostly by magic intervention.

Is it unreasonable to assume that the Grimms, frustrated by their rôle as bourgeois, identified themselves to some extent with these fairy tale figures or at least sympathised with them? Were they not themselves in an unbearable position as permanent minors', never coming of age politically? Were they too not deprived of rights which they regarded as birthrights? Were they not in a similar situation to those who could not employ their talents fully in the society in which they were forced to live? And if that is so, would they not have noted with a sense of satisfaction how, in these folk tales, so often justice triumphs and the underdog comes out on top, while the oppressors get what they deserve?

As far as the moral of the story is concerned, there is nearly always a clear demarcation line—not quite as harsh and uncompromising as with Brecht and other Marxist-inspired writers, but still noticeable, namely a line that divides the lowly, powerless poor, who are basically good, from the high and mighty rich, who are basically wicked or become wicked in their positions of power.

There is one last question which must be dealt with, namely: why should these tales with their political, social and moral implications be of interest to children?

It was Wilhelm Grimm himself who became aware of the great appeal which these folk tales had in the nursery. Following the example of Perrault, who had addressed himself in the first instance to children, Wilhelm selected fifty stories and retold them with children in mind. Today these are available not only in beautifully illustrated books but also on discs and tapes with and without music; they are shown on television, and produced on the stage as seasonal entertainment at Christmas time. Why?

Here we can forget the political issues. The social aspects, however, seem to be very relevant, as much for the children of the period of the brothers Grimm as for the children of our own time. It is true that conditions have changed since feudal times, when some of these stories originated, and also since the times of the brothers Grimm, when they were retold. Modern children, growing up in towns in an industrialised society, are confronted in the folk tales with an unfamiliar world, in which there are figures which they will never come across in real life, for instance, not only kings and queens, princes and princesses, but also woodcutters, millers, tailors and goose girls, most of whom are visualized only from the illustrations or from their costume on television and the stage. Nevertheless, the society in which they function is very simply structured and the underlying pattern is as easily grasped by a child as is the rôle allotted to a certain figure in this order.

The child's own world is much more complex. In the child's own experience society is organised as a hierarchy, children occupying the lowest rung of the ladder with the grown-ups right on top. There are all kinds of pressures from above—demands made by teachers and preachers, by parents and neighbours, by older brothers and sisters. So it is perhaps not really surprising that children, feeling helpless and sometimes inadequate in situations which they do not understand, should experience a vicarious satisfaction when, in the fairy tale world, the handicapped, the deprived and the frustrated ultimately get what is their due. That this comes about by magic does not matter. Because children do not see through the mechanisms of their own society they have learnt to accept the inexplicable with equanimity.

As far as the moral implications are concerned, children like the radical division between good and evil, and reward and punishment. They accept the cruel castigation of the wicked not with a sense of childish sadism but with a sense of satisfaction that justice is done fairly and squarely. They feel involved and identify themselves with the moral judgment of the story teller. If poor lovable Cinderella gets her prince then that is in keeping with her good and virtuous nature—and it is also the right compensation for the humiliations she has had to go through. If the wicked stepsisters, on the other hand, have their eyes pecked out by the birds, and if the witch is roasted in her own oven, they only get what they have brought upon themselves.

To the amazement of adults most children show no evidence that they fear something equally horrible might happen to themselves. Children are shrewd enough to realize that they never will be quite as good as the really good people in fairy land nor quite as bad as the wicked ones. Fairy tales may have been models of life, but they never were blueprints for life—they never called for action in reality. They served as safety valves: escapist in character in the past, they serve as such also in the present. In feudal times they did not pave the way for rebellion—and Little Red Riding Hood did not wear her cap of liberty in order to incite the Germans to fight the French.

It is in this connection that Marxist-oriented educationists offer their criticism of Grimms' fairy tales, calling them outmoded and escapist.30 They demand that modern tales should lay bare the underlying structure of our own society which, for the understanding of children, could be simplified by an unambiguous stratification: the capitalists, the rich oppressors on top and the poor oppressed labourers at the bottom. They claim that such stories would no longer be escapist but would give the child some understanding of the powers and mechanisms at work in its life and would motivate it for future action.31

In East Germany and in East Berlin attempts have been made to meet these demands, and quite a few books of this kind have found their way into West Germany.

However, none of these contemporary authors has so far been able to replace the brothers Grimm, either in East or in West Germany—and certainly not in the world at large.


1German Popular Stories. Translated from Kinder und Hausmärchen, collected by MM Grimm from oral tradition. 2 vols. London 1823 and 1826.

2Grimm Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt, with Jacob Grimm's original notes and an introduction by Andrew Lang. London 1884.

This title and that cited in n. 1 are quoted by Katherine M. Briggs in 'The influence of the Brothers Grimm in England', Brüder Grimm Gedenken 1963, essays edited by L. Denecke. Marburg 1963.

3 L. Denecke, Jacob Grimm und sein Bruder Wilhelm. Sammlung Metzler M 100. Stuttgart 1971.

4 F. Schnabel; Deutsche Geschichte im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, vols. 3, 4, 5. Herder Bücherei 205, 206, 207. Freiburg 1964, 65.

5 1828

6 1840

7 1838

8 1815

9 cf. M. Mojasevic, 'Jacob Grimm und die Jugoslawen', Brüder Grimm Gedenken 63, p. 333.

10 1835

11 1819

12 1826

13 1831

14 1837

15 1811

16 1821

17 1852

18 Katherine M. Briggs quotes from an essay on the Household Tales, written by J. Campbell: 'Those days', wrote Wilhelm, 'of the collapse of all hitherto existing establishments will remain forever before my eyes . . . The ardour with which the studies in Old German were pursued helped overcome the spiritual depression. . . . Undoubtedly the world situation and the necessity to withdraw into the peacefulness of scholarship contributed to the re-awakening of the long forgotten literature; but not only did we seek something of consolation in the past, our hope, naturally, was that this course of ours should contribute somewhat to the return of a better day.' Gedenken 1963, p. 511.

19 Quote d by L. Denecke , op. cit., p. 141 . Translated by the author.

20Volkslieder von Goethe in Elsaß gesammelt, edited by L. Pinck, Saarbrücken 1935.

21 W. Schoof, Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Grimmschen Märchen, p. 17f. Hamburg 1958.

22 1825

23 H. W. Jäger, 'Trägt Rotkäppchen eine Jakobiner-Mütze?' Literatur-soziologie. Beiträge zur Praxis, vol. II, edited by J, Bark. Stuttgart 1974.

24 L. Tieck; Leben und Tod des kleinen Rotkäppchens. Eine Tragödie 1800. Tieck Schriften, vol. 2. Berlin 1828.


On voit icy que de jeunse enfans,
Sur tout de jeunes filles,
Belles, bien faites et gentilles,
Font tres-mal d'écouter toute sorte de gens,
Et que ce n'est pas chose étrange
S'il en est tant que le loup mange.

Je dis le loup, car tous les loups
Ne sont pas de la même sorte:
Il en est d'une humeure accorte,
Sans bruit, sans fiel et sans courroux,
Qui, privez, complaisons et doux,
Suivent les jeunes demoiselles
Jusque dans les maisons, jusque dans les ruelles.
Mais, hélas! qui ne scait que ces loups doucereux
De tous les loups sont les plus dangereux!

(Contes de ma mère L'oye, Ch. Perrault, Les Editions la Bruyère, Paris, no date.)

26 I. and P. Opie, The Classical Fairy Tales: 'Little Red Ridinghood', p. 93 f. London 1974. H. W. Jäger, op. cit., p. 159 and p. 176, refers to: H. Husson, La Chaine traditionelle (1874), A. Lang, Perrault's Popular Tales (1888), and F. Linning, Deutsche Mythenmärchen (1883), as well as E. Siecke, Indogermanische Mythologie (1921), and P. Saintyves, Les Contes de Pérrault et les Récits parallèlles (1923).

27 Scene 2: the hunter:

Wenn ich den Monsieur Wolf nur packe,
So ists gewiß um ihn geschehn.

28 The most striking example, also quoted by Jäger, op.cit., p. 164, is:

Eine Lustjagd, wie wenn Schützen
Auf der Spur dem Wolfe sitzen!
Schlagt ihn tot! Das Weltgericht
Fragt Euch nach den Gründen nicht!
Germania an ihre Kinder

This quotation, incidentally, also casts some light on the rôle of the hunter.

29 L. Denecke, op. cit., p. 74. D. Richter and J. Merkel; Märchen, Phantasie und soziales Lernen. Basis Theorie 4. Berlin 1974 p. 39 f.

30 Richter/Merkel, op. cit., p. 102.

31 Richter/Merkel, op. cit., p. 119 f.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Short Fiction

Kinder-und Hausmärchen [Grimms' Fairy Tales', also published as Children's and Household Tales, Fairy Tales, and German Popular Stories] (fairy tales) 1812-15

Other Major Works

Altdänische Heldenlieder [by Wilhelm Grimm] (songs) 1811

Über den altdeutschen Meistergesang [by Jacob Grimm] (essay) 1811

Deutsche Sagen [German Legends] (literary history) 1816

Deutsche Grammatik [by Jacob Grimm] (grammar) 1819-37

Über deutsche Runen [by Wilhelm Grimm] (folklore) 1821

Die deutschen Heldensage [by Wilhelm Grimm] (folklore) 1829

Deutsche Mythologie [Teutonic Mythology; by Jacob Grimm] (folklore) 1835-54

Geschichte der deutschen Sprache [by Jacob Grimm] (history) 1848

* Deutsches Wörterbuch [editors] (dictionary) 1854-1961

*This work was completed by Hildebrand, Wiegand, and others.

Maria M. Tatar (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9509

SOURCE: "Born Yesterday: Heroes in the Grimms' Fairy Tales," in Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, edited by Ruth B. Bottigheimer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, pp. 95-114.

[In the following essay, Tatar discusses the common traits of the Grimms' fairy tale heroes: naiveté, compassion, fearlessness, and humility.]

There comes an old man with his three sons—
I could match this beginning with an old tale.

Shakespeare, As You Like It

Identifying fairy tale heroes by name is no mean feat. In the Grimms' collection, only one in every ten actually has a name. But it is also no secret that the most celebrated characters in fairy tales are female. Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty: these are the names that have left so vivid an imprint on childhood memories. With the exception of Hansel, who shares top billing with his sister, male protagonists are exceptionally unmemorable in name, if not in deed. Lacking the colorful descriptive sobriquets that accord their female counterparts a distinctive identity, these figures are presented as types and defined by their parentage (the miller's son), by their station in life (the prince), by their relationship to siblings (the youngest brother), by their level of intelligence (the simpleton), or by physical deformities ("Thumbling").1

Most people may be at a loss when it comes to naming fairy tale heroes, but few have trouble characterizing them. "In song and story," writes Simone de Beauvoir, "the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of woman; he slays the dragon, he battles giants." And what are this young man's attributes? One commentator on the Grimms' collection describes him as "active, competitive, handsome, industrious, cunning, acquisitive." That list sums up the conventional wisdom on the dragon-slayers and giant-killers of fairy tale lore.2

That conventional wisdom proves, however, to be a fairy tale so far as German folklore is concerned. A reading of the first edition of the Nursery and Household Tales reveals that there are exactly two dragon-slayers and only one giant-killer in the entire collection of more than 150 tales.3 One of those stories, "Johannes-Wassersprung and Caspar-Wassersprung" rehearses the classic story of the slaying of a seven-headed dragon and the liberation of a princess, but (for unknown reasons) that tale never did make it to the second edition of the Nursery and Household Tales. The other dragon-slaying hero bears the distinctly unheroic name "Stupid Hans" ("Dummhans"), and the contest in which he dispatches three dragons, each with a different number of heads, is less than gripping. As for the one giant-killer, he succeeds in decapitating three giants, but only because the proper sword is placed directly in his path. If there is any attribute that these heroes share, it is naiveté. Like so many other heroes in the Grimms' collection, they are decidedly unworldly figures. "Innocent," "silly," "useless," "foolish," "simple," and "guileless": these are the actual adjectives applied again and again to fairy tale heroes in the Grimms' collection.

Among folklorists, it is the fashion to divide heroes into two separate and distinct classes. There are active heroes and passive heroes, "formal heroes" and "ideal heroes," dragon-slayers and male Cinderellas, tricksters and simpletons.4 In theory, the oppositions active/passive, seeker/victim, and naive/cunning seem to serve as useful guides for classifying fairy tale heroes. But in practice it is not always easy to determine whether a hero relies on his own resources or depends on helpers. Does he have a zest for danger or does he simply weather the various adventures that befall him? Just what is his level of intelligence? What at first blush appear to be perfectly straightforward choices are in the end fraught with complexities. The happy-golucky simpleton who appears to succeed without trying is, for example, not always as doltish as his name or his reputation in the village would lead us to believe, and the roguish trickster does not always live up to his reputation for shrewd reasoning.

There is a further complication. Despite their seeming artlessness, fairy tales are not without occasional ironic touches that subvert surface meanings. In particular, the epithets and predicates reserved for their protagonists can highlight utterly uncharacteristic traits. The eponymous heroine of "Clever Else" ranks high on the list of dull-witted characters; the tale "Hans in Luck" charts a steady decline in its hero's fortunes; and the courageous tailor in the tale of that title displays more bravado than bravery.5 In the world of fairy tales, a simpleton can easily slip into the role of the cunning trickster; a humble miller's son can become a king; and a cowardly fool can emerge as a stouthearted hero. Character traits display an astonishing lack of stability, shifting almost imperceptibly into their opposites as the tale unfolds. Bearing this in mind, let us take the measure of male protagonists in the Grimms' collection to determine what character traits they share and to assess the extent to which the plots of their adventures possess a degree of predictability.

If the female protagonists of fairy tales are often as good as they are beautiful, their male counterparts generally appear to be as young and naive as they are stupid. Snow White's stepmother may be enraged by her stepdaughter's superior beauty, but the fathers of male heroes are eternally exasperated by the unrivaled obtuseness of their sons. To the question, Who is the stupidest of them all? most fairy-tale fathers would reply: my youngest son. Yet that son is also the chosen son, the son who ultimately outdoes his older and wiser siblings. In an almost perverse fashion, fairy tales featuring male protagonists chart the success story of adolescents who do not even have the good sense to heed the instructions of the many helpers and donors who rush to their aid in an attempt to avert catastrophes and to ensure a happy ending. "You don't really deserve my help," declares one such helper in frustration after his sage advice has been disregarded on no less than three occasions.6

In fairy tales the world over, the least likely to succeed paradoxically becomes the most likely to succeed. Merit rarely counts; luck seems to be everything. Aladdin, the prototype of the undeserving hero who succeeds in living happily ever after, begins his rise to wealth and power under less than auspicious circumstances. The introductory paragraphs of his tale give the lie to the view that classical fairy tales reward virtue and punish evil. "Once upon a time," so the story of "Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp" begins, "there lived in a certain city of China an impoverished tailor who had a son called Aladdin. From his earliest years this Aladdin was a headstrong and incorrigible good-for-nothing." When he grows older, he refuses to learn a trade and persists in his idle ways until his father, "grieving over the perverseness of his son," falls ill and dies. Yet this same Aladdin, who becomes ever more wayward after sending his father to the grave, ultimately inherits a sultan's throne. As one critic correctly points out, the story of Aladdin and his enchanted lamp exalts and glorifies a figure who stands as "one of the most undeserving characters imaginable." It is telling that Aladdin could make his way easily from the pages of German translations of the Thousand and One Nights into the oral narratives of one region in Germany. Once his exotic name was changed to "Dummhans," he was quickly assimilated into Pomeranian folklore—so much so that it was difficult to distinguish him from native sons.7

The heroes of the Nursery and Household Tales may, for the most part, be unlikely to win prizes for intelligence and good behavior, but they are even less likely to earn awards for courage. Their stories chronicle perilous adventures, but they themselves often remain both cowardly and passive. When summoned to discharge the first in a series of three tasks, the simpleton in the tale known as "The Queen Bee" simply sits down and has a good cry. In "The Three Feathers," the hero sits down and "feels sad" instead of rising to the challenges posed by his father. Fairy tale heroines have never stood as models of an enterprising spirit, but it is also not rare for fairy tale heroes to suffer silently and to endure hardships in a hopelessly passive fashion.

For all their shortcomings, the simpletons in the Grimms' fairy tales do possess one character trait that sets them apart from their fraternal rivals: compassion. That compassion is typically reserved for the natural allies and benefactors of fairy tale heroes: the animals that inhabit the earth, the waters, and the sky.8 Even before the simpleton embarks on a journey to foreign kingdoms or undertakes various tasks to liberate a princess, he must prove himself worthy of assistance from nature or from supernatural powers by displaying compassion. Of the various tests, tasks, and trials imposed on the hero, this first test figures as the most important, for it establishes the privileged status of the young simpleton. Once he exhibits the virtue of compassion—with its logical concomitant of humility—he can do virtually no wrong, even when he violates interdictions, disregards warnings, and ignores instructions. This preliminary test, a test of the hero's character, comes to serve the dual function of singling out the hero from his brothers and of furnishing him with potential helpers for the tasks that lie ahead.

Two fairy tales from the Grimms' collection illustrate the extent to which compassion is rewarded. In "The Queen Bee," the youngest of three sons defends an ant hill, a bevy of ducks, and a beehive from the assaults of his mischievous brothers. "Leave the animals alone," he admonishes his elders on three occasions. Compassion pays off in the end, for this youngest of three sons is also the only one to escape being turned to stone—a punishment that perfectly suits the crimes of his callous siblings. With the help of his newly won allies, the simpleton of the family discharges three "impossible" tasks spelled out for him on a stone slab. He gathers a thousand pearls that lie strewn about the forest; he fetches a bedroom key from the sea's depths; and he succeeds in identifying the youngest of three "completely identical" sisters. Or, to be more precise, the ants gather the pearls, the ducks fetch the key, and the bees identify the youngest sister. Yet the simpleton is credited with disenchanting the palace in which the trio of princesses resides, and he thereby wins the hand of the youngest and earns the right to give the two other sisters in marriage to his brothers.

The hero of "The White Snake," like the simpleton of "The Queen Bee," hardly lifts a finger to win his bride. Once he displays compassion for wildlife by coming to the rescue of three fish, a colony of ants, and three ravens, he joins the ranks of the "chosen" heroes who receive assistance from helpers as soon as they are charged with carrying out tasks. Although male fairy tale figures have customarily been celebrated for their heroic exploits and feats, their greatest achievement actually rests on the successful passing of a character test. By enshrining compassion and humility, which—unlike intelligence and brute strength—are acquired characteristics rather than innate traits, the Grimms' tales make it clear to their implied audience (which gradually came to be adolescents) that even the least talented of youths is equipped with the potential to rise to the top.9

Once the hero has succeeded in passing the preliminary character test, he is braced for the tasks that lie ahead. The grateful beneficiaries of his compassionate acts and humble deeds are quick to even out the balance sheets. As soon as the hero finds himself faced with an impossible task—emptying a lake with a perforated spoon, building and furnishing a castle overnight, devouring a mountain of bread in twenty-four hours—help is at hand. For every task that requires wisdom, courage, endurance, strength, or simply an appetite and thirst of gargantuan proportions, there is a helper—or a group of helpers—possessing the requisite attributes. And ultimately the achievements of the helper redound to the hero, for he is credited with having drained the lake, built the castle, and consumed the bread.

Passing the preliminary test and carrying out the basic tasks are in themselves sufficient to secure a princess and her kingdom. Nonetheless, a number of fairy tales mount a third act in keeping with the ternary principle governing their plots.10 This final trial which the hero must endure is motivated by the reappearance of the fraternal rivals who vexed the hero in his earlier, preheroic days. The brothers seize the earliest opportunity to pilfer the hero's riches, alienate him from his beloved, malign his good name, or banish him from the land. Yet they are no match for the hero, who deftly succeeds in outwitting them and in surviving their murderous assaults. Although the hero is rarely instrumental in carrying out the tasks imposed on him, in the end he acquires the attributes of his helpers and possesses the strength, courage, and wit needed to defeat his rivals.

Just as the humble male protagonist matures and is elevated to a higher station in life, so his antagonists are demeaned and demoted in the final, optional segment of the tale. If the hero distinguishes himself from the start by showing mercy and compassion for animals, he remains singularly uncharitable when it comes to dealing with human rivals. "Off with everyone's head but my own," proclaims the hero of "The King of the Golden Mountain." And he makes good on that threat. Even brothers and brides are dispatched by fairy tale heroes without a moment's hesitation once their deceit comes to light. Treachery is punished as swiftly and as predictably as compassion is rewarded. This third phase of the hero's career endows his story with a kind of symmetry and balance for which all tales strive. Like the first two acts, the final act stages a contest between a youth and his two older but morally inferior brothers. Both dramatic conflicts culminate in the rewarding of good will and the punishment of treachery; the last act simply intensifies the reward (a princess and a kingdom) and the punishment (death). In doing so, it gives not only added moral resonance but also a measure of finality to the tale. The hero has not only attained the highest office in the land but also eliminated his every competitor. For that office, he was singled out in the tale's first episode, made singular in the tale's second part, and celebrated as the sole and single heir to the throne in the tale's coda.

The trajectory of the hero's path leads him to the goal shared by all fairy tales, whether they chart the fortunes of downtrodden male or downtrodden female protagonists. In keeping with the fundamental law requiring the reversal of all conditions prevailing in its introductory paragraphs, the fairy tale ends by enthroning the humble and enriching the impoverished. The male heroes of fairy tales are humble in at least one, and often in both, senses of the term. More often than not they are low men on the totem pole in families of common origins. But whether born to the crown or raised on a farm, they are also humble in character: without this special quality they would fail to qualify for the munificence of helpers and donors. Humility therefore seems to be the badge of the fairy tale hero.

And since humbleness, in one of its shades of meaning, can inhere in members of any social class, both princes and peasants are eligible to assume the role of hero in fairy tales.

Humility may be an innate characteristic of fairy tale heroes, but it also comes to color the psychological makeup of fairy tale heroines. Female protagonists are by nature just as humble as their male counterparts, but they display that virtue in a strikingly different fashion. Fairy tales often highlight psychological characteristics by translating them into elements of plot, and with female heroines, this proves especially true. Daughters of millers and daughters of kings alike are not merely designated as humble; they are actually humbled in the course of their stories. In fact, "humbled" is perhaps too mild a term to use for the many humiliations to which female protagonists must submit.

Since most fairy tales end with marriage, it seems logical to assume that a single tale suffices to illustrate the contrasting fates of male and female protagonists. Yet though there is often a happy couple at the end of a fairy tale, the fate of only one single, central character is at stake as the tale unfolds. That pivotal figure stands so firmly rooted at the center of events that all other characters are defined solely by their relationship to him or her and thereby lack an autonomous sphere of action. Note that in "Cinderella," for instance, even the bridegroom, for all the dashing chivalry attributed to him by Walt Disney and others, remains a colorless figure. The tale tells us nothing more about him than that he is the son of a king. Lacking a history, a story, and even a name, he is reduced to the mere function of prince-rescuer waiting in the wings for his cue. The brides in stories of male heroes fare little better. Relegated to subordinate roles, they too fail to command our attention and to engage our interest. Still, there are exceptions to every rule, and the Grimms' collection provides one noteworthy exception to the rule that only one character can occupy center stage in fairy tales. "The Goose Girl at the Spring" weaves together the fates of both partners in the marriage with which it concludes. To be sure, there are signs that the tale is not of one piece, that at some historical juncture it occurred to one teller of tales to fuse two separate and distinct plots.11 Nonetheless those two plots conveniently dovetail to create a single narrative. The story of the humble count and of the humbled princess who marries him offers an exemplary study in contrasts between the lot of males and females in fairy tales culminating in marriage ceremonies.

"The Goose Girl at the Spring" commences with an account of the heroine's future bridegroom. Although this young man is handsome, rich, and noble, he must—like the most lowly fairy tale heroes—prove his mettle by displaying the virtues of compassion and humility. Without these twin virtues, his otherwise impeccable credentials would prove utterly worthless. And indeed, we learn not only that the young count is able to "feel compassion" but also that he is, despite his noble station in life, not too proud to translate compassion into action. Once he demonstrates his humility by easing the burdens of a feeble old hag, shunned by everyone but him, he earns himself a passport to luck and success. Like his many artlessly benevolent folkloric kinsmen, the count becomes the recipient of a gift that accords him a privileged status among potential suitors of a princess. The emerald etui he receives from the old hag ultimately leads him to his bride, a princess masquerading as a shepherdess.

Neither the count nor his rustic bride can boast humble origins. The unsightly girl tending geese at the beginning of the tale is not at all what she seems. At the well, she peels off her rural costume along with her rough skin to reveal that she must be a princess. Despite her aristocratic origins, she too can in the end ascend to a higher position, for her fairy tale days are spent in the most modest of circumstances. Unlike her groom, however, she was pressed into assuming a humble position when her own father exiled her from the household. Like countless folkloric heroines, she suffers a humiliating fall that reduces her from a princess to a peasant, from a privileged daughter to an impoverished menial. Fairy tale heroes receive gifts and assistance once they actively prove their compassion and humility; heroines, by contrast, become the beneficiaries of helpers and rescuers only after they have been abased and forced to learn humility.

There are many well-known tales of victimized female heroines who rise to or return to the ranks of royalty once they have been humbled and humiliated.12 But no tales spell out more explicitly that humiliation figures as a prerequisite for a happy ending than "King Thrushbeard," "The Mongoose," and "The Six Servants." The bride of King Thrushbeard furnishes the classic example of the heroine who earns a king and a crown as soon as straitened circumstances break her arrogance and pride. It is not enough that she curses the false pride that led to her downfall; her husband must also solemnly state: "All of this was done to crush your pride and to punish you for the haughty way in which you treated me." When King Thrushbeard generously offers to reinstate her to a royal position, she feels so deeply mortified that she declares herself unworthy to become his bride. The princess in the tale known as "The Mongoose" also finds herself humbled by her prospective husband. Nonetheless, she takes the defeat in stride and declares to herself with more than a touch of satisfaction: "He is cleverer than you!" The princess-heroine of "The Six Servants" is also cheerfully repentant and resigned to her fate by the end of her story. Reduced to tending swine with her husband (a prince who has duped her into believing that he is a peasant), she is prepared to accept her lot: "I've only got what I deserved for being so haughty and proud." After revealing his true station in life, her husband justifies the deception by declaring: "I suffered so much for you, it was only right that you should suffer for me."

As the tale "The Six Servants" makes clear, young men "suffer" by taking the credit for tasks carried out by animal helpers, human servants, or supernatural assistants. Women suffer by being forced into a lowly social position. Male heroes demonstrate from the start a meekness and humility that qualify them for an ascent to wealth, the exercise of power, and happiness crowned by wedded bliss; their female counterparts undergo a process of humiliation and defeat that ends with a rapid rise in social status through marriage, but that also signals a loss of pride and the abdication of power.

Before we move on to another category of heroes, a quick review of our first class is in order. The naive hero in tales of three sons lacks the brains and brawn conventionally associated with heroic figures; he must rely on helpers with superhuman or supernatural powers to carry out every task demanded by a king in return for the hand of a princess. Instead of slaying dragons, he offers to louse them; instead of killing giants, he befriends them and makes himself at home in their dwellings. His demonstrations of compassion set the stage for the reversal of fortunes characteristic of fairy tale plots. Only from a position of humility can he be elevated to the loftiest office in the land. Just as this hero works his way up the social ladder by climbing down it, so too he acquires intelligence and power by putting obtuseness and vulnerability on display. Although it is never explicitly stated that he becomes smart and strong in the end, most fairy tales imply that their heroes have acquired the attributes of royalty right along with the office of king.

The youngest of three sons makes his way through magical kingdoms where an ant might plead for a favor, an enchanted princess could call on his services, or a dwarf might suddenly demand a crust of bread. But a second group of heroes in the Grimms' tales moves in what appears to be a more realistic setting: villages and the roads connecting them. The cast of characters in tales with those heroes includes kings and princesses. But the tales themselves lack the supernatural dimension of fairy tales and tend to be more down-to-earth in tone and more earthy in humor. The heroes are often far enough along in life to have a profession: many are apprentices, but some are tailors, foresters, tradesmen, or mercenaries. Many are "men" and not "boys." (One is so old that he finds himself obliged to choose the eldest of twelve princesses when a king offers him one of his daughters in marriage.) Still, these heroes do not seem equipped with much more intelligence, strength, or valor than the young simpletons of fairy tales. They may not be village idiots, but in accordance with the general tendency of German folklore to avoid endowing male protagonists with heroic traits, their strengths are rarely spelled out.

Naiveté also appears to be the principal hallmark of village boys and men. But what appears to be a character defect is in fact turned to good account once the protagonist determines to seek his fortunes in the world. Nietzsche once observed that fear is an index of intelligence, thus confirming the old saw that fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.13 The more naive the hero, the more foolhardy and fearless he is, and the more likely he is to rise to the challenges of various tasks devised to foil the suitors of a princess. Naiveté implies fearlessness, which in turn can take on the character of courage.

In much the same way that naiveté can shade into courage, it can also translate into cunning. A hero's stupidity can take such extreme forms that it utterly disarms his antagonists. A young man who starts out handicapped by his boundless naiveté may in the end triumph over his adversaries by outwitting them. The protagonist unwise to the ways of the world can therefore be in the best possible position to exhibit heroic qualities by the close of his story.

Heroic feats performed by figures with clear character defects—lack of wisdom and wit—can, however, end by producing comic effects. "Blockhead," "Numbskull," or "Simpleton" rush into one hazardous situation after another, simply because they are too naive to know better; they get the upper hand by putting their dimwittedness on display, taking every word of advice that they hear literally; but they also escape harm because they are so naive that they confound their opponents. It may be true that they succeed in accomplishing the tasks laid out for them, but there is more than a touch of vaudeville to their every move.

The burlesque effect produced by tales chronicling the deeds of fearless heroes is perhaps most pronounced in "The Fairy Tale of One Who Went Forth to Learn Fear." The hero of that tale tries in vain to learn to be afraid, or more precisely, to shudder. Through one hair-raising episode after another he preserves his equanimity and coolly turns the tables on his would-be terrorizers. In one last desperate attempt to discover what it is to feel fear, he spends three nights warding off and ultimately exorcising the demons haunting a castle. His reward is the hand of a princess, but still he feels no fear. Only in his marriage bed does he finally learn to shudder, when his resourceful wife pulls off his covers and pours a bucket of live minnows on him. Bruno Bettelheim is surely right to read psycho-sexual implications into this final act of the fairy tale, particularly since the art of shuddering rather than the actual experience of fear constitutes the overt tale value. But the hero's inability to feel fear ought not to be construed as a negative trait: Bettelheim asserts that "the hero of this story could not shudder due to repression of all sexual feelings."14 It is precisely the absence of the capacity to fear that enables the sprightly hero to withstand the horrors of a haunted castle and consequently to win the hand of his bride. Indeed, the ability to fear comes so close to courage in this tale that the protagonist begins to take on, for all his unflinching artlessness, heroic attributes. Unlike his humble and helpless kinsmen in classical fairy tales of three sons, he breezily accomplishes one task after another without resorting to aid from friendly foreign agents. Were it not for the comic overtones to the adventures of this fairy tale hero, it would seem entirely appropriate to place him in the class of heroes who live by their courage and wits.

If naiveté and courage are virtually synonyms in the folkloric lexicon, naiveté and cunning are also not far apart in meaning.15 Indeed the more hopelessly naive and obtuse the hero of a tale, the more likely it is that he will triumph over his adversaries and that his adventures will be crowned with success. "The Courageous Tailor," who decorates himself for having dispatched seven flies with one blow, seems to stand as the very incarnation of fatuous vanity. Yet his bravado endows him with the power to outwit giants, to accomplish the tasks posed by his bride's belligerent father, and to subdue a blue-blooded wife who is repelled by the thought of a marriage below her own social station. In this tale, the line dividing naiveté from shrewdness and bravado from bravery has been effaced. The naive hero without fear and brains is virtually indistinguishable from the trickster.

By now it should be clear that the humble and naive youngest of three sons is a not so distant cousin of the fearless and naive hero. In fact, the hero of the Grimms' "Crystal Ball" combines the attributes of humble heroes and fearless fools: he possesses the simplicity and humility that go hand-in-hand with his familial status as the youngest of three sons, and he is also said to have "a heart without fear." It is above all his foolishly dauntless spirit that gives him the audacity to line up as the twenty-fourth suitor to seek out a princess imprisoned in the "Castle of the Golden Sun" and to undertake her liberation. And it is solely his slow-wittedness that provides him with the means for arriving in the kingdom inhabited by the princess. He "forgets" to return a magical hat to two giants and thereby receives just the right means for transporting himself to that kingdom. In fairy tales, brashness can clearly accomplish as much as bravery; naiveté is as effective as craft. The manifest lack of a virtue often translates into its possession. Just as Cinderella proves to be the fairest and the noblest of them all despite her shabby attire and her station at the hearth, so the simpleton of the family ultimately prevails over his older and wiser antagonists.

As noted, the rigors of a fairy tale hero's life endow him in the end with the attributes commonly associated with royalty. Even if the humble simpleton never lifts a sword and is incapable of answering a single question, let alone a riddle, he becomes a prince in more than just name. The feats of every woodland helper become his own deeds and accomplishments, and he becomes a figure with all the heroic qualities of dragon-slayers and giant-killers. Since our other class of tales, those featuring the comic adventures of heroes without fear, generally dispenses with tests of compassion, it also does away with the helpers who are responsible for elevating humble protagonists to heroic stature. Fear-less heroes must instead rely wholly on their own mental and physical resources—however modest they may be. It is those resources that are put to the test in the opening paragraphs of the tale, where brashness achieves more than bravery and artlessness proves more effective than artifice.

Since the hero without fear displays a greater measure of self-reliance than his humble kinsmen, the plot of his adventures contains the potential for greater realism. Gone are encounters with talking animals, supernatural counselors, and other exotic agents. Instead the hero meets hunters, locksmiths, sextons, innkeepers, and other such folk. He may not marry a peasant's daughter, but the castle in which he finally takes up residence has the distinct odor of the barnyard. Again, we are in the village rather than in an enchanted forest. Yet it would be misleading to label these tales realistic. They do not strive to hold a mirror up to the social conditions of the age or culture in which they were told. These are tall tales, stories that take advantage of exaggeration, punning, parody, and literalism to produce comic effects.

The many realistic touches in these folktales, in tandem with their farcical aspect, point to their basic affinity with tales of tricksters, where professional fools, tradesmen, retired soldiers, and youths of various other callings conspire to thwart their masters, creditors, or any of the other overprivileged. Through ingenious disingenuousness they succeed in coming out on top. An open-ended episodic principle organizes the plot of both tall tales featuring heroes without fear and trickster stories. One absurd skirmish follows another, with no distinctive growth, development, or maturity after one episode or another. By contrast, the humble hero's adventures take the form of a three-act drama, with a test in the first act, tasks in the second, and a final trial crowned by success in the third. The goal may be the same for both types of heroes, but the paths bear little resemblance to each other.16

Fairy tales charting the adventures of male protagonists posit from the start one dominant character trait that establishes a well-defined identity for the hero even as it proclaims his membership in the class of heroic figures. The verbal tag attached to the character ("Dummy," "the youngest of three sons," "Blockhead") ensures that he is recognized as the central character of the narrative. But in the course of the hero's Odyssey, his dominant character trait begins to shade into its opposite through a process that can be termed inversion. The humble hero weds a woman of royal blood; the brazen fool proves his mettle; and the naive simpleton outwits just about anyone. In fairy tales, the youth lacking a good pedigree, a stout heart, and a sharp wit is precisely the one who wins himself a princess and a kingdom.

Inversion of character traits is a common occurrence in fairy tales. A reversal of the conditions prevailing at the start is, after all, manifestly the goal of every tale. The folktale in general, as Max Lüthi has observed, has "a liking for all extremes, extreme contrasts in particular." Its characters, he further notes, are either beautiful or ugly, good or bad, poor or rich, industrious or lazy, and humble or noble.17 Yet much as readers and critics insist on the fairy tale's low tolerance for ambiguity and stress the inflexibility of the attributes assigned to heroes and villains, the frequency with which inversion appears suggests that they overstate their case. Just as "Beast" can be at once savage and civilized, so the youngest of three sons can be both a simpleton and a sage, a humble lad and a prince, a coward and a hero. Both character attributes and social conditions rapidly shift from one extreme to the other in fairy tales.

That character traits are not as standardized or programmed as would appear becomes evident if we analyze the fate of one character who does not figure prominently in the pantheon of fairy tale heroes. The eponymous protagonist of "Hans in Luck" might, in fact, well be called an antihero. In the course of his travels, he outwits no one—instead he becomes the victim of numerous transparently fraudulent transactions. His fortunes, rather than rising, steadily decline. And at the end of his journey, he seems no wiser and is decidedly less prosperous than he was at its beginning. Still, Hans is said to be lucky, and he feels himself to be among the happiest men on earth. The steps of Hans's journey to felicity are easy enough to retrace. After serving his master loyally and diligently for a period of seven years, Hans winds his way home with a weighty emolument: a chunk of gold the size of his head. Hans happily barters this monetary burden for a horse that will speed him on his way home. In the further course of his journey, he exchanges the horse for a cow, the cow for a pig, the pig for a goose, and the goose for a grindstone and rock. Even after these two worthless rocks land at the bottom of a well leaving him nothing to show for his labors of seven years, Hans remains undaunted. He literally jumps for joy and praises God for liberating him from the burdens that slowed his journey homeward. Unencumbered by earthly possessions and with a light heart, Hans heads for his mother's home.

Conventional wisdom has it that the happy-go-lucky hero of this tale stands as the archetypal benighted fool. The very title of the tale, "Hans in Luck," is charged with irony: only a fool would delight in parting with the hefty wages Hans receives from his master. Yet on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the story of lucky Hans may also celebrate freedom from the burden of labor. On the last leg of his journey, Hans jettisons grindstone and rock—the tools of the trade that was to secure for him a steady flow of cash; at the outset of his journey, he rids himself of the gold with which his labor was compensated. In a stunning reversal of the value system espoused in fairy tales, Hans's story not only substitutes rags for riches but also supplants marriage to a princess in a foreign land with a return home to mother. In short, it ends where most tales begin. Instead of charting the course of an odyssey toward wealth and marriage, it depicts the stations of a journey toward poverty and dependence. But in remaining wholly indifferent to the wages of labor and freeing himself from its drudgery, Hans displays a kind of wisdom that invalidates ironic readings of his tale's title. Bereft of material possessions yet rich in spirit, he turns his back on the world of commerce to embrace his mother.18

The story of lucky Hans dramatically demonstrates the impossibility of establishing a fixed set of character traits shared by male heroes. Like Hans, who is both foolish and wise, poor and rich, lucky and unfortunate, the heroes of numerous fairy tales possess attributes that imperceptibly shift into their opposites. All the same, it is clear that certain oppositions (humble/noble, naive/cunning, timid/courageous, compassionate/ruthless) are encoded on virtually every fairy tale with a male hero. It is, then, difficult to draw up an inventory of immutable character traits largely because a single figure within a tale can—and usually does—have one character trait and its opposite. But it is also equally difficult, if for different reasons, to establish precise models for the plots of tales featuring male heroes. For every score of heroes who wed princesses and inherit kingdoms, there is one who returns home as an impoverished bachelor. For ten heroes who receive assistance and magical gifts by demonstrating compassion, there is one who acquires aid and magical objects through an act of violence. For every animal bridegroom who is released from a curse through the love and devotion of a woman, there is one who is disenchanted by the callous treatment he receives at the hands of his bride. To be sure, there is a measure of predictability in these plots, but only if we bear in mind that every narrative norm established can be violated by its opposite. Thus the preliminary test of good character at the start of tales with a ternary plot structure can be replaced by a demonstration of the hero's ruthlessness. The story of a hero dependent on magical helpers in carrying out appointed tasks can exist side by side with the tale of a hero who acts autonomously and takes on the characteristics of helpers.19

Recognizing and appreciating the fairy tale's instability—its penchant for moving from one extreme to another—is vital for understanding its characters, plots, and thematic orientation. Fairy tale figures have few fixed traits; they are totally re-formed once they reach the goals of their journeys, when they become endowed with the very qualities in which they were once found wanting. Male protagonists may adhere slavishly to the ground rules of heroic decorum, or they may break every rule in the book; either way, their stories end with the accession to a throne. And finally, the conditions prevailing at the start of tales are utterly reversed by the end. The fairy tale, in sum, knows no stable middle ground. Inversion of character traits, violation of narrative norms, and reversal of initial conditions are just a few of the ways in which it overturns notions of immutability and creates a fictional world in which the one constant value is change.

In this context, it is worth emphasizing once again some of the disparities between folkloric fantasies and social realities. The radical reversals that lift fairy tale heroes from humble circumstances to a royal station in life were virtually unknown during the age in which fairy tales developed and flourished, but they undeniably correspond to childhood fantasies of past ages and of our own day. If in real life the youngest of three sons rarely had the wherewithal to succeed in life or to transcend his station in life, fairy tales held out the promise that humility and other virtues might well outweigh the benefits of an inheritance. But beyond offering consolation to underprivileged sons who lived in an era when primogeniture was custom or law, fairy tales more generally respond to the insecurities of every child. Even the eldest child is likely to perceive himself as the least gifted or least favored among his siblings and can thereby readily identify with simpleton heroes. Fundamental psychological truths, rather than specific social realities, appear to have given rise to the general plot structure of those tales.

A stable plot still leaves room for much variation. Skillful raconteurs can take the same story line and give it unique twists and turns. The tone may vary from one tale to the next, and the hero may also be presented in different lights. As Robert Darnton has shown, comparing different national versions of a single tale type can be a revealing exercise. Reading through various tellings of "Jack the Giant Killer," one can register the changes from "English fantasy to French cunning and Italian burlesque." More important, there are subtle shifts in the character of the protagonist as he slips from one culture into another. Darnton has observed that the trickster figure is especially prevalent in French folklore and literature.20 By contrast, as we have seen, the simpleton (or to put it in more flattering terms) the guileless youth figures prominently in the Grimms' collection. These differences between the folkloric heroes of the two cultures may, however, be more apparent than real, for the roguish Gallic trickster and his naive Teutonic counterpart have more in common than one would suspect. Even the names most frequently bestowed in the Nursery and Household Tales on the types ("Dummling" for the simpleton and "Daumerling" for the trickster) suggest that they are kindred spirits. Both the simpleton and the trickster ultimately make good by outwitting or outdoing their seemingly superior adversaries. Still, the shift in emphasis from cunning to naiveté as one moves across the Rhine is telling, suggesting as it does that the French celebrate cleverness and audacity while the Germans enshrine the virtues of naiveté and guilelessness.

If we take a closer look at German literary traditions—both oral and written—it becomes clear that the naive hero is by no means a folkloristic aberration. He fits squarely into a long line of such figures. Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, who comes to incarnate the highest chivalric ideals, is described as "der tumme" ("the young and inexperienced one"). Dressed by his mother in the costume of a fool, he mounts a wretched nag to seek his fortune in the world. Although there are hints that he is something of a dragon-slayer (he arrives at Munsalvaesche at Michaelmas, the Feast of St. Michael, the vanquisher of Satan as dragon), the only dragons he slays are emblazoned on his opponent's helmet. But like folkloric heroes, Parzival knows no fear and consequently displays valor on the battlefield. Although he fails the initial test of compassion put to him, in the course of his adventures he learns humility and demonstrates compassion.

Remaining in the same poetic climate but moving to another era, we find that Richard Wagner's Siegfried also launches his heroic career as a naive youth without fear. The resemblances between his story and the "Fairy Tale of One Who Went Forth to Learn Fear" are unmistakable. To his cantankerous guardian, Mime, Siegfried confides that he wishes to learn what it is to fear—to which Mime responds that the wise learn fear quickly, the stupid have a harder time of it.21 Siegfried clearly belongs in the latter category. Like the "one who went forth to learn fear," he discovers that emotion in the experience of love. As he sets eyes on the sleeping Brünnhilde, he feels a mystifying quickening of emotions:

How cowardly I feel.
Is this what they call fear?
Oh mother! mother!
Your fearless child!
A woman lies in sleep:
She has taught him to be afraid!

(Siegfried, Act III)

No one was more surprised by the resemblances between the Grimms' fairy tale character and the heroic Siegfried than Richard Wagner. In a letter to his friend Theodor Uhlig, he wrote: "Haven't I ever told you this amusing story? It's the tale of the lad who ventures forth to learn what fear is and who is so dumb that he just can't do it. Imagine my amazement when I suddenly realized that that lad is no one else but—young Siegfried."22

It would not be a difficult task to identify countless other guileless fools and lads without fear in German literature. From the Baroque era through the Romantic period up to the present, naiveté is the signature of many a literary hero. The protagonist of Grimmelshausen's Simplicius Simplicissimus may be a clever rogue, but his name is telling. Like Parzival, he moves from foolish innocence to an understanding of the ways of the world, though his story ends in disillusion. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, perhaps the finest exemplar of the Bildungsroman —that most hallowed of German literary traditions—gives us a naive innocent who happens to be fortunate enough to stumble into the right circles. We do not have to look far in the Romantic era for heroes pure in heart and innocent in spirit. Every one of them—from Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen to Josef von Eichendorffs Florio—begins the first leg of his journey into the wild blue yonder as a charmingly naive young man wholly untutored in worldly matters.

In an introduction to the Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann made a point of bowing in the direction of Hans Castorp's literary antecedents. Mystified by the way in which the weight of literary tradition had—without his knowing it—determined his protagonist's character, he was also flattered by the company in which his hero was placed. Both Parzival and Wilhelm Meister, he noted, belong to the class of "guileless fools," and his Hans Castorp is no different. His "simplicity and artlessness" make him a legitimate literary cousin of those two quester figures. Yet Hans Castorp can also display all the wisdom of an innocent: when he wants something, he can be "clever," "crafty," and "shrewd." That Mann further emphasized resemblances "here and there" between Hans Castorp's story and fairy tales comes as no surprise.23

It may seem to be stretching a point to suggest that fairy tales can tell us something about what French historians call "mentalités." Yet storytellers have, throughout the ages, embroidered the narratives passed on to them with the cultural values as well as with the facts of their own contemporary milieu. Every subtle change can be significant, so long as it takes place on a large scale and does not simply represent one idiosyncratic telling of a tale. What the Grimms' collection tells us about fairy tales does not deviate fundamentally from what other German folkloric and literary sources declare. Naiveté has a special charm and magic of its own.


1 Max Lüthi asserts that the disproportionately large number of female heroines in fairy tales can be traced to the prominent role played by women in shaping the plots. See "The Fairy-Tale Hero," in Once upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 135-46. By contrast Ralph S. Boggs asserts that 80 percent of German tales have a hero, and that only 20 percent have a heroine ("The Hero in the Folk Tales of Spain, Germany and Russia," Journal of American Folklore 44 [1931]: 27-42). Neither Lüthi nor Boggs identifies his statistical sample.

2 Simone de Beauvoir's characterization appears in The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Bantam, 1952), pp. 271-72. For the list of heroic attributes, see Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Wildman Press, 1983), p. 57.

3 The first edition is reprinted in Die Kinder-und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm: Vollständige Ausgabe in der Urfassung, ed. Friedrich Panzer (Wiesbaden: Emil Vollmer, 1953).

4 On the various types of heroes, see Katalin Horn, Der aktive und der passive Märchenheld (Basel: Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, 1983); August von Löwis of Menar, Der Held im deutschen und russischen Märchen (Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1912); Ralph S. Boggs, "The Hero in the Folk Tales of Spain, Germany and Russia," pp. 27-42; Vincent Brun, "The German Fairy Tale," Menorah Journal 27 (1939): 147-55; and Louis L. Snyder, "Cultural Nationalism: The Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales," in Roots of German Nationalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 35-54.

5 Constance Spender makes this point. See "Grimms' Fairy Tales," The Contemporary Review 102 (1912): 673-79.

6 These are the words of the fox in the Grimms' version of "The Golden Bird."

7Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, trans. N. J. Dawood (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 165. Robert Crossley makes the point about Aladdin's lack of merit ("Pure and Applied Fantasy; or, From Faerie to Utopia," in The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, ed. Roger C. Schlobin [Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982], pp. 176-91). On Aladdin's fortunes in Germany, see Erich Sielaff, "Bemerkungen zur kritischen Aneignung der deutschen Volksmärchen," Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Universität Rostock 2 (1952/53): 241-301.

8 On the ethnographic significance of animals in fairy tales, see Lutz Röhrich, "Mensch und Tier im Märchen," Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde 49 (1953): 165-93.

9 Eugen Weber finds that the celebration of compassion in fairy tales reflects the rareness of that virtue during the age in which the tales flourished: "Kindness, selflessness is the greatest virtue (perhaps because there is so little to give, perhaps precisely because it is so rare)." See "Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales," Journal of the History of Ideas 42 (1981): 93-113.

10 On the three phases of action in classical fairy tales, see E. Meletinsky, S. Nekludov, E. Novik, and D. Segal, "Problems of the Structural Analysis of Fairytales," in Soviet Structural Folkloristics, ed. P. Maranda (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), pp. 73-139. The authors divide the action of fairy tales into a preliminary test, a basic test, and an additional final test.

11 Note the use in the tale of such heavy-handed transitions as "But now I must tell more about the king and the queen, who had left with the count." On the presence of only one single sharply defined plot in classical fairy tales, see Max Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature, trans. John D. Niles (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982), p. 34. Lüthi uses the term Einsträngigkeit (single-strandedness) to designate the absence of digressive plot lines in fairy tales. Einsträngigkeit is the term that Walter A. Berendsohn also uses to characterize the fairy tale's single-track plot structure in Grundformen volkstümlicher Erzählkunst in den Kinder-und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm: Ein stilkritischer Versuch (Hamburg: W. Gente, 1921), p. 33. The term has its origins in Axel Olrik's essay of 1919, which has been translated and printed as "Epic Laws of Folk Narrative," in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 129-41.

12 On abasement as "a prelude to and precondition of affiliation" in "Cinderella," see Madonna Kolbenschlag, Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye: Breaking the Spell of Feminine Myths and Models (New York: Doubleday, 1979), p. 72.

13 Friedrich Nietzsche, "Morgenröte," 4:241, in Friedrich Nietzsche: Werke in drei Bänden, ed. Karl Schlechta (Munich: Hanser, 1954), 3: 1172.

14 Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1977), p. 281.

15 Stith Thompson emphasizes the ambiguous nature of the trickster's intellect: "The adventures of the Trickster, even when considered by themselves, are inconsistent. Part are the result of his stupidity, and about an equal number show him overcoming his enemies through cleverness." See The Folktale (1946; repr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 319. In World Folktales: A Scribner Resource Collection (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980), Atelia Clarkson and Gilbert B. Cross confirm the ambiguity when they point out that "the most incongruous feature of the American Indian trickster is his tendency to become a dupe or play the buffoon even though he was the wily, clever trickster in a story told the day before" (p. 285).

16 Variants of the tale of the courageous tailor demonstrate that a single core theme can lend itself to two different types of narratives: a biographical tale that focuses on the life of the hero and on his attempt to win the hand of a princess and an episodic tale that focuses on the various pranks played by a trickster. See the seven variants of "Das tapfere Schneiderlein," in Leander Petzoldt, Volksmärchen mit Materialien (Stuttgart: Ernst Klett, 1982), pp. 42-72.

17 Max Lüthi, The European Folktale, pp. 34-35.

18 For a reading of the story along similar lines, see Roderick McGillis, "Criticism in the Woods: Fairy Tales as Poetry," Children's Literature Association Quarterly 7 (1982): 2-8.

19 As Vladimir Propp put it, "when a helper is absent from a tale, this quality is transferred to the hero." See Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), p. 83.

20 Robert Darnton, "Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose," in his The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 9-72. The quoted phrase appears on p. 44.

21 The retort is in Wagner's first version of Siegfried (Richard Wagner, Skizzen und Entwürfe zur Ring-Dichtung, ed. Otto Strobel [Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1930], p. 113).

22 The letter, dated 10 May 1851, appears in Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Briefe, ed. Gertrud Strobel and Werner Wolf (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1979), 4:42-44. Heinz Rölleke discusses Wagner's dependence on the Grimms' fairy tale in "Märchen von einem, der auszog, das Fürchten zu lernen: Zu Überlieferung und Bedeutung des KHM 4," Fabula 20 (1979): 193-204.

23 Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), pp. 719-29. Castorp is described, in German, as a "Schalk"; he is "verschmitzt" and "verschlagen." Mann's remarks on the fairy tale quality of Castorp's story appear on p. v. Unfortunately Lowe-Porter translated Mann's term Märchen (fairy tale) as "legend."

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1977. A sensitive and intelligent (if occasionally wrong-headed) psychoanalytic study of fairy tales and their therapeutic value for children.

Darnton, Robert. "Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose." In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984. An astute reading of French folktales as cultural documents affording insight into the mental world of peasants.

Ellis, John. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. A polemical essay proposing to demonstrate that the Grimms' collection of tales constitutes literature rather than folklore.

Luthi, Max. The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Translated by John D. Niles. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982. A lucid analysis of the form, style, and function of folktales by a renowned Swiss folklorist.

Maranda, P., ed. Soviet Structural Folkloristics. The Hague: Mouton, 1974. Key essays on thematic, structural, and typological features of fairy tales by Soviet scholars, most notable among them Eleazar Meletinsky.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. First published in 1928, this formalist analysis of the Russian folktale radically changed the face of folkloristic scholarship.

Further Reading

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Michaelis-Jena, Ruth. The Brothers Grimm. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, 212 p.

Critical biography including an assessment of the Children's and Household Tales and its influence.


Dundes, Alan. "The Psychoanalytic Study of the Grimms' Tales with Special Reference to 'The Maiden Without Hands' (AT 706)." The Germanic Review 62, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 50-65.

Emphasizes the critical value of psychoanalytic readings of the Grimms' tales and offers a principally Freudian interpretation of "The Maiden Without Hands."

Ellis, John M. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 214 p.

Maintains that "the Grimms deliberately, persistently, and completely misrepresented the status of their tales," which they claimed were faithful reproductions of oral stories recited by German folk storytellers.

Haase, Donald. "Motifs: Making Fairy Tales Our Own: Yours, Mine, or Ours? Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and the Ownership of Fairy Tales." In Once Upon a Folktale: Capturing the Folklore Process with Children, edited by Gloria T. Blatt, pp. 63-77. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993.

Investigates nationalistic and psychoanalytic views of fairy tales, arguing that a process of continual alteration is integral to the vitality of folklore.

Hennig, John. "The Brothers Grimm and T. C. Croker." The Modern Language Review XLI, No. 1 (January 1946): 44-54.

Dicusses the relationship of T. C. Croker and the Grimms, who translated Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland into German.

Lüthi, Max. The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982, 173 p.

Studies the significance, formal traits, and stylistic features of fairy tales, with substantial emphasis on the Grimms' stories.

Mallet, Carl-Heinz. Fairy Tales and Children: The Psychology of Children Revealed through Four of Grimms' Fairy Tales, translated by Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Schoken Books, 1984, 213 p.

Explores four representative tales—including "Hansel and Gretel" and "Little Red Riding Hood"—using the methods of dream interpretation.

McGlathery, James M. Fairy Tale Romance: The Grimms, Basile, and Perrault. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991, 226 p.

Assesses matters of sexual desire in the fairy tales retold by the Grimms, Giambattista Basile, and Charles Perrault.

——. Grimms' Fairy Tales: A History of Criticism on a Popular Classic. Columbia, S. C.: Camden House, 1993, 135 p.

Examines folktale criticism in general and surveys criticism and interpretation of the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales.

Mieder, Wolfgang. "Grim Variations: From Fairy Tales to Modern Anti-Fairy Tales." The Germanic Review 62, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 90-102.

Analyzes modern reinterpretations and renderings of well-known Grimm fairy tales.

Rusch-Feja, Diann. The Portrayal of the Maturation Process of Girl Figures in Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995, 288 p.

Links the popularity of the Grimms' fairy tales to their importance "as transmitters of symbolic structures and content in the portrayal of female maturation."

Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1987, 277 p.

Psychoanalytical and thematic study of the Children's and Household Tales. Tatar also traces the editorial and publication history of this work.

Taylor, Peter, and Hermann Rebel. "Hessian Peasant Women, Their Families and the Draft: A Social-Historical Interpretation of Four Tales from the Grimm Collection." Journal of Family History 6, No. 4 (Winter 1981): 349-56.

Studies the relationship between symbolic content and social narrative in folklore using four of the Grimms' fairy tales as examples.

Ward, Donald. "The German Connection: The Brothers Grimm and the Study of Oral' Literature." Western Folklore 53, No. 1 (January 1994): 1-26.

Considers the paradigms of German folkloristics that are the legacy of the Brothers Grimm.

Zipes, Jack. "Who's Afraid of the Brothers Grimm? Socialization and Politization through Fairy Tales." The Lion and the Unicorn 3, No. 2 (Winter 1979): 4-56.

Contends that the Grimms' revised the fairy tales they collected to emphasize the interests of bourgeois socialization.

Additional coverage of the lives and careers of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 90; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; and Something About the Author, Vol. 22.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Prohibitions, Transgressions, and Punishments," in Grimms' Bad Girls & Bold Boys: The Moral & Social Vision of the Tales,' Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 81-94.

[In the following excerpt, Bottigheimer probes gender distinctions related to transgression and punishment in Grimms' Tales.]

A general pattern of exculpating men and incriminating women permeates Grimms' Tales. This pattern is clearly evident in the post-1819 versions of "Hansel and Gretel" (no. 15), "Snow-White" (no. 53) and "Cinderella" (no. 21), each of which provides a stepmother who assumes the burden of blame while the father, virtually absent, shoulders no share of the responsibility for his children's fates.1 The theme of prohibition, transgression, and punishment offers an incisive example of this more generalized pattern. "Our Lady's Child" (no. 3) and "Brother Lustig" (no. 81) are two of several tales that embody and exemplify the gender-specific consequences of transgressing prohibitions.2 "Our Lady's Child" and "Brother Lustig" alone contain a specific prohibition, clearly presented to a character, that functions solely to determine his or her obedience. Both the heroine and the hero knowingly violate this prohibition, but only the heroine is punished; the hero is rewarded.3

A comparison of the consequences of transgressing prohibitions in Grimms' Tales with those in other popular children's books of the nineteenth century—Max und Moritz or Struwwelpeter, for example—indicates that only the Grimms' are gender-specific. In other German children's literature of the nineteenth century, bad boys and bad girls alike suffer the grisly consequences of their disobedience: Paulinchen plays with matches and burns to a crisp, Kaspar refuses his soup and promptly dies of starvation, while Max and Moritz end their Spitzbuben careers ground up as feed for their neighbors' geese.

Male transgressors who go scot-free recall the trickster figure, whose real ability is "the power of avoiding consequences."4 On the surface, the literary history of the traditional male trickster figure would appear to account for the gender specificity of punishment in Grimms' Tales, but in the following discussion I conclude that all male figures in Grimms' Tales, whether tricksters or not, enjoy the boon of exoneration as well as the trickster's capacity to escape.

The two tales, "Our Lady's Child" and "Brother Lustig," differ in form: the first is a spare sequence of events that precipitates its female protagonist into mortal danger; while the second, a humorous tale, recounts the outrageously artful stratagems of a vagabond soldier who tricks his way into heaven. "Our Lady's Child" appeared both in the Large Edition intended for a scholarly audience and in the Small Edition, fifty tales selected by Wilhelm Grimm for a young readership, but "Brother Lustig" appeared only in the Large Edition, which suggests that Wilhelm Grimm had reservations about the morality expressed by the latter and chose to keep it from young children's eyes.

In 1807, twenty-one-year-old Wilhelm Grimm sat with Gretchen Wild, then twenty, transcribing the simple tale she told about a poor woodcutter's child whom the Virgin Mary saves from starvation and carries off to heaven. Until her fourteenth year the child plays with angels and wears golden clothes, but one day she opens a forbidden door behind which the Trinity sits in indescribable glory. For denying her deed, the girl is banished from heaven, and cast—mute—into a great forest, where she remains for years until a king hunting in the forest discovers her, takes her to his castle, and marries her. At the end of her first year of marriage, the mute queen bears a son, but in the following night the Virgin Mary appears, warning her that unless she acknowledges her former transgression, her son will disappear. The queen refuses, the Virgin Mary takes her son away, and on the following day the king's ministers advise burning her at the stake for having—they are convinced—devoured the missing child.

In the following two years the same sequence of events is repeated, and the king can protect her no longer. She is condemned to be burned at the stake. As she stands on the faggots, the desire to confess overcomes her. At that moment the Virgin Mary appears with her children, asking once again if she will confess. "Yes," answers the queen. Mary returns her children, the queen regains her speech and lives happily ever after.

Eight years later, one of Jacob Grimm's Viennese Wollzeilergesellschaft friends, Georg Passy, a bookseller, brought in a humorous narrative he had heard from an aged Viennese woman. Called "Brother Lustig," it tells of an old soldier discharged from the army with a paltry severance pay of one loaf of bread and four kreuzers. Nonetheless, he generously shares money and bread with a beggar, who is actually St. Peter in disguise. Rewarding him for his generosity, St. Peter offers to share his earnings from the practice of medicine with the soldier, though he stipulates that they limit their earnings to what they need for their subsistence. Their first case is paid for with a lamb, which St. Peter gives to Brother Lustig to cook; St. Peter enjoins him not to eat any of it, then leaves him in charge of the pot while he steps out for a walk. Thinking that St. Peter will never miss the heart, Brother Lustig sneaks it from the pot, but on his return St. Peter asks for the lamb's heart. Brother Lustig not only denies that he has eaten it, but he also lies, asserting that lambs have no hearts! No amount of pressure can make Brother Lustig confess. Next St. Peter restores a princess to life. He refuses a reward, but the soldier cunningly gets the king to fill his own pack with gold. St. Peter takes the gold and cleverly divides it into three piles, one for himself, one for the soldier, and one for the person who has eaten the lamb's heart. "Oh, that was me," replies the soldier coolly, scopping up the gold and revealing, but not confessing, his guilt.

Some time later Brother Lustig, having run out of money, hopes to obtain a substantial reward by restoring a princess to life on his own; however, he fails. Suddenly, St. Peter appears, resurrects the princess himself, and saves the soldier from ignominy, but forbids him to solicit or to accept the smallest reward from the king. "By hints and cunning" (durch Anspielung und Listigkeit), however, Brother Lustig gets his pack filled with gold. Thereafter, to protect the soldier from treading "in forbidden paths" (auf unerlaubten Wegen), St. Peter gives him the power to fill his pack with whatever he wants simply by wishing for it. Years later, the soldier begins thinking about his impending death, tries to get into hell but is rejected, and as his final trick, gets past St. Peter by tossing his pack into heaven and wishing himself into it.

One might question whether a socially sanctioned moral has been expressed in "Brother Lustig." The tale might be thought to detail the idea that grace, once bestowed, cannot be rescinded. Yet this Calvinist thought would ill accord with the tale's provenance in Catholic Vienna. Reasoning that the nature of the German humorous genre (Schwank) carries within itself the requirements for caricaturing society's norms, one is led to question why two homologous tales dealing with the themes of prohibition, transgression, and punishment divide neatly along gender lines with the Schwank populated by men and the polished morality tale acted out by women. This formal genre distinction corroborates structurally the gender-related differentiation between "Our Lady's Child" and "Brother Lustig": the Schwank, an infinitely extensible catalog of picaresque encounters, is made to parallel male experience, whereas the morality tale, with its tightly constructed closed form, expresses female experience. Although the genres differ sharply, the two tales' plots were homologous at their first appearance and remained so from edition to edition, as table 8.1 indicates.

Lexical similarities underscore plot similarities. Gold itself signals each character's transgression: in "Our Lady's Child" Marienkind's finger is gilded by the Trinity's fire and splendor and in "Brother Lustig" the soldier's pack is filled with gold. The Trinity accelerates the plot in both tales. It reveals the girl's transgression in "Our Lady's Child" and brings about the princess' resurrection when St. Peter invokes it in "Brother Lustig." In addition, keys, a castle, and apostle(s) appear in each tale, though in dissimilar functions. In both tales, a triple denial occurs twice. Both tales contain allegorical elements in conjunction with a symbolic prohibition (the thirteenth door and the heart of the lamb) as well as familiar images from seventeenth-century European religious literature, such as the binary opposition of the divinely appointed castle versus the worldly inn and the broad way versus the narrow way.

The elemental images of fire and water, sometimes implied, sometimes explicit, course through both tales. The girl's father, a woodcutter, provides fuel for burning; the Trinity appears in fire and splendor (Feuer und Glanz); the girl's sin involves touching heavenly fire (Berührung des himmlischen Feuers); and at the conclusion, Marienkind, now a queen, stands bound to the stake surrounded by flames. In "Brother Lustig" fire appears realistically as well as symbolically. He lights a fire (machte Feuer) to cook the lamb. Fire and water are likewise united in scenes that depict boiling the princesses' flesh from their bones to restore them to life, which like the fire and water of the rain extinguishing the flames in "Our Lady's Child" can be understood to mediate a rebirth, a return to life. . . .

And finally, the word "heart" (Herz) permeates both tales. In "Our Lady's Child" the girl/queen's heart is filled with longing; her heart beats hard and the Virgin lays her hand on it; the girl abandoned in the forest wins the king's heart; and in the final scene a heart is moved to repentance. Repeated reference to the heart of the lamb in "Brother Lustig" conjures up images of the heart of the symbolic lamb, Jesus. In this sense, it appears twenty times, while the soldier addresses Peter three times as "heart's brother" (Bruderherz).

Lexical similarities buttress the hypothesis that up to a point the two tales tell the same story. They differ in only a few essential respects, namely, in different gender-specific patterns of behavior as well as in the equally different and gender-specific consequences of transgressing prohibitions. For a single transgression Marienkind is repeatedly punished over many years, from her expulsion from heaven until the moment when the faggots are ignited; but for first contravening St. Peter's wishes and then transgressing his express prohibition, Brother Lustig is not punished but is rewarded in ways that lead to his eventual salvation.

A vocabulary laden with ethical and religious values, ecclesiastical imagery, and a divine cast of characters—the Virgin Mary, angels, all twelve apostles, and the Trinity—reinforce Mary's pious judgment on the offending Marienkind: "You have not obeyed me, and besides that you have lied; you are no longer worthy to be in heaven" (Du hast mir nicht gehorcht und hast noch dazu gelogen; du bist nicht mehr würdig, im Himmel zu sein). The child has previously promised to be obedient (gehorsam zu sein), which within the context of the tale justifies Mary's subsequent actions when she thrice appears, saying:

If you will tell the truth and confess that you did unlock the forbidden door, I will open your mouth and give you back your speech, but if you persevere in your sin, and deny it obstinately, I will take your newborn child away with me.

Willst du die Wahrheit sagen und gestehen, daß du die verbotene Tür aufgeschlossen hast, so will ich deinen Mund öffnen und dir die Sprache wiedergeben; verharrst du aber in der Sünde und leugnest hartnäckig, so nehme ich dein neugeborenes Kind mit mir.

When faced with imminent death, the queen wants to repent, Mary responds, "He who repents his sin and acknowledges it, is forgiven" (Wer seine Sünde bereut und eingesteht, dem ist sie vergeben). The Biblical ring of this statement is prefigured by several Gospel-invoking lines. The poor woodcutter and his wife no longer have "their daily bread" (das tägliche Brot, see Matt. 6:11), and Marienkind, in heaven, "examined the dwellings of the kingdom of heaven" (besah die Wohnungen des Himmelreiches): directly borrowed from John 14:2. In stark contrast to this highly elaborated ethical and religious framework, Brother Lustig operates beyond ethics and on the fringes of morality, despite allegorical allusions both to Jesus and the path to heaven as well as the presence of St. Peter. Other differences in the two tales also support gender distinctions. From the beginning the girl/queen recognizes that her patroness, the Virgin Mary, is clothed in the glory of heaven and wields formidable power, whereas Brother Lustig either doesn't know or doesn't wish to acknowledge the identity of the comrade who can see into his heart, raise the dead, and grant wishes.

The depiction of food in the two tales likewise differs, for in "Our Lady's Child" it remains delightfully but unnutritiously symbolic—sugar cakes and sweet milk (Zuckerbrot und süße Milch)—whereas Brother Lustig's bread, beer, lamb, and goose nourish a great appetite. Prominent in "Our Lady's Child" but absent in "Brother Lustig" is the desirability of calm, repose, punishment, and muteness. This narrative contrast clearly delineates both the girl/queen's passivity and the abject suffering necessary for her to regain life, whereas Brother Lustig always appears as an active protagonist flouting authority and disregarding prohibitions.

The foregoing narrative and lexical analyses also indicate the gender-differentiated consequences of transgression. The message is clear and unambiguous. Norms buttressed by society and religion bind women of all degrees from poverty to majesty, and a woman's transgression of these norms results in profound deprivation of selfhood, that is, muteness or the possibility of death itself.5 A man, however, may ignore prohibitions without consequence. Editorial alterations in edition after edition loaded the text of "Our Lady's Child" with an ethicoreligious vocabulary. Between 1807 and 1812, the tale underwent considerable change. The plot remained constant, but shifts in vocabulary and motivation depersonalized the heroine and intensified her suffering and isolation. The consistent direction of editorial change, the decision to include it, but not "Brother Lustig," in the Small Edition, as well as Wilhelm Grimm's characterization of the collection as a childrearing manual (Foreword to the 1819 edition) all indicate a well-honed gender-differentiated design for substituting compliant for obstinate behavior in his young female readership.

Prohibitions of three kinds occur in Grimm's Tales. The first is an explicit prohibition set by a figure generally acknowledged to be morally and/or religiously good or naturally inclined to benevolence, such as the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, God, natural mothers, or supernatural helpers. The second is an explicit prohibition set by a sinful malevolent character, such as the murderous bridegroom in "Fitcher's Bird" (no. 46) or the devil. The third type of prohibition is implicit, inhering in broadly recognized rules of conduct, for example, the Ten Commandments' prohibitions against theft.

Each of the three types of prohibition is accompanied by regular patterns of gender-specific behavior. In Grimms' Tales girls and women are always supposed to obey prohibitions set by good figures, but male characters move with considerably more freedom among these prohibitors. Prohibitions set by a malevolent figure may be ignored by girls and boys, women and men alike. Implicit prohibitions, on the other hand, are regularly honored by women and contravened with impunity by men. For example, in "The Thief and His Master" (no. 68), the son sets about learning "witchcraft and thieving thoroughly" (hexen und gaudeifen gut), to which he adds murder when necessary. Like "Brother Lustig" this is clearly a Schwank, and it has a male cast of characters. In a second tale, "Thumbling's Travels" (no. 45), from the first edition onward Thumbling steals without conscience, compunction, or consequence. He limits himself to stealing one kreuzer from the king's treasury, only "because he could not carry more" (weil es nicht mehr tragen konnte). And in "The Master-Thief" (no. 192) the trickster proves his skill in three imaginatively intricate thefts and gains a reward for outwitting the count and his entire retinue.

Transgressions can be carried out knowingly or unwittingly. Conscious transgressions by girls occur in at least four tales; in two the girls are punished and in two they escape. These two possible outcomes correspond with the good or evil nature of the prohibitor. In "Frau Trude" (no. 43), the bad end of a girl who knowingly disobeys her parents is foretold in the first sentence:

There was once a little girl who was obstinate and inquisitive, and when her parents told her to do anything, she did not obey them; so how could she fare well?

Es war einmal ein kleines Mädchen, das war eigensinnig und vorwitzig, und wenn ihm seine Eltern etwas sagten, so gehorchte es nicht; wie konnte es dem gut gehen?

She ends up as a block of wood thrown onto Frau Trude's fire.

In "The Willful Child" (no. 117) a child willfully disobeys the dictates of death itself, and its parents must beat it back into the grave with a rod.6 On the other hand, conscious disobedience of a malevolent captor in "Fitcher's Bird" (no. 46) and in "The Robber-Bridegroom" (no. 40), although it produces grave interim consequences for the protagonist's older sisters, ultimately leads to a successful escape for all three sisters in both tales.

Boys get off much more lightly. Their conscious violations of prohibitions set either by good supernatural helpers or by evil figures bring no punishment in their train. In "The Golden Bird" (no. 57) the youngest prince repeatedly disregards a fox's prohibitions and injunctions yet each time is given another chance. In "The Gold-Children" (no. 85) a fish enjoins a man to strict secrecy about the source of his sudden good fortune, warning, "if you speak but a single word, all [good luck] will be over" (sprichst du ein einziges Wort, so ist alles vorbei). Twice the man blurts out the secret of his newfound wealth, because his wife goads him to uncontrollable anger (itself an implicit exculpation of his failure to meet the conditions), and twice the fish grants a reprieve. On their third encounter, the fish ensures that the man will not subvert his own good fortune. He literally incorporates his golden wealth into their family by causing the birth of two golden children, two golden foals, and the growth of two golden lilies in the dooryard, at which point the tale begins an entirely new narrative cycle.

Like girls and women, boys and men do not suffer from disobeying the prohibitions of evil characters. But while girls and women merely escape, boys and men gain rich rewards. A good example of this pattern emerges from "The Devil's Sooty Brother" (no. 100). Here the devil forbids a discharged soldier to look into some kettles and then departs.

The soldier now took a good look on every side. . . . He would have given anything to look inside [the kettles], if the Devil had not so particularly forbidden him: at last he could no longer restrain himself, slightly raised the lid of the first kettle, and peeped in, and there he saw his former corporal sitting.

Der Soldat schaute sich nun einmal recht um. . . . Er hätte für sein Leben gerne hineingeschaut, wenn es ihm der Teufel nicht so streng verboten hätte; endlich konnte er sich nicht mehr anhalten, hob vom ersten Kessel ein klein bißchen den Deckel auf und guckte hinein. Da sah er seinen ehemaligen Unteroffizier darinsitzen.

Moreover, the devil well knows the soldier has violated the prohibition, for he says on his return, "But you have peeped into the kettles as well" (Aber du hast auch in die Kessel geguckt). But he exculpates the soldier, since he has shown no mercy to his former officers:

it is lucky for you that you added fresh logs to them, or else your life would have been forfeited.

dein Glück ist, daß du noch Holz zugelegt hast, sonst war dein Leben verloren.

The sweepings with which the soldier fills his knapsack turn to gold, and by singing the sweet song he learned in hell, he wins the king's heart, marries his youngest daughter, and inherits the realm.

Unwitting or involuntary transgressions also produce differential results dependent on gender. The pathetic little tale "The Ear of Grain" [RBB] (no. 194) details how a little girl fell into a puddle one day as she and her mother were passing a grain field:

the mother tore up a handful of the beautiful ears of grain [RBB], and cleaned the frock with them. When the Lord, who just then came by, saw that, he was angry and said: "Henceforth shall the stalks of grain [RBB] bear no more ears; people [RBB] are no longer worthy of heavenly gifts." The by-standers who heard this were terrified, and fell on their knees and prayed that he would still leave something on the stalks, even if the people were undeserving of it, for the sake of the innocent chickens which would otherwise have to starve.

Da riß die Mutter eine Handvoll der schönen Ähren ab und reinigte ihm damit das Kleid. Als der Herr, der eben vorbeikam, das sah, zürnte er und sprach: "Fortan soll der Kornhalm keine Ähre mehr tragen: die Menschen sind der himmlischen Gabe nicht länger wert." Die Umstehenden, die has hörten, erschraken, fielen auf die Knie und flehten, daß er noch etwas möchte an dem Halm stehen lassen: wenn sie selbst es auch nicht verdienten, doch der unschuldigen Hühner wegen, die sonst verhungern müßten.

The mother's imputed guilt and implicitly conveyed responsibility for reducing earthly grain yields from four- or five-hundred-fold to fifty or sixty (vierbis fünfhundertfältig [auf] fünfzig-oder sechzigfältig) shows how far the limits of credibility could be strained in the effort to incriminate women. No prohibition had been set in this tale; the woman's deed welled out of maternal care; and God's response is at best capricious and at worst irascible.

An equally unintentional transgression by a boy in a different narrative framework appears in "Iron Hans" (no. 136) but with diametrically opposed results. What happens to him offers an instructive and revealing contrast to Marienkind's fate in "Our Lady's Child." Iron Hans clearly specifies the prohibition:

"Behold, the gold well is as bright and clear as crystal, you shall sit beside it, and take care that nothing falls into it, or it will be polluted. I will come every evening to see if you have obeyed my order." The boy placed himself by the brink of the well . . . and took care that nothing fell in. As he was thus sitting, his finger hurt him so violently that he involuntarily put it in the water. He drew it quickly out again, but saw that it was quite gilded, and whatsoever pains he took to wash the gold off again, all was to no purpose. In the evening Iron Hans came back, looked at the boy, and said: "What has happened to the well?" "Nothing, nothing," he answered, and held his finger behind his back, that the man might not see it. But he said: "You have dipped your finger into the water, this time it may pass, but take care you do not again let anything go in."

"Siehst du, der Goldbrunnen ist hell und klar wie Kristall: du sollst dabeisitzen und achthaben, daß nichts hineinfällt, sonst ist er verunehrt. Jeden Abend komme ich und sehe, ob du mein Gebot befolgt hast." Der Knabe setzte sich an den Rand des Brunnens . . . und hatte acht, daß nichts hineinfiel. Als er so saß, schmerzte ihn einmal der Finger so heftig, daß er ihn unwillkürlich in das Wasser steckte. Er zog ihn schnell wieder heraus, sah aber, daß er ganz vergoldet war, und wie große Mühe er sich gab, das Gold wieder abzuwischen, es war alles vergeblich. Abends kam der Eisenhans zurück, sah den Knaben an und sprach: "Was ist mit dem Brunnen geschehen?" "Nichts, nichts," antwortete er und hielt den Finger auf den Rücken, daß er ihn nicht sehen sollte. Aber der Mann sagte: "Du hast den Finger in das Wasser getaucht: diesmal mag's hingehen, aber hüte dich, daß du dich nicht wieder etwas hineinfallen läßt."

If one disregards motivation (Marienkind's curiosity versus the prince's overpowering pain), as Wilhelm Grimm apparently did, then this tale seems similar indeed to "Our Lady's Child." The transgressor hides his/her gilded finger, but the inquisitor knows all. After two subsequent violations of the prohibition, treated as equally unavoidable (remember that Marienkind only violated the prohibition once), the boy is ejected from this protected realm, as Marienkind was ejected from Heaven:

let the boy excuse himself as he might, it was of no use. "You have not stood the trial, and can stay here no longer. Go forth into the world, there you will learn what poverty is. But as you have not a bad heart, and as I mean well by you, there is one thing I will grant you; if you fall into any difficulty, come to the forest and cry: 'Iron Hans,' and then I will come and help you."

"Du hast die Probe nicht bestanden und kannst nicht länger hierbleiben. Geh hinaus in die Welt, da wirst du erfahren, wie die Armut tut. Aber weil du kein böses Herz hast und ich's gut mit dir meine, so will ich dir eins erlauben: wenn du in Not gerätst, so geh zu dem Wald und rufe 'Eisenhans,' dann will ich kommen und dir helfen."

Both Marienkind and the prince must experience poverty, but whereas the isolated girl is walled in by a thorn hedge, the boy wanders the world. For her the forest is a prison, for him it offers release in time of danger. Expulsion clearly leads to different experiences for girls than it does for boys.

The degree and extent of punishment also shifts radically depending on the sex of the offender. Sitting forlorn, eating roots and berries, wearing clothes that rot and fall off, and being exposed to freezing rain, Marienkind's punishments contrast with those meted out to male offenders. When Gambling Hansel (no. 82) lies to the Lord and St. Peter, they grant him three favors! His gambling habits are so entrenched that he is eventually expelled from heaven, but he is nonetheless granted a form of immortality: "his soul broke into fragments, and went into the gambling vagabonds who are living this very day" (is in d'onnen Spiellumpen g'fohrn, döi non bis date lebend).

Punishment is so much a part of female experience that it can be meted out whimsically, for no transgression at all.7 "The Beam" (no. 149) recounts a tale of a sorcerer amazing a crowd of gaping onlookers by lifting a heavy beam and carrying it around as if it were only a feather.

But a girl was present who had just found a four-leaved clover, and had thus become so wise that no deception could stand out against her, and she saw that the beam was nothing but a straw.

Nun war aber ein Mädchen, das hatte eben ein vierblättriges Kleeblatt gefunden und war dadurch klug geworden, so daß kein Blendwerk vor ihm bestehen konnte, und sah, daß der Balken nichts war als ein Strohhalm.

Full of anger at being exposed, the sorcerer determines to revenge himself on the girl. On her marriage day, he causes her to see a mirage: she mistakes a field of blue flax flowers for a swollen stream, through which she "wades," hiking her wedding gown up high. Suddenly,

her eyes were opened, and she saw that she was standing with her clothes lifted up in the middle of a field. . . . Then all the people saw it likewise, and chased her away with ridicule and laughter.

gingen ihr die Augen auf, und sie sah, daß sie mit ihren aufgehobenen Kleidern mitten in einem . . . Feld stand. Da sahen es die Leute auch allesamt und jagten sie mit Schimpf und Gelächter fort.

There is not a single tale in the collection in which a boy suffers an equally unmerited fate under similarly humiliating circumstances.

The question of Wilhelm Grimm's goal in defining motivation and outcome naturally arises given the abundant evidence of gender differentiation involving prohibitions, transgressions, and punishments. The potential for reformulation always lies at hand for an editor, and there is some evidence in the vocabulary of the final versions of the texts that the process at work was systematic. For instance, prohibitions in tales about men tend to be morally or ethically diluted or altogether absent; when the Lord and St. Peter tell Gambling Hansel to go out and buy bread with three groschen that he instead loses at the gambling table, St. Peter turns to the Lord and says on three separate occasions, "Lord, this thing must not go on" (Herr, dos Ding tuet koan guet), but they avoid laying a prohibition directly on him. In "The Golden Bird," the fox refers to his clearly articulated prohibition as "advice" (Rat), while the fish in "The Gold-Children" calls his prohibition a "condition" (Bedingung).

Transgressions appear to be similarly shaped according to gender. Beyond the fact that a girl is always punished after only one misdeed while a boy often bears off a reward after three to five offenses, Grimm colors the misdeeds darkly or lightly according to gender. Marienkind's curiosity "gnawed [at her heart] and tormented her, and let her have no rest" (nagte [in seinem Herzen] und pickte ordentlich daran und ließ ihm keine Ruhe), while the young prince in "Iron Hans" transgresses "involuntarily" or "unhappily" and "was terrified" (unwillkürlich, unglücklicherweise, erschrak). Within Grimm's comprehension of tales as sets of motifs, such adverbial alteration probably did not represent tampering. Such changes and exculpating devices would have seemed entirely licit to him, the assembler of authentic expressions of the people's voice. Since Wilhelm cleared his desk and disposed of notes and notations after each edition had appeared, subsequent readers of his published tales can only infer the precise form of the material he had at his disposal in preparing each new edition. His own notes (1812, 1815, 1822, and 1856) generally offer the plot in outline, with special attention paid to variations in motifs in conjunction with their geographical distribution. For example, his notes to "Iron Hans" mention variants of this tale all over Central Europe, but we no longer have access to the precise wording of the variants he used to add to the original brief dialect version appearing in volume 2 of the First Edition in 1815. Nor would versions of the tale published after Grimms' Tales made their appearance necessarily reveal this to us, for once his collections were published, they themselves sometimes reshaped folk narratives in other countries. However, one published form that preceded his own offers us a glimpse of "The Iron-Man" in a pre-Grimm form, which he knew.8 In a line reminiscent of the spirit of The Magic Flute, the iron man reminds Salkar, the prince, "Only blind obedience in everything that I will order you to do will bring this about." Thus the theme of obedience remains, though Vulpius treats it in 1791 in a manner markedly different from Wilhelm Grimm's in 1815 and after. In one other instance, however, archival evidence remains to highlight Grimm's own shifts away from his sources. A North German version of "Gambling Hansel" records an actual prohibition directed at Hans by God and St. Peter, which has been deleted in Grimm's own final version.9 Thus, Grimm regularly makes male transgression into an unwitting act which is rewarded.

Subsequent generations and later analysts have understood the Grimms' individual tales as revelations of inherent and transcendent truth. This mindset emerges clearly from the title of Pierre Bange's article, "Comment on devient homme: Analyse semiotique d'un conte de Grimm: 'Les Douze Frères,'" in which he argues that the changes introduced by Grimm into the 1819 and subsequent texts formulate a moral code as opposed to the immoral code that preceded it, and that furthermore it appears to be necessary for boys to break interdictions in order to mature.10 Bange's argument founders on the existence of numerous amoral tales within the canon of Grimms' Tales. Reclassifying all amoral or immoral tales in which the protagonist escapes punishment as humorous tales (Schwänke) allows one to establish a "code moral"11 but ignores the unavoidable question about gender distinctions that characterize the two groups.

If there is a moral code in these tales, how can it be understood?12 Within the 210 tales of the Grimms' collection, a witch-burning notion of eradicating (generally female) evil coexists with an indulgent tolerance of (generally male) malefaction. Plots routinely circumscribe girls' and women's sphere of activity by laying prohibitions on them, and the language of the text exhibits an effort to avoid laying prohibitions on boys and men. Obedience is necessary for females but not for males. Girls and women are regularly punished in Grimms' Tales, and the punishment itself often seems to take precedence over the transgression that is supposed to have occasioned it, as does an apparent inner drive to incriminate females. At the same time, the text systematically exonerates males from guilt and repeatedly returns them to customary and acceptable paths.

One essential image might account for the skewed values which inhere in the gender-specific consequences of the prohibition/transgression/punishment paradigm: Eve herself. An interpretation of the original woman as the introducer of sin to the world and as the instrument of Adam's fall from grace would account for many of the peculiar characteristics of the gender-specific aspects of the paradigm, particularly if all women were identified with Eve's wrongdoing and all men with Adam's essential and inborn innocence. From this pivotal moment, girls and women in Grimms' Tales seem to derive their identity as delinquent and their destiny as punishable, while boys and men seem to acquire a blanket excuse together with forgiveness for their transgressions. This premise is nowhere stated in Grimms' Tales, but it is consistent with the patterns that emerge from the collection and also with exegetic material in many children's Bibles, catechisms, and chapbooks in Germany. Thus Grimms' Tales, which incorporates so many of the values of its contemporary society, would appear to be a volume well suited to understanding implicit nineteenth-century German social and moral values.13 Its use as a sourcebook for the psychology of children and adults beyond those borders, however, is at best open to question and at worst fundamentally misleading.


1 "Snow-White" and "Hansel and Gretel" both add a stepmother figure to exculpate the natural mother. The good biological mothers' early deaths do not alter the fact that succeeding versions of these two tales exculpate the father-figures who remain alive but do nothing to protect their children against the evil machinations of their second wives. This contrasts sharply with Ludwig Bechstein's contemporary and very popular collection, Deutsches Märchenbuch, in which mothers and fathers routinely share both guilt and responsibility. See for example a "Hansel and Gretel" analogue, "Der kleine Däumling": "Da beratschlagten eines Abends, als die Kinder zu Bette waren, die beiden Eltern miteinander was sie anfangen wollten, und wurden Rates, die Kinder mit in den Wald zu nehmen wo die Weiden wachsen, aus denen man Körbe flicht, und sie heimlich zu verlassen" (1857: "When the children were in bed one evening, both parents discussed what they should do, and they decided to take the children along into the wood where the willows grow from which one weaves baskets and to leave them there on the sly").

For a further contrast, see Perrault's "Hansel and Gretel" analogue, "Little Tom Thumb" (Le Petit Poucet), where the mother openly accuses the father of being a monster for suggesting—even if sorrowfully—that they abandon their children in the woods.

2 These gender distinctions echo those in tales where the wicked mother-in-law is discovered to be a witch/cannibal. She is generally executed summarily amid astonishingly gory detail—a pit of vipers, boiling oil, a nail-studded barrel in which she is rolled downhill, a blazing pyre—whereas in the one tale in which a male cannibal is caught, he is turned over to the authorities and executed, but no details are given. Even the detested Jew in "The Jew Among Thorns" (no. 110) is spared the indignity of summary execution; a judge must first pronounce the sentence and justify it, even if he does so in violently anti-Semitic terms. Gender prevails over justice. Males inhabit the public sphere and women are subject to private justice. See chaps. 9 and 12 for a detailed discussion.

3 Walter Scherf points out that "eine gründliche Untersuchung des Märchentyps vom Marienkind steht noch aus" (275). See "Marienkind" in Lexikon der Zaubermärchen, 273-76.

4 Welsford, The Fool, 50-51.

5 See chap. 9.

6 "The Willful Child" is a problematic example because gender is not specified in the German tale. No pronoun identifies the child as a boy or as a girl, but the Hunt/Stern translation unwittingly absorbs the generally expressed gender bias in Grimms' Tales and translates es as "she."

7 The special need for chastising females may, in part, be related to the absolute need for female chastity, because of the risk pregnancy posed as publicly perceivable sin. The sixteenth-century text, Der bösen weiber / Zuchtschul . . . specifically addresses the need to chastise children, "und sonderlich dein mägdlein dz sie nit etwan in ein bühlerey geraten und zu schentlichem fal kommen" ("and especially your girls [includes both daughters and maids] that they don't get into [sexual] mischief and come to a shameful pass").

8 See his notes to the tale. It was Christian August Vulpius' volume of Ammenmärchen (1791), which includes "Der eiserne Mann, oder:—der Lohn des Gehorsams" (The Iron Man, or the Reward of Obedience).

9 Nachlaß Grimm, 1757.

10 In G. Brunet, ed., Etudes allemandes, 93-138.

11 Bange, 118.

12 Walter Scherf poses a similar question in the Lexikon der Zaubermärchen: "Warum wird das stumm gewordene Mädchen so grausam von der Gottesmutter bestraft?" (274), calling it a "moralisch-unmoralisches Beispiel" (275), i.e., finding no underlying explanation.

13 A fundamental problem in Bruno Bettelheim's reasoning in The Uses of Enchantment is his assumption that the values expressed in fairy tales, in particular in those of Grimms' Tales that he cites, represent transcendent developmental paradigms and norms. Children reared in a society that expresses the values outlined in this and other chapters of this study will undoubtedly incorporate them into their developing sense of themselves as individuals. Grimms' Tales may indeed offer insights into the psyches of children reared unquestioningly along the gender-specific lines that the volume formulates, but certainly not into the psyches of children in cultures with differing views of what characterizes appropriate male and female behavior.

Joyce Thomas (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6128

SOURCE: "The Tales of the Brothers Grimm: In the Black Forest," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature. Volume Two: Fairy Tales, Fables, Myths, Legends, and Poetry, Children's Literature Association, 1987, pp. 104-17.

[In the following essay, Thomas examines the nature and significance of the Grimms' fairy tales.]

As the great-grandparent of children's literature, fairy tales occupy a privileged place as touchstones for that literature. Basic as the peasant's crusty black bread, they nourish us upon essential sustenance—the fare of elemental story. Especially do the volhmarchen or folk fairy tales—those stories that were once part of an oral tradition of storytelling—lay the foundation for many, if not most, classics of children's literature. The works of such beneficiaries as Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, L. Frank Baum, Kenneth Grahame, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, among others, would be unrecognizably altered—if not rendered non-existent—without that essential cornerstone of "faerie."

Ironically, this elder genre is frequently regarded as something children grow out of—if, indeed, they are accorded the direct experience of the tales in the first place. Fairy tales too often are diminished, if not openly denigrated, by our society, which tends to view them as "mere" fare for young children. The very term "fairy tale," like its cousin "myth," is employed as a synonym for what is devalued—for fantastic lies, absurd exaggerations, all manner of escapes from the "real world." Probably more than any other type of children's literature, fairy tales have suffered from the tamperings of well-intentioned adults. They have been rewritten and censored, withheld from children or temperately spoon-fed to them as cautionary tales. These adults only find faerie palatable if it offers an obvious, cookie-cutter moral or "nice," "safe," innocuous fantasy. They would vouchsafe "Little Red-Cap" to children since its moral appears to be that a child should heed her mother and not tarry on the way to grandmother's house. They would rewrite "Hansel and Gretel" so as to make its action less horrific. They would discard "The Almond Tree" and "The Robber Bridegroom," fearing their gruesome matter would fuel a child's worst nightmares.

Perhaps as the logical extension of such tampering, no other genre of children's literature has been subjected to so many different interpretive approaches. Beginning with the nineteenth century mythologists, fairy tales have been alternately viewed as masquerading nature and solar myths; as folkloristic fossils upon which are etched early man's rites, customs and superstitions; as psychodramas wherein are played out the traumas of birth and sexual discovery, oedipal struggles, sibling rivalry, conflicts between the pleasure and reality principles, conflicts among the id, ego, and super-ego; as archetypal creations depicting the process of individuation and assimilation of one's shadow, anima or animus; as cosmogonic scenarios wherein the hero traverses the cyclic round of trials and tests, helpers and foes, to descend into the underworld and emerge with a boon for all mankind; as socio-historical documents recording the survival concerns and wishfulfillments of a beleaguered lower class; as poetic metaphors in which are clothed life's profoundest truths. All such intellectual, theoretical translations—always interesting, frequently illuminating—can, however, never replace the tales' own, most eloquent voice. That the humble volksmarchen should spark so many and such divergent responses suggests something of their eternal mystery and appeal. Despite all tamperings and interpretations, the tales survive, reminding us, as Marie von Franz says, that "the interpretation of the dream is always less good than the dream itself (26), always less than the tale from which it trails. In the midst of our cacophonous babble, the tales speak on, as they have for countless centuries, in their own simple yet symbolic tongue.

Precisely what fairy tales mean is far less significant than the obvious fact that the tales are. Fairy tales have survived as an art form in their own right because their value transcends whatever meaning with which we tag them. There are the lost children, the confectionary hut in the woods, the cackling witch, the twilight landscape of the Black Forest: play with them as we will, analyze them as we choose, there is always something else, some other thing, coyly peeping behind the folds of that bent crone's black skirts, tantalizingly lurking just beyond the far conifer at the edge of our scrutinizing vision. No wealth of words can ever squarely fix that shadowly presence nor properly articulate exactly what pulses at the magical heart of the fairy tale.

Yet fairy tales are an art, and can be examined as such on the basis of the experience they give us, both children and adults. As Isabelle Jan notes in writing of children's literature, the person who first reads of Babar the elephant experiences something just as singular and absorbing as does the person who reads The Brothers Karamazov for the first time (143); in terms of the experience literature or any art offers, a reader's age seems scarcely significant. And, of course, the volksmarchen were originally intended for an adult audience. Though their audience has grown younger over succeeding centuries, the tales continue to speak in a non-discriminating manner to an audience basically undefined on the basis of age or sex or race. Certainly the aspects of "faerie" which J. R. R. Tolkien describes (46)—Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation—indicate part of the tales' age-less and time-less appeal. If anything, the latter three aspects seem especially suited to adults: to anyone seeking to recover the potency and wonder of simple, basic things; to escape from life's imposed restrictions and from one's own mortality (what Tolkien calls "the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death" [67]); to find consolation in communion with other species, in happy endings, in a truly democratic justice. Paradoxically, the tales offer a simultaneous experience of both escape and initiation; perhaps the former speaks strongest to adults while the latter speaks best to the children, though that is a relatively moot distinction. What does concern us is the nature and value of the tales.

First and foremost, fairy tales provide an experience of pure story. Especially is this true of folk collections like those compiled by the Brothers Grimm. Despite literary alterations on the part of Jacob and Wilhelm—their stylistic embellishments, simplifications, fusions of tales and their variants, all done in keeping with their era of romanticism and Biedermeier culture, yet as Luthi suggests (28), always with an eye toward what they felt was best in the tales—these tales exist as narrative in an elemental and elementary form. The distinction between Grimms' best and usually most popular tales and more decoratively literary ones is readily apparent if one compares their "Little Briar-Rose" to Charles Perrault's "The Sleeping Beauty," the latter an embroidered tapestry, weighed down by the narrator's intrusive voice, appliqued moralisms, and a second, quite obviously tacked-on story. It is no accident that Grimms' tales comprise the most popular collection in our culture, nor that certain of their tales—"Little Briar-Rose," "Hansel and Gretel," "The Frog Prince," "Snow-White," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Rapunzel," among others—exemplify the fairy tale in the minds of most people. Yet other collections contain the same plots, same bits and pieces of physical matter, same stock of familiar characters, same resonating archetypes. Perhaps the Grimms' tales are so often equated with all fairy tales because they succeed best in communicating those plots, characters and archetypes via their initiation into what is an abbreviated yet complete experience of story, of literature. Flowing through time, honed to essentials, the best of these tales smoothly move from beginning to middle to end, presenting in clearly recognizable forms the basic literary elements of plot, character, setting, style, point of view, theme and symbolism. Having experienced a mere handful of these tales, the reader or listener has in essence experienced all story—has witnessed the bare bones of narrative which writers from Charles Perrault to Charles Dickens, from Mary Shelley to Ursula Le Guin, from William Shakespeare to Franz Kafka, flesh out and garb in their respective colored cloths.

All of literature waits within the simple fairy tale. Recall Grimms' "Little Briar-Rose" as it opens upon the simple declarative statement, "A long time ago there was a King and Queen who said every day: 'Ah, if only we had a child!' but they never had one." The setting is timeless, placeless, yet regal, the characters mere nouns yet real human beings; even Briar-Rose is there, conspicuous by her absence, by the importance accorded her in the parents' voiced wish. In fact, the situation, that of recognizable, unrealized desires, is ordinary enough. Only with the second sentence does the extraordinary, the faerie, enter the story, in the form of a prophesying frog: "But it happened that once when the Queen was bathing, a frog crept out of the water on to the land, and said to her: 'Your wish shall be fulfilled; before a year has gone by, you shall have a daughter.'" A rather complete drama has already unfolded in just these two understated lines: a human couple desires a child but has none; a magical amphibian foretells the birth of their daughter. Out of this brief drama, all the tale's ensuing action evolves. What has been set in motion is the dynamic tension of desire and its fulfillment, of prophecy and its realization, of the magical enacted upon and within the human sphere. Likewise, the tale's thematic strains of life and its absence are first sounded, to reverberate until the final chord's happy ending.

What a marvelous, logical chain of causality is drawn out, link by soldered link, before our eyes. Briar-Rose is born, and the King celebrates his desire's actualization with a birth-feast; there we hear the thirteenth Wise Woman pronounce her death curse, hear the twelfth Wise Woman mediate it to a hundred years' sleep, witness the King's vain, fiery purge of all the spindles in his land, watch as Briar-Rose grows to one day ascend the tower's winding stair and greet her fate poised at the tip of the unfamiliar spindle . . . tick off those hundred lotus years, to witness the prophecy's completion and maiden's awakening. In terms of plot, the prince's arrival is but an ancillary action: he simply happens to be in the right place at the right time, unlike his less fortunate, bramble-impaled predecessors. He holds no place in the prophecies of any of the supernatural characters; like the King who cannot prevent his daughter's fate, the prince cannot break its bonds, and he neither rescues nor disenchants Briar-Rose. It is all a matter of timing. His coincidental arrival does, however, provide for the happy ending's union of prince and princess, man and woman, and thus brings the tale full circle, and makes it a completed narrative.

Protagonist and antagonist, a dramatic plot of crisis and climax, a denouement tying-off the story with a tight loveknot: all the basic narrative elements are there. Told in the third-person narrative voice, lacking detailed characterization, a complex plot and any superfluous stylistic embroidery, the tale communicates the very essence of story. As to symbolism and theme, they, too, are communicated simply, via the picture-language of precisely drawn images. Through such imagery one apprehends a wealth of relations as richly woven as a medieval tapestry: there are the prophesying frog and Wise Women, all clear incarnations of Fate; there is the alien spindle upon which Briar-Rose pricks her finger to fall into a deathlike sleep, and there are the bramble-thorns upon which a host of premature suitors fall into the eternal sleep of death; there are the blooming briar-roses which herald their namesake's awakening and return to life; there is as well that other, less easily articulated relationship between prophecy and act, the voice and the world it defines, so crucial to the taleteller's own creation. And there is the richly detailed, thrice-repeated description of the sleep itself, in which all elements—Briar-Rose, King and Queen, the entire court, horses in the stable, dogs in the yard, pigeons on the roof, flies on the wall, flaming hearth fire and roasting meat, the very wind and even leaves on the trees—are wrapped within the princess's soporific cloak. This lengthy description is given first as Briar-Rose falls into sleep, again while she is sleeping, again as she awakens. Admittedly, it is a type of stylistic embroidery, but one perfectly suited to the tale. The richly detailed texture and repetition serve to reinforce the sleep and its mesmerizing spell, while also underscoring one's sense of the interconnectedness of all things—the individual and the world, the microcosm and the macrocosm. Further, it functions as a melodic litany offering reassurance and solace in the face of that malevolent Wise Woman and the fact of one hundred somnolent years.

According to Jane Yolen, "The gift of words is magic" (89). It is this gift that fairy tales proffer both child and adult. The tales constitute a primary experience of literature and thus set the stage for all later experiences. Not only do we participate in story; we also necessarily participate in that story's language. As with nursery verse, a child acquires a sense of how language functions, of how it defines and shapes the world, through the tale's varied voices of the third-person narrator, dialogue and monologue, verse and rhyme. Different happenings demand different voices, reality turns upon verbalization (as heard in each crucial prophecy's direct quotation in "Little Briar-Rose")—two valuable truths the tale bestows as part of its word-gift. The fairy tale's simple opening suggests infinite possibilities, infinite dramas sprung from that one fertile seed: "Hard by a forest dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children" ("Hansel and G retel") "There was once upon a time an old king who was ill, and thought to himself: 'I am lying on what must be my deathbed'" ("Faithful John"); "Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a Queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony" ("Little Snow White"); "There was once a man whose wife died, and a woman whose husband died . . ." ("The Three Little Men in the Wood"). One need merely begin, "Once upon a time there was a person," to read oneself into the oldest story, the one we title "Life."

From the incantatory "once upon a time" to that solacing amen of "happy-ever-after," the tales unwind, weaving a verbal spell by which one is, as Yolen says, "caught up in the centrifugal force of the spinning story" (42). Anything is possible, given the word and its mastery, as Rumpelstiltskin regrettably learned. While this is a truth any literature might impart, it is one particularly transmitted by the volksmarchen collected by the Brothers Grimm because of those tales' honed narratives. Few unnecessary elements intrude between the word and the world it creates, between that word, that world, and the audience. Since fairy tales often constitute the first or one of the first experiences children have of literature as a sustained and complete narrative, the value of that experience cannot be over-estimated.

As a prototypical experience, the tales gracefully lend themselves to another crucial experience, that of the shared experience of story. They were, after all, oral narratives originally, and the varied voices in which any one tale speaks almost demand to be spoken aloud again. As Yolen has written, "the tale apprehended by the ear is different from the one taken in by the eye," for eye and ear "are different listeners" (42). We need both faculties to fully experience the tales. In hearing a story, one returns to that charmed inner circle delimited by the sound of the taleteller's voice. A special sphere is created in the intimate relationship between story-teller and audience, whether the audience consists of one child, one adult, or many. The spoken tale is different from the tale read silently, in part because in hearing it one is vouchsafed the auditory experience of his own language, of its full potency and melodious musicality. Just as nursery rhymes for younger children provide them with an experience in their language whereby they develop a sense of that language's functions—how it structures the universe and imitates the rhythms of life—so do the tales' spoken words provide us with a message in themselves. Furthermore, the shared, spoken tale extends the sphere of relationship open to the child. Whereas silent reading comprises a smaller relationship of reader and tale, recounting a story aloud automatically brings a third party into that relationship. One participates in a humanly shared experience, shared between the taleteller and individual child and also shared among children if the audience is multiplied. If no one bothers to share stories in this manner, the message conveyed is that the tales—or any literature, for that matter—simply are not worth the effort; omission, neglect, indifference, silence, are themselves evaluations which are not lost on children who likewise suffer in their own measure of self-esteem. Again, as honed, brief, originally oral narratives, fairy tales lend themselves especially well to such sharing.

As Nietzsche said of myth, the tales represent a mode of thought which presents an idea of the universe through the sequence of events, actions, and sufferings (Zimmer 310). Those who have fundamental story, have experienced the volksmarchen, are better able to integrate life itself as story—to read themselves into that oldest tale. Depth psychologist James Hillman has noted that such a "reading into" is crucial if one is to perceive life as a coherent and meaningful experience rather than chaos of isolated characters and inexplicable occurrences. Through basic story we acquire the experience of "imaginative meaning," which can then be applied to our own life as a means of understanding and integrating it. Story-awareness provides us with the awareness to come to terms with our own case history and encourages the synthesis of material that is ugly, cruel, obscene, socially or personally unacceptable. According to Hillman, both myths and fairy tales present such material in a safe, accepting, even joyful package. They tell us there is a place for things we might otherwise deny or repress—that child-eating witch, that robber bridegroom—and thus encourage us to accept even the worst aspects of our lives and selves: "the more attuned and experienced is the imaginative side of personality the less threatening the irrational, the less necessity for repression, and therefore the less actual pathology acted out in literal, daily events" (9).

Hillman terms literalism "sickness" because it denies the imagination, the metaphorical, the fantastic, all of which are not only aspects of our minds and world, but together represent the more dominant forces in them. We are, each one of us, continually reading ourselves into now one story, now another. The psychological activities of identification and empathy comprise a large, healthy measure of what makes us human; lacking such "readings," we would be cut off from our own human kind and culture and history. Chaos rather than cosmos, that sense of an ordered and meaningful universe, would result. Disconnected from the world without and within, we might all the more readily destroy ourselves, destroy the very planet to which we cannot relate. That marvelous causal chain in "Little Briar-Rose" fairly sings of the interconnectedness of all things. Snap its links, experience the isolated curse of the thirteenth Wise Woman or Briar-Rose's inexplicable coma, the seemingly senseless deaths of all those early suitors—and cosmos shatters; the mirror of story and what it reflects becomes no more than scattered shards. All reassurance dissolves, and we lose the tale's consoling insight into how "the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may be softened to a sleep" (Chesterton 177).

To deny fairy tales to children, or to allow only those with "acceptable" morals and innocuous fantasy, is to retard their psychological and imaginative growth and expression. Fairy tales stand independently of the adults who select books for children as if selecting the right food for them to consume. Indeed, the tales may constitute the fullest, most nutritionally complete diet, unlike the "junk books" (equivalent to fast-food fries) that Paula Fox cites: such books, devoid of fantastic play and imaginings, "dull the hunger of a child's mind, stuff it with unearned certainties, those straws, Henry James wrote, that 'we chew to cheat our appetites'" (30). Characteristic of such literature is its tendency to "promote and vindicate adult predispositions toward children and childhood"; further, it absolves us of responsibility, "the effort of self-knowledge without which we cannot really think about and understand children, who are not a race apart but ourselves when new."

We should not forget that fairy tales are moral literature, in the fullest sense of the word. Though few posit precise morals, virtually all the tales convey a fundamental esthetic which may be gleaned within their predominant theme, the seeming disparity between appearances and reality. This theme, manifested in almost every classic tale, aptly represents the core of a genre that treats the fantastic and the real as existing on the same plane of human experience. Typically the tales portray the least likely thing, creature or human as the most likely to confer rewards or punishments, to conceal a prince, to be the hero. Apparently ordinary, mundane physical things are revealed to be extraordinary and magical upon a closer look. In Grimms' "The Table, the Ass and the Stick," for instance, the three possessions are markedly mundane—and markedly marvelous. The little table is "nothing much to look at, and made of common wood; but it had one great quality": upon command, it spreads itself with a sumptuous repast. Similarly, the dumb beast of burden can spit gold nuggets and the stick, surely one of the unlikeliest things to contain the faerie, can beat anything or anyone upon command.

Animals and all manner of magical beings also are portrayed as least likely creatures. From the helpful ants, ducks and bees in "The Queen Bee" to the little old grey man in "The Golden Goose," the lowly, ail-too familiar creature is found to be the magical aide, provider and advisor. Almost always, it is the most ordinary and unexceptional animal that proves to be just as extremely exceptional—so exceptional, that the hero usually would not survive or succeed without it. Tales of helpful animals tend to portray the hero as one who acts out of a perceptive, usually compassionate response to nature. Coincidentally, the hero often is depicted in contrast to other humans who either do not see the natural world they have become habituated to, or view it in a selfish, destructive manner. Kindness is repaid in kind, as is unkindness. That obvious moral, however, is far less important than what has preceded it: the hero's seeing and responding to nature as valuable in itself. Frequently this is the true test of the hero, and whatever other tasks face him are accomplished by the creatures he treated well. A mutual relationship and reciprocal exchange is established between man and animal which extends to embrace all of nature; nature metamorphoses to the supernatural, and, again, the world proves ecologically wonder-full.

At times, the least likely is decidedly noticeable, though in a negative manner, as seen in countless tales of animal-grooms and brides. As in "The Frog Prince," insight into the creature's true self is gleaned after an initial period of repulsion or fear that limits one's vision to the animal's outer, physical shell. Thematically, the groom's enchantment is more the result of others' negative perceptions than it is of any supernatural spell; usually the spell ceases the moment the heroine sees truly. Conversely, tales treating a physically human groom who possesses a bestial nature depict a process whereby initially positive or accepting responses to him are replaced with genuine loathing and horror once his true self is discovered. Interestingly, no disenchantment is possible, for the human is always human and the sole solution to his inner, vile nature is that of his death. In the nightmare world of "The Robber Bridegroom," accurate perception assumes a life or death significance.

Surely the most common portrayal of the disparity between appearances and reality is found in the fairy tale's own heroes and heroines. Wherever there is a youngest son or daughter, an abused, neglected, poverty-stricken Simpleton or Cinderella, little tailors and Tom Thumbs and abandoned children, the least likely figure emerges as the most likely to be the hero. It is the Cinderella human, female or male, who stands as the typical fairy tale hero, who stands as the fleshy incarnation of the tales' recurrent theme—in John Buchan's words, "survival of the unfittest" (8-9). As Max Lüthi has noted, Cinderella represents the perfect "riddle princess" (132); that riddling aspect may be extended to include almost all fairy tale protagonists, who pose a riddle in the apparent disparity between what they appear to be and what they are in actuality. "Apparent" is the clue, for accurate perception reveals that Cinderella is both raggedy and regal, just as the groom is both animal and human, the crone ordinary and extraordinary, the creature natural and supernatural, the stick mundane and magical. One state or characteristic need not contradict the other, for it is the combination of the two which makes the entity what it is. Cinderella would not be the heroine were she solely an ash-covered maiden or solely a glass-shoed princess. The marvel of the food-spreading table would be meaningless were the table not both common and capable of its meal-time conjurings. We tend to perceive the ash-maiden who attends the ball in glass or golden shoes as being the regal girl who is belied by her ashy state. But over and over again, the tales point to a far more complex and realistic perspective: the ash-maiden and regal girl are one and the same, appearance is reality, and one must learn to see truly.

All manner of messages, essential and profound, reveal themselves in the fairy tale's simple silhouettes of physical objects, animals, humans and super-natural beings. Legions of wicked stepmothers demonstrate in their antagonism and hatred toward the child how the past continues to live on in the present and how tenuous is the relationship between parent and child. The dangers of self-worship and of failing to see one's self in another resound through "Little Snow-White," while many a "fee fie foe ftim"-chanting giant demonstrates the dangers of uncurbed appetite and how anyone of us might topple under the weight of our own gravity. All those least likely heroes and heroines enact a scenario whereby success is attained within before it is attained without, in the world of men and daylight deeds. Accurate perception, compassion, and proper use of intellect comprise the touchstones of most heroism in tales that span the distance between "a day dream which stays in control, a nightmare which plunges into horror" (Fiedler xv). In the manner of a primer, fairy tales speak to us in simple terms and stark images whose language, says Bruno Bettelheim, is the only one "which permits understanding before intellectual maturity has been achieved" (161). Rose and thorn, life and death, ash and gold, frog and prince, sight and insight, blood and bone, Red Cap and the wolf, the lost children and the waiting witch—fairy tales expertly choreograph life's polar possibilities.

This fine balancing act is itself one with human existence. We should never forget that fairy tales are but another times' reflection of basic human concerns—that, as Joseph Campbell writes in Hero with a Thousand Faces, "The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change" (4). We should always remember that the "lie" of art, of fiction and the faerie, exists as a deliberate distortion by which one can experience the truth; that

The debutante combing her hair before the glass, the mother pondering the future of a son, the laborer in the mines . . . the ambassador with portfolio, the soldier in the field of war—all are working in order that the ungainsayable specifications of effective fantasy, the permanent patterns of the tale of wonder, shall be clothed in flesh and known as life. (Campbell, "Folkloristic Commentary" 863)

How truly realistic the tales are, translating for us the best and basest of human emotions and strivings: Love, Trust, Compassion, Honor, Friendship, Fidelity, Courage, Fear, Greed, Lust, Betrayal, Hatred—they are all there.

One could go on and on, reciting the multifarious messages the tales communicate, each one of which is yet another part of their value for us. As a mode of entertainment, says Campbell in his "Folkloristic Commentary," they exist "not simply to fill the vacant hour, but to fill it with symbolic fare" (862). Their messages are multiple, imaginatively playful yet seriously speculative. Deceptively simple, the volksmarchen have often been dismissed on the basis of their appearance, as was Cinderella, the frog prince, the wooden table, and virtually every bit of common matter, comman man, within the tales. We know the danger in that dismissal, know that the playful and serious, fantasy and reality, natural and supernatural, can exist side by side, exist even as one entity. It is true the tales can shift in a protean manner between blessing and curse, daydream and nightmare, but they nonetheless offer an ongoing reassurance long before their (almost always) happy ending is attained. It is true the human characters, like their real-life counterparts, often appear to be at the mercy of strange and stronger forces upon which their fate rests, just as they frequently experience a state of disequilibrium and disruption not unlike that experienced in today's own protean world. What is absent in our contemporary response is the second part of the story: not necessarily the state of being "happy until their days' end," but the realization that disequilibrium, disruption, are with us always, and may even represent a disguised boon. Fairy tales accept the very disturbances they create, and do so in a joyful manner. Their heroes, too, demonstrate a sensitive awareness and acceptance of the extraordinary; indeed, no hero's fate would be heroic were he to balk at the supernatural forces he experiences. This is not a passive acquiescence in matters beyond one's control; rather, it is an almost appreciative recognition of things as they are, which is then acted upon. The hero is he or she who takes "the road less travelled by."

How reassuring it is to see that the disturbing supernatural is but the super-natural; that it has been a part of one's world all along and is simply manifested when the ordinary is experienced as extra-ordinary. The Coleridgean conceit that all existence is comprised of the wondrously strange murmurs in the tales: if we had but the eyes to see, we would perceive the latent form of the unfamiliar asleep within the familiar, the magical housed within the shell of the mundane. This realization of the fantastic as the realistic represents yet another esthetic of fairy tales; it is one of the most precious gifts they offer us. Again, it speaks to the interconnectedness of all things, and thus again affirms the patterned web of life and all spun story. This casual affirmation paradoxically presents the real as yielding the fantastic while simultaneously the fantastic is shown to be essentially nonfantastic and real. In contrast to the unreassuring fantasy of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, fairy tales impart an idea of existence which views all matter as both mundane and magical. Their casual portrayal is in itself a comfort: this is the world, the tales say, and it is truly marvelous, mysterious, wonder-full. The tales matter-of-factly embrace all apparent disparities, polarities, and resolve them in that embrace, leaving us with a single impression, familiar as any common briar-rose.

As Selma Lanes suggests (94) there is a magic to existence that defies charting, just as there is a defiant meaning. In the most fundamental sense, everything in our lives is older than we are, and always there is something there, some thing winking just at the edge of our peripheral vision. Like all good art, like our own imaginings and dreams, fairy tales function as a sort of incantation by which is called forth the things we but half-glimpse. Just what we witness cannot ultimately be defined, though certainly part of the experience we gain is one with a sense of pure, elemental wonder, without which we remain fixed, dull and ignorant as stone; as lona and Peter Opie say,

The magic sets us wondering . . . this is the merit of the tales, that by going beyond possibility they enlarge our daily horizon. For a man not given to speculation might as well walk on four legs as on two. A child who does not feel wonder is but an inlet for apple pie. (16)

It is true that a story which depicts life solely as a study in meanness, in a reality devoid of joy and wonder, is more fantastic and incredible than any fairy tale. John Buchan appropriately quotes Robert Louis Stevenson's words, "To miss the joy is to miss all" (15).

To deny anyone the experience of such tales as "Little Briar-Rose," "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Snow-White," "Rapunzel," "Rumpelstiltskin," "The Goose Girl," "The Robber Bridegroom," "The Frog Prince," "Cinderella," "Little Red-Cap," "The Bremen Town Musicians," "The Queen Bee," "Snow-White and Rose-Red"—the list spools out in one silken strand—is to deny him his own inheritance of story. Ultimately, as Jane Yolen claims, it is to deny him his own humanity. We are, each one of us, the individual hero of one story, our own life. Lacking the sense of story which fairy tales provide at an early age—that cohesive beginning, middle, and end; that commingling of the ordinary and extraordinary, mundane and magical; that sense of a patterned cosmos wherein all polarities are but interconnected filaments—we exist as little more than animated clods. Like the best of literature and art, fairy tales remind us of who we were and are and yet might be. They are not "escapist" fare, unless, of course, the escape is into our very selves, our deepest desires and fears. The tales tell us, not that life isn't fraught with perils, but that its story can be lived in a joyful manner, even when the crumb trail has been picked clean and one is lost inside the very heart of the Black Forest. Perhaps that is why fairy tales have survived so long, and perhaps the Brothers Grimm's Household Stories remain so popular and so exemplary of the genre because they do best what all fairy tales strive for. Perhaps not. But what a full experience those tales give us; their value is inestimable yet need not be spelled out like some chemical formula. Quite simply put, fairy tales are; the Black Forest yet rises in our fondest dreams and darkest nightmares. That is, finally, all we need to know.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Buchan, John. The Nove! and the Fairy Tales. Pamphlet No. 79. Great Britain: The English Association, July, 1931.

Campbell, Joseph. "Folkloristic Commentary." Grimm, Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Chesterton, G. K. A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose. Selected by W. H. Auden. London: Faber & Faber, 1970.

Fiedler, Leslie. "Introduction." Beyond the Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale and Fantasy. Ed. Jonathan Cott. New York: Stonehill, 1973.

Fox, Paula. "Some Thoughts on Imagination in Children's Literature." Celebrating Children's Books: Essays on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland. Ed. Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepherd, 1981.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. Trans. Margaret Hunt, revised by James Stern. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Hillman, James. "A Note on Story." Children's Literature 3 (1972).

Jan, Isabelle. On Children's Literature. London: Allen Lane, 1973.

Lanes, Selma G. Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures on the Realm of Children's Literature. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Luthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. New York: Ungar, 1970.

Opie, Iona and Peter. The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford U Press, 1974.

Tolkien, J. R. R. "On Fairy Stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Balantine, 1966.

von Franz, Marie-Louise. Interpretation of Fairy Tales: An Introduction to the Psychology of Fairy Tales. Zurich: Spring, 1973.

Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel, 1981.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Linda Dégh (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9841

SOURCE: "What Did the Grimm Brothers Give to and Take from the Folk?," in The Brothers Grimm and Folktale, edited by James M. McGlathery, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 66-90.

[In the following essay, Dégh assesses the influence of the Grimms' Kinder-und Hausmärchen.]

Are oral and literary tradition two separate entities which can be studied independently from each other or must their interdependence be taken into consideration when looking at a folklore genre, the Märchen in particular, as it evolved and developed through the ages?

This question touches upon essentials about the nature of folklore and its study. In view of a chronological process of interaction between folk and elite, oral and written sources, we may look at the folk-product and its managers: scholars, artists, educators, politicians, and marketers who shape the product in service to their diverse goals. I will try to evaluate the influence of the Grimm tale corpus on oral tale production from the viewpoint of the folklorist.

At the beginning of folklore study, the subject of interest consisted of materials edited and formulated in the service of nationalistic ambitions from both literary and oral sources. Later, at a more emancipated stage of ethnic consciousness, folklore theory developed the notion of authenticity and the criterion of genuineness, striving after the elicitation of exclusively oral texts, from the illiterate tradition of the "folk," that is, the peasant untouched by literary intrusion. It was assumed that the "folk," as a primitive human contingent, unwittingly preserved elements of a forgotten, superior, national poetic heritage. Thus, for a long time individual contributors of folklore were only marginally recognized as reservoirs and retellers, not inspired artists. Schools were established to trace unilinear avenues of the anonymous oral tradition and determine the role of collective and personal memory in its survival or erosion. Field collectors looked for archaisms, "pure" items, free of what they judged to be folk-alien urban pollutants.

Following World War II, however, folklorists had to realize that the designated "folk" in the isolation of the rural countryside could not be the exclusive target of a discipline. Technological advancement invaded most remote areas of the world. Diverse strings of traditions obtained through print contained orally learned and performed folklore. The celebrated and promoted folklore genres, whose identification, classification, and analysis was the main routine of scholarly practitioners, dwindled under the pressures of industrialization. Changed life-style and worldview of peasants did not allow time for the singing of archaic ballads or the telling of magic tales for recreation as before. There was no other choice but either to declare that folkloristics had reached the limits of its inquiry and had to resort to the study of the past, preserved in manuscripts, or to realize that the meaning of the "folk" and its "lore" must be extended beyond the narrow confines of pre-industrial, preliterate peasantries. Folklorists chose to lift the old boundaries of their trade. Instead of the continued search for relics of the past "anachronistically still living in vestigial forms," scholars switched to living folklore in the here and now.1 The new folklore was discovered as an integral, inseparable constituent of culture striving in contemporaneous social groups to serve as meaningful and creative expressions of relevant ideas. This new conception of folklore not only revealed the naiveté of purist fixation on a hypothetical, untainted, self-perpetuating oral tradition, it also opened new perspectives for tracing folklore as a product of social reality in continual processes of change.

If, at the outset, folklore was defined as a fading, perilous oral tradition of national significance which must be saved, restored, and preserved by the literati in order to maintain cultural distinctiveness, it is now defined as the product of people taking advantage of a variety of available auditive and visual media in order to bring oral and literary tradition into synthesis in communicating relevant messages.

All this seems clear and obvious. Nevertheless, it might seem outrageous to some folklorists who are divided according to their interests in diverse developmental stages and do not recognize the logic of the inevitable process of change. Marxist theorists still maintain that folklore is an art of the exploited classes and succumbs only when social oppression ceases to exist,2 whereas modern European theorists do not trust their own judgment. They tend to see mass society as producing only normalized and secondhand, instead of "real," folklore,3 and some mention the term "folklorism" disparagingly as something inferior to folklore.4 Those who are not ready to deal with the problem of adjustment in folklore theory resort to the study of marginal groups where no disturbing questions concerning the nature of folklore must be raised.

Any folklorist who wishes to define the Märchen in its historic development and current existence will somehow relate it to the Kinder-und Hausmärchen of the Grimm brothers. This collection is a landmark, deeply rooted in sociocultural conditions of nineteenth-century Germany. But, at the same time, it is also a source for the scrutiny of previous history of the European folktale, and a point of departure for the study of its worldwide dissemination. The KHM was the most complete, representative collection of miscellaneous narratives, chosen from literary and oral tradition in and outside of diverse social contexts.5 It is an irony that the documents from which folklorists infer the primacy of an oral tradition come from fixed literary and artistic versions. The themes can be traced back to literary documents of early simple narration, and there is little unanimity concerning when the oral genre Märchen emerged. Wesselski cautiously marks the beginning of the Märchen as a distinct genre with Straparola's Nights, or even later with Basile and Perrault,6 whereas Schenda points out that the Märchen, earlier far less popular than jokes, horror, or personal experience accounts, became the literary fashion of high society only as late as the eighteenth century.7

It was within the nineteenth-century romantic milieu that a new "folk" tone was attributed to the Märchen, that its rustic simplicity was highlighted and viewed as a survival of ancient poetry preserved by the lower classes. The Grimm brothers earned recognition for their "rescue mission" to save "these innocent household tales" (diese unschuldigen Hausmärchen)8 from oblivion.9 Their activities were taken as models by the early schools of folklore and harshly criticized by later schools, which did not take into account that they worked before the discipline was established. In celebrating the two-hundredth birthday of the Grimm brothers in 1985 and 1986, new research efforts contributed to our better understanding of their work technique and philosophy of tale collection and edition and their influence on folk narrative scholarship. Special studies also threw new light on the most popular pieces of the KHM, their meaning, continued social relevance, modification, and travesties in modern urban society. My discussion will focus on a rather neglected area which concerns the fieldwork-based folk narrative: the complex relationships of oral and written folk tradition in the light of our recognition that orality is just one of the means of tale transmission. The question I will raise concerns the influence of the Grimm tales on oral folk tradition.

As is well known, the Grimms created the artistic form of the Märchen by gradual improvement of their text, until it reached perfection in the 1857 version. During the process of variation, a distinctive short narrative genre emerged which contained a characteristic episodic structure, style, and tone. Once set in print, the whole collection and its individual pieces became models for both scholarly and literary authors—a source for both told and written Märchen, influential in reinvigorating fading oral tradition, in creating regional variables, and in the general adaptation and spread of the genre in the modern world.

The Grimms never made a secret of their data-compiling method, which exploited both literary and oral sources. The collectors—the Grimms and their friends and acquaintances—retold and rewrote what they had remembered from childhood or obtained through questioning. The new variants, taken as raw data, were shared with the members of the circle the Grimms called their "Märchengesellschaft," by definition a folklore communicating group in itself, and those variants were subjected to continuous polishing. In his recent book, Heinz Rölleke lists the members of this cooperative team and also appends Jacob Grimm's appeal to others he hoped to include from the whole German-speaking territory.10 However, as Ranke observed, time was not yet ripe for such an undertaking: no one joined the Grimms. The Austrians and the Swiss wanted to work on their own.11

Grimm philologists and folklorists have criticized the brothers for merging oral and literary traditions indiscriminately. From Berendsohn's cautionary note that the collection is far removed from living oral telling and may be used only for the study of content,12 to Ellis's recent attack on the honesty of the brothers,13 many comments were made. Critics who stated their belief in an oral tradition free from book influence, however, were not so far from the Grimmian principle in their own work. They did not record total storytelling events as social acts, as modern ethnographers do.14 We cannot speak of authenticity in our sense before the 1940s. The general public did not distinguish between oral narrator and tale writer and regarded published stories as common property free for anyone to change.15 Scholarly recording of oral tales from the folk, at the same time, meant notation of a skeleton content of stories judged to be genuine. Style editing along the lines of existing models then embellished the tales to reflect more the style of the collector than that of the raconteur. Texts the scholars regarded as folk-alien, nonauthentic, corrupt, or retold from a book were omitted. Small wonder that most published collections reflect the wishful thinking of folklorists, not the real folk repertoire: an oral tradition of miscellaneous provenience.

The influence of the Grimms' work on subsequent generations of folk narrative scholars, in spite of repeated criticisms, was decisive and determinant. National and regional collections assembled, revised, and published in the Grimmian manner appeared one after the other in Europe. Since the Grimm model was disseminated early through diverse print media in many countries,16 partial or full adaptation of texts was common. Early collectors subscribed to the editorial principle summarized in the 1840s by the Hungarian classical poet, János Arany (1817-82): "The good collector must have the genius of a perfect storyteller. Being there, at the fireside, the spinnery, he must know the language, expressions, and the style of narrating. He must have the imagination and the knowledge of how the folk-mind works. He must be as gifted and as inspired as the native folk and become as good as the best narrator of the region."17

While the Grimm corpus was always regarded as literary, it soon became a standard for comparative tale philology. Since Köhler and Bolte-Polivka's type listings and annotations,18 the titles of the tales appear as type names to which oral variants are compared. Several Grimm titles and type descriptions were adapted by the Aarne-Thompson index, such as Hansel and Gretel (327/A), Godfather Death (332), Jorinde and Joringel (405), Snow White (709), Ferdinand the True and Ferdinand the False (531), and so on.

Furthermore, German folklorists in their tale studies often still depend on the Grimm texts and cite the KHM instead of the Aarne-Thompson index numbers in referring to international tales. Scholars to this day often analyze the Grimm version as representative of its kind, in complete disregard of the limitless number of oral variants. In his analysis of Snow White, N. J. Girardot uses the Grimm version with reference to Max Lüthi. Admitting that cultural and individual variations may be important, he felt that, since "every single fairy tale has a particular message,"19 in the case of Snow White the Grimm text particularly controlled oral variables: "its basic frame of formulaic form, main events, and episodic sequence remains generally constant."20 In the same vein, Steven Jones follows the Grimm outline in his Snow White study. Over one hundred versions he examined "eschew most of the 'traditional' motifs taken from the Grimms."21

Robert Darnton convincingly criticized Bettelheim's reading of the Grimm variant of Little Red Riding Hood as "flattened out, like patients on a couch, in a timeless contemporaneity,"22 irrespective of other versions of the type. He calls for "rigorous documentation—the occasion of the telling, the background of the teller, and the degree of contamination from written sources."23 One can agree with such a demand, but Darnton, a cultural historian, commits similar mistakes, using the Grimm tale to illustrate German mentality in contrast to the prerevolutionary French mentality he deduces by analyzing two late nineteenth-century notations from oral informants.24

Separation of oral and written forms in considering the life history or the just-performed variant of oral art, particularly the Märchen, is and always was problematic. "Folkloristics lives in literature," observed Schenda, "oral literature is a paradox, it freezes when fixed in writing."25 Obviously, the two can live only in interdependence, influencing content, composition technique, style, situational details, and the rules of performance. "Whoever sees folklore communication intact only where it involves clearly illiterate tradition bearers," writes Bausinger, "is as mistaken as those who believe forms and contents of oral folklore communication are in all cases offshoots of literary production."26

Nothing is really new about this. In 1931 Wesselski had already taken issue with adherents of the Finnish school for claiming the existence of an independent oral channel which would account for the extraordinary stability of tales. The scholar of medieval Märchen argued that Walter Anderson's hypothetical "magic tale village" (Märchendorf), in which tales are common pastime, cannot exist because "Märchen in folk-telling can survive only if bearers and preservers of tales (Märchenträger and Märchenpfleger) appear at brief intervals."27 According to Wesselski, these can be gifted raconteurs as well as literary authors like the Grimms. Wesselski claims, "without the crutches of a book," the Märchen would not have blossomed in modern Europe.

It seems that the complex and untraceable relationship between oral and literary traditions accounts for the stabilization of tales into story units and types. The agents within the transmission process together perform conventional creative acts, producing myriads of variants by repeatedly telling, retelling, reading, editing, printing, illustrating, translating, and thereby adapting and disseminating seeds of the folktale around the world. In their utilization of sources that were partly "literary art form" and partly "popular oral tradition,"28 the Grimms met the criteria according to which folklore creation is being defined today.29

In the course of 130 years since the final form of the KHM left the press, the processes of selection, variation, and spread, corrosion and restoration, innovative formulations, translation, and reinterpretations according to innumerable conduits and microconduits30 took their course not only through telling and print, but also through the more effective electronic media of mass communication. While tales travel from medium to medium and meet the expectations of diverse population groups in the world, one feature remains constant. It is in the nature of the tale that at a certain stage of its life it is told orally, or read aloud, in face-to-face proximity. Modern society established its institutional storytelling services through professional and amateur performers, in addition to the traditional and natural narrators, whose primary repertoires have been sanctioned by the Grimm collection.31 This also presents the KHM as a stabilized version of a genuine folktale repertoire, a sourcebook for adaptation and a link in the continuing chain of tradition. In essence the KHM does not differ from the repertoire of any illiterate master storyteller whose performance in front of his village listeners is also the product of previous literary and folk manipulations and whose artistry reasserts fading traditions and determines future ramifications. The "genuine" tale is the one told and listened to irrespective of its literary antecedents.

My long-term fieldwork in a village community in Hungary where traditional storytelling maintained its popularity after World War II as a socially important act with regular performances by prominent illiterate and semiliterate narrators gave me a representative example of the nature of standard literary influence. The folktale corpus I collected from major, minor, and occasional tellers consisted of some 450 items. Most were complete stories in active use; others were fragments, faintly remembered or in the process of formation. On the basis of information from the narrators, as well as my own examination of the texts, I found 40 percent of the total body directly or indirectly related to book tales.32 Narrators were actively seeking to expand their repertoires by listening to the reading of stories, which they then kept retelling and gradually shaping. In addition to classic literary themes mediated through chapbooks and pious exemplum collections, storybooks constituted the major sources. In 1894, Elek Benedek compiled a five-volume book whose influence on oral tales was comparable to that of the Grimms. Benedek, himself a member of the first team of fieldworkers, stylized the stories, intended for juvenile and uneducated popular audiences, written down by himself and others. Many of the folktales were originally adapted from the Grimms, but Benedek did not hesitate to add direct translations of his own.33 His books became the most influential source for Hungarian village narration in the twentieth century. His style-editing and acceptance of the Grimmian principles helped homogenize rules of narration through innumerable editions of selected tales. There are eighteen tales in Mrs. Palkó's repertoire34 from the Benedek collection and eleven Grimm tales among the current favorites of Mrs. Fábián.35

The impossibility and futility of separating oral and literary phases in folktale transmission is obvious. Considering the crucial impact of the KHM on live narration in the twentieth century, folktale research needs to take another direction. It needs to recognize that the comparative study of direct or indirect literary influences and processual stages of retroaction between written and oral variants can offer new insights into the nature of creative processes in storytelling. As a matter of fact, examples at our disposal indicate that most folklorists minimized the influence of the booktale and only very few experimented with comparing oral tales to their literary models.

As early as 1912, Elizabeth Róna-Sklarek discussed the striking similarity of five tales in the Berze-Nagy collection from North Hungary with five from the Grimms' collection (the Grimms' nos. 4, 21, 47, 80, and 129).36 She found that the verses in the tales are identical with those of a specific translation from 1889. In an article on acclimatization of foreign tales, S. Solymossy identifies other Grimm tales mediated indirectly through chapbooks to literate peasants, despite structural and compositional modifications. Referring to these, Ortutay observed: "It would be fruitful even today to follow the avenues of Hungarian peasant adaptation of the Grimm tales."37

Wesselski reported how the "retelling" of "Little Red-Cap" (Red Riding Hood) in his experiment with thirty-eight schoolgirls resulted in a variety of versions.38 Twenty years later Max Lüthi convincingly demonstrated that "the substance of a literary form changes according to specific tendencies." In the case of Rapunzel, writes Lüthi, the basic folk stratum provides the driving power to sustain the story. It is no accident that the additions of the ladies of the French court and German upper class could not survive. Once returned to the folk, tales gradually lost the traces of literary revisions. Lüthi regards the work of Jacob Grimm as a link in this transaction: "he created what he assumed would have been created 'by itself among the folk, consciously developing the story in a new direction for the retellers. His version, even if scholarly and scanty, selects essential images and trends, erases arbitrary embroidery inherent in literary narration."39 In his comparison, Lüthi shows how two oral narrators—one from Danzig, another from Hajós, a German-Hungarian village—dropped banalities in folklorizing the Grimm tale.

Working with narrator Egbert Gerrits, Gottfried Henssen examined the retelling of four Grimm tales which Gerrits had learned in his early youth from his grandmother in the Netherlands. "Contrary to the literary archetype," writes Henssen, "the tales were brought closer to the real world, made more reasonable and logical, while maintaining the outlook of the Märchen. Formulas are also more genuinely folkloric than those of the Grimms."40

Vladimir Propp reports two kinds of adaptation by master storytellers. They either internalize whole tales from the Grimms, or adapt single motifs and ingredients learned from storybooks. He illustrates both, citing young narrators.41

Felix Karlinger found two versions of the Grimms' no. 161 ("Schneeweisschen und Rosenrot") directly adapted by Sardinian storytellers who drastically removed most of the artificiality of the original.42

In a monograph description of the Danish redaction of AT 1640 (The Brave Tailor), Bødker asserts that Grimm no. 20 has been read since 1821, and has exerted its influence on the oral form of every subsequent generation.43

These examples of willingness to consider possible literary origin or influence are not free of bias and depart from the convictions that (1) the folk has an independent oral tale tradition free of literary intervention, and (2) the folk rejects and corrects artificial elements of booktales and restores the canon of hereditary types. This rigidity of scholars led also to the narrow view that real folktales are transmitted by illiterate peasants in isolated communities, and texts suspect of literary reminiscences need to be omitted from scholarly collections. The book influence, however, was not determined by rigorous comparative analysis of materials but on the basis of the folklorist's sensitivity as to what is and what is not a real folktale.

An interesting case in point is that of American tale collectors. They ignored Dorson's verdict that no American group corresponds to what is denoted by the term "folk" in Europe: "a deeply rooted, traditionally minded community, with a direct ancient past with its accumulated heritage."44 They also ignored the fact that for the American folk "masses of popular narrative became accessible in print, in almanacs and magazines, especially, for example, after the Civil War."45 Following the example of Cecil Sharp, who journeyed to the southern Appalachian mountains in search of British ballads preserved by emigrants in their primitive retreat,46 folklorists visited the mountaineers to find the residues of the European oral Märchen. What they found was, to a considerable extent, retelling of the most popular, often reprinted pieces of the KHM. Two prominent Kentucky fieldworkers, Marie Campbell (1958) and Leonard Roberts (1969, 1974), depicted in compassionate colors the traditional life and wisdom of the settlers, giving the impression that the tales in "oral tradition" "are all from 'across the ocean waters' brought to Kentucky 'by our foreparents way back in time.'"47 In the introduction to their collection, neither Campbell nor Roberts gave accounts of the personality and educational level of their informants or the sources of their folklore. Many of the tales were privately, so to speak discreetly, told by very old people upon the insistence of the inquisitive outsider48 or written down by the informant and sent to the folklorist by mail.49 It is quite remarkable that while the collectors provided type and motif numbers for each item and made reference to international variants including the Grimm collection, they never raised a question concerning the conspicuous closeness of the texts to the Grimm tales. One cannot tell whether the brevity, lack of coherence, yet almost slavish retention of Grimmian features was due to fading memory or inability of the narrators to integrate storybook materials into local oral tradition. The retold Grimm texts from Kentucky are nevertheless valuable documents worthy of source-critical analysis.

Prejudice weakens considerably Kurt Ranke's surprising statement that the Grimm tales influencing narrative tradition throughout Europe had little or no effect at all on the living German tale tradition.50 In his rebuttal of von der Leyen's observation that "Das Volk hat den Brüdern für ihre Märchen in seiner Weise gedankt. Es hat sie aufgenommen und weiter erzählt und neu verschlungen und durch die ganze Welt geschickt,"51 Ranke examined one hundred post-Grimmian collections from marginal peasant villages and concluded that the Grimms' modifications were alien to tradition and therefore unacceptable to the folk, which continued its mouth-to-mouth transmission undisturbedly. His findings were based on variant comparison, not on the microanalytical measurement of cultural revision by individuals and their supporting communities. The examples—that out of thirty-one variants of AT 451 only two have seven ravens like the Grimms' no. 25, all others retained the original number three; that out of sixteen versions of The Girl without Hands only one accepted Wilhelm Grimm's contamination of this type with the introductory episode of another; that out of thirty-six variants of Godfather Death only four follow the Grimms' conclusion (extinction of the candle of life of the doctor)—do not even prove that the few identical elements came from the Grimms. The subjectivity of the argument is obvious and justifies the question: Is there a more dependable way to observe processes of narrative development than in a book-to-teller and teller-to-book relationship?

It sounds almost a commonplace to repeat that the KHM is "still the most often reprinted and translated German book, next to the Bible."52 Yet, perhaps this fact is the strongest evidence of its efficacy in keeping the world of the Märchen alive. Although it has been stated that the tales were translated into 140 languages and reached thirty million editions, we have no accurate figures to show how many modern language translations were made; how many are in current circulation; what tale selections were made for abridged editions or for miscellaneous storybooks; and which individual tales have appeared separately for educational or other purposes. The limited number of available bibliographies, mostly from Europe, reveals little.53 We may gather impressions from the multitude of reprints and paraphernalia that appear annually on the European Christmas market. Evidently, the popularity and applicability of the tales to diverse needs in diverse types of societies keeps the KHM viable and exportable.

We sometimes tend to consider oral tales moribund on the basis of our own experience: modern urban society cannot accommodate traditional village-style narration and has replaced it with other kinds. It must be remembered, though, that the rest of the world continues oral narration the way nonurbanized cultural styles require. According to a UNESCO estimate, there are 900 million adult illiterates and the number is increasing. To give folklorists the opportunity to study live, emergent, variable oral tradition,54 UNESCO's Sector on Culture delegated a subcommission to protect and safeguard the natural flow of folklore.55 Here again, folk, folklorist, and cultural managers join forces to redefine and mark out the boundaries of folklore for future generations.

With this prospect of manipulation for the future in mind, I would like to illustrate the adaptation of Grimm tales by master storytellers in their radically diverse cultural settings. This will show the continued viability of the KHM beyond our world. It seems the messages these stories convey are of general validity and cross the narrow confines of ideological systems. Because we lack systematic research materials, the examples are drawn from accidental and impressionistic observation that serves only to indicate the possibilities of research in folk narrative adaptation, choice, and rejection. Much must be done before we can attempt anything more.

1. Storyteller Minya Kurcsi spent his life in the Transylvanian mountains working as a lumberman. For half a century he traveled on foot to work sites and entertained fellow workers with his tales at night around the campfire. He had a sixth-grade education and loved to read storybooks. Although as a youth he listened to many narrators, he never retold any of their tales. József Faragó, who recorded thirty-seven of Kurcsi's tales, discovered that these were Elek Benedek's versions of Grimm tales. "Old Minya is living witness to the folklorizing process of which not only the tales but also the Grimm translation of 'Grandpa Elek' ultimately became a part."56 Kurcsi chose thirty of the forty items from the book he had read. Faragó's exploration revealed that Kurcsi, at the age of sixty-four, now retired from the lumberyards but performing in schools for children and clubs for adults, does not remember the source of the tales after so many years. His adaptation of the best-known pieces—Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Goose Girl, Frau Holle, Godfather Death, Learn What Fear Is, The Twelve Brothers, Seven Ravens, Cinderella, The Clever Peasant Girl, among them—consists of stylistic embroidery, the addition of dramatic dialogues between the main characters, change of episodic construction, and the introduction of elements from everyday life.

For a well-liked migrant narrator of his type, Kurcsi's dependence on the KHM as the source of his total repertoire is quite unique. It is unusual that he did not care to learn from the storytelling of other lumbermen at the alpine log shelter—one of the classic places for story exchange among adult men.57 Perhaps Benedek's book decisively influenced him to become a storyteller, and he wanted to be different from the others? But was he different? Were others also learning from books without telling the collector? Were folklorists naive enough to believe in exclusive orality even if the classic "liars" often referred to book sources in their playful introductory formulas? Or were folklorists disposed to accept the run that stated: "Once upon a time in the world there was a large tree. On the top of this tree there was a smaller tree. On the top of the little tree there were three hundred and sixty-six ravens and tied around its trunk, three hundred and sixty-six stallions. Whoever doesn't listen to my tale, may the three hundred and sixty-six ravens pick out their eyes and may the three hundred and sixty-six stallions scatter their bodies . . . in the hut underneath there was a big book whose three hundred and sixty-six pages I read through. I read this tale from it"?58 Is this common formula not a bantering reference to a book source? Be that as it may, over the years Kurcsi's choice of tales, variation, and stabilization through retelling, and his influence on others, is what counts. Unfortunately, the collector did not ask the pertinent questions.

2. In his doctoral dissertation, Robert Adams gave an account of a Japanese woman's change in social identity from a story listener to a storyteller. At age forty-seven, Mrs. Tzune Watanabe, owner of a tea shop and grandmother to her son's eight children, began to lose her hearing. Isolated by deafness, this former farm girl who had once enjoyed listening to and telling folktales decided to teach herself how to read because, in Adams's words, "her deafness had deprived her of the mental stimulation she demanded from social contact in an intensely oral community. As soon as she began reading she was able to use the stories in the books, not only for her own enjoyment but as additions to her repertoire of tales. With this new material she renewed her activity as village raconteur insofar as societal conditions allowed, and was able to completely integrate the tales into her storytelling style and into the Japanese milieu."59 All this took place while she was operating the tea shop.

The first storybook she was able to read contained seven European Märchen, among them Snow White, Snow-White and Rose-Red, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel. Mrs. Watanabe continued to tell stories, despite illness, and acclimatized Grimm tales to her repertoire. Her mastery of traditional narration enabled her to carry on and develop her style within a speedily changing urbanized milieu. Not essential episodic substitution but rather intricate elaboration of small details characterizes her skill. Seven years after reading Rapunzel, she had expanded the Grimm sentence describing what the prince overhears the girl singing into a lengthy account and a song. Mrs. Watanabe "appropriated the tale as an expression of her own personal experience when she detailed the subject of the song which Rapunzel sang, and related it to the objects which she supposed constituted the totality of Rapunzel's world."60 Furthermore, the raconteur did not omit elements of the Grimm tale, except those which did not fit her cultural and personal biases. For example, she dropped the cruel torture of the stepmother in the Snow White story. Her restructuring of tales "to conform to a pattern established by her versions of tales heard from her mother and grandfather reflect the influence of the internalized pattern which governs all her tales."61 The modifications give insight into techniques of cultural, communal, local, and personal acclimatization. Adams's penetrating comparative analysis of tale passages—repetitive exchanges of dialogue in the Grimm version compared to Watanabe's version of several tales—is revealing and suggestive.

3. In the Philippine Islands, the Ilianen Monobo represent an ethnic minority culture without a written language. Although their Moslem neighbors, the Magindanao, enslaved them for a while, in the 1970s the Monobo fled from Islamic unrest to safer valleys where they made contact with more recent immigrant groups who have had a history of four hundred years of Western influence. The team of linguists who wrote down the Monobo language recorded forms of oral art and discovered a blooming storytelling tradition maintained by a number of master storytellers and supported by community acclaim. Hazel Wrigglesworth, a member of the team, wrote her dissertation on the tale repertoire of two prominent Monobo storytellers as an expression of native rhetoric within a system of an exclusively oral culture.62

How is it possible that the repertoire of these Monobo narrators (Mr. Ampalid told sixteen, Mrs. Mengsenggild twenty-three stories) consists of a majority of Europeantype Märchen? Although the tales are set in a mythological context with culture heroes as actors and contain genealogical episodes and references, the European influence in story content and structure cannot be mistaken. The presence of AT 300 (Dragonslayer), AT 400 (Swan Maidens), and AT 425 (Cupid and Psyche) may be attributed to an oral tradition, but can this also be the case with AT 566 (Fortunatus, widespread through chapbook reprints), AT 314 (Goldener), AT 130 (Bremen City Musicians), and above all AT 480 (Frau Holle)? There are chances of monogenetic transmission of course, and such triviality as the recent telling by a visiting missionary is always possible. Mr. Ampalid's grade-school education in a regional compound cannot be overlooked either. But hearing an unusual foreign story does not account for its reception and integration, as happened in this case. We have seen many examples of how long it takes for an imported popular literary story to lose its exotic features.

The Grimm version of Frau Holle was recorded twice from Mrs. Mengsenggild. She learned it from an aunt, and it seems to be one of the community's favorites. It is also known under the title of "Good Character Girl—Bad Character Girl." Since Monobo culture and language have been influenced mainly by Malaysian and Indonesian sources via contact with Islamized tribes, Wrigglesworth compares the basic elements of Mrs. Mengsenggild's tale with a Javanese and an Indonesian version and Grimm's "Frau Holle." Examination of the amount of elaboration shows that the Grimm and the Javan texts consist of 1,100 words each, the Indonesian has 3,000, and the Monobo contains over 7,000. The embroidery and modification of the Grimm story is considerable in all Asian versions, resulting mainly from cultural dissimilarities, but the Monobo text displays quite a bit of personal creativity. The chief means by which the Monobo variant is amplified is a fourfold repeated encounter for each of the two girls in which a new set of dramatis personae and events appears. Unlike the three other versions, the two girls are not identified in the Monobo version as the real daughter and the stepsister; the journey is not taken for the acquisition of wealth but for a more basic commodity, food. In both the Indonesian and Monobo texts the girls encounter an alligator or crocodile who asks them to care for her child in return for granting their request. Also, the lullabies sung first by the kind and then by the unkind girl to the alligator's baby bear strong resemblance in the Indonesian and the Monobo texts. The old woman's tasks are relevant only to the German and Javanese versions, while the cock's song assumes the form of a lullaby in both the Indonesian and the Monobo versions and is sung by the girls themselves, thus retaining the contrast between the golden and the filthy appearance. Finally, the reward of wealth in the other three versions becomes a "reward of both food and beauty" in the Monobo. Additionally, in the Monobo story the Bad Character Girl does not limit herself to one journey, but repeats her attempt to succeed four times.63 Considering lasting historical contacts, Wrigglesworth believes there is a likelihood that European folktales were introduced to the Philippines via Malaysian immigrants.64

4. Peter Pandur was a transient between worlds; a man of many trades, a dreamer, and an accomplished storyteller. Born in Transylvania in 1881, the son of estate servants, he began his career as a hired hand at twelve. After domestic service at the home of local nobility, he entered military service. Following his discharge, he traveled to Budapest and worked at construction sites. He married a girl he met at work, settled in her home village thirty miles from the city, and continued to accept odd jobs at diverse locations. He spent four years on the Eastern front during World War I. In 1938 an injury took his eyesight.

I met Pandur and his wife in their village on my first field trip and recorded his total repertoire of 108 tales.65 I recorded his life history twice in fifteen years, the second time shortly before he died at seventy-nine. The couple lived in the "poor quarter" of a well-to-do peasant village. As a in-migrant poor man, Pandur remained a misfit, never accepted by the villagers. His days of glory, of storytelling in migrant workers' camps, were over; occasional drunks in the pub, Gypsies, and children were his listeners.

Pandur's education, following his four years in school, was unlike that of the classic type of narrator. Most tradition-minded folklorists would have judged him uprooted and urbanized; and indeed his exposure to a great variety of social groups through employment had influenced to a great extent the stylistic shaping of his tale repertoire.

Yet in content this repertoire reveals stronger roots in oral tradition than the convoluted style indicates. Seventy percent of his narratives are classic Märchen, 20 percent show haphazard, forced accumulation of episodes lacking a consistent frame, and 10 percent originate in the Grimm collection.

In Pandur's case, certainty about the origins of his stories would be hard to establish. Unlike most narrators who name their sources, he emphatically denied that he learned his stories from someone else and claimed he made them up himself. He demonstrated this to me by changing episodes or conclusions whenever I commented on an unusual turn. He saw himself as an author and planned to dictate a book to me. We would be joint authors and make much money.

The stories borrowed from the Grimms include The White and the Black Bride (AT 403), Sleeping Beauty (410), Kind and Unkind Girls (480), Snow White (709), and A Child of St. Mary (710). Pandur's version of each shows close proximity to the Grimm version, but each in different ways. The White and the Black Bride and Kind and Unkind Girls are abbreviated retellings of the contents, lacking personal touch. Sleeping Beauty is somewhat longer, with dialogues typical of the storyteller's featuring of formal conversations in the parlors of high society, as he overheard tea-party chats as the butler of a country gentleman. In A Child of St. Mary, on the other hand, after the girl's expulsion from heaven the life story of the prince from AT 450 (Little Brother and Little Sister) is inserted, only to make the two meet and prepare for the usual happy end. The most remarkable is the composition of Snow White, blending AT 709 and 883 quite innovatively. The evil stepmother is replaced by a Roman Catholic priest in whose care the father leaves the girl while he travels overseas on business. Also, twelve robbers replace the seven dwarves who are deeply moved by the fate of the innocent girl. When she dies they commit suicide next to her glass coffin in repentance.

I see here two kinds of influences by the Grimm tales. The close and succinct variants may have come from the Schoolbook of Pandur's only daughter, a source too close and recent for creative manipulation. The other two stem from an earlier Grimm influence by way of popular chapbook prints, bearing all the marks of the narrator's usual way of internalization. In both cases, I suspect second-hand literary influence rather than reading.

These examples may give an idea of the continued viability of the KHM even beyond Germany and the rest of the Western world. It seems the messages these stories convey are of general validity, cutting across ideological systems. Lacking more focused research concerning the interaction of oral and literary tradition, storytellers and their repertoires are the best sources to consider. Once scholars record the total corpus of narrators, without ignoring, rejecting, or only grudgingly acknowledging materials their own sense of style would regard as inappropriate, the nature of folk narrative processes will be better understood. The four examples show diverse relationships to the booktales of the Grimms. Some are more direct, coming from first-hand reading, others show secondhand oral adaptation. Depending on personality, cultural context, temporal distance, and experience, there are many other possible variables. The literary influence, in a subtle way, may not only be discerned from single tales but from personal and communal repertoires, revealing the stylistic rules of narration in general.

It should be made clear that modern, particularly Western, urban society's profound involvement with the Grimm tales as "folktales" is not limited to the telling of, or listening to, formal narration. The presence of the tales may not even have to be manifested by passive knowledge of story plots. The spirit, philosophy, ideology, and behavioral patterns of the tales appeal to a much larger audience, beyond the telling context. The metaphoric uses of tale characters, images, sayings, situations, dialogues, miracles, transformations, and figurative speech formulas are generally known and appear as useful and meaningful tools in everyday life. The acts and even the total careers of tale heroes appear to be models for men and women to follow.66 Thanks to the KHM and its new version, comprised of a selected set of tales normalized and "adapted" (umfunktioniert) by child psychologists, educators, writers,67 and professional narrators, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Frog Prince, and Cinderella became assumed or ascribed personality types in the Western world. This might well be the case; and, as Bausinger claims, the new rational worldview drove primary tale communication from adult society into the nursery. But how could the booktales of the Grimms eclipse storytelling tradition when the earlier practice of booktale retelling did not? Bausinger stresses here the passing of face-to-face storytelling as an adult pastime, not the abandonment of oral tradition, which already in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was strongly contaminated with tales read from books.68

The strongest impact the Grimm tales made on modern civilization—and I would not want to distinguish here the adult world from the world of children—is outside formal storytelling in the traditional sense. Modern society is aware of the power of tales and their symbolism. For that reason educators and psychologists keep debating whether tales are helpful or harmful to mental health. Currently, in addition to Bettelheim's book,69 there is a great proliferation of Jungian interpretation of the Grimm tales filling the shelves of German bookstores, trying to resolve the puzzle of why the world of the magic tale still keeps producing new means to persist.

Divorced from the book, tale particles assume a life of their own. They become symbols for reference, capable of describing feelings, arguing for right and wrong, and summarizing conditions in delicate situations. Thus, within the context of modern society, tale motifs have become commonly understood signifiers, formulas to cite, metaphors to substitute for lengthy explanations. The capability of tales to break into meaningful units accounts for their practical exploitation in today's consumer-oriented world. Commercial advertisements in print, in radio broadcasts, and on television screens depend heavily on the magic tale's promise of happiness to sell products and lure tourists. Political cartoons feature topical events displaced in a satirical never-never land; toys, games, costumes, and other paraphernalia of the Märchen help indoctrinate children into the modern Grimm-Märchen subculture. In Germany, all this goes hand in hand with the storybook plus cassette, or even video tapes. The method of merchandizing Grimm resembles the selling of popular American movie characters and events as toys and games. This type of adaptation may be characteristic of further ramification of the tale tradition and continued fascination with its implications. After all, the objectified artistic land of the tale offers fulfillment of hopes and desires to those who can daydream and assume the roles of heroes and heroines, taking a guided tour through the "fairy-tale woods" (Märchenwald)70 and its clearings, the avenues of danger and adventure, between good and evil. As Kurt Ranke said, the tale hero is a wanderer between the worlds.71 Indeed, there is no better expression of hope in terms of human creativity than the tale told, read, played, or gestured, and the tale normalized and standardized by the current edition of the KHM.

Transformations of some popular Grimm tales and their adaptations for drama, ballet, opera, puppet play; for stage, movie, radio, and television presentation; poetry, novel, short story, joke, and political cartoon are innumerable.72 It would seem worthwhile to explore the literary fairy tale in its development as related to the Grimm collection from the mid-nineteenth century to our day, especially during the last decade, which has witnessed a growing interest among writers and artists in developing satires, travesties, fantasy tales, and even science fiction movies exploiting Grimmian formulas. Their success attests that the popular audience has internalized these formulas. But since the authors depart sharply from traditional folklore patterns, little if any return influence on folktale may be expected from them. For this reason, their work is beyond the scope of folkloristic consideration.

In the country of the Grimms, founding fathers of folklore and discoverers of the genre Märchen, the telling of Märchen seems to go far beyond any expectation. The Grimm corpus has become a shared national property, representative of what average people know as folktales which are to be studied, performed, and enjoyed in multiple forms, peddled, and sold in manifold packaging. The attitudes toward the tales change, but neither hostility nor support can alter the fact that they are alive and well in the cross fire of controversies. Opinions about the Märchen are expressed by everyone in the intellectual marketplace, and no one is neutral or indifferent. It is unlikely that the tales will cease to exist or be replaced; they permeate the landscape of the country wherever the Autobahn takes the traveler. The German ADAC provides drivers with a map to guide them through the world of the magic tale, the sites where Grimm heroes resided—from the modest night quarter of the Bremen City Musicians to Sababurg, the hunting castle of the Landgraf of Hessen, and the residence of Dornröschen. There are some two hundred "fairy-tale woods" (Märchenwälder), parks or lands in Germany to enculturate children and adults seeking family recreation. These feature a repertoire primarily of Grimm tales, in this order of popularity: Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Brother and Sister, Frog King, Lucky Hans, Frau Holle, Tischlein Deck Dich, Rapunzel, and The Brave Little Tailor. Helga Stein asks: Is this a new form of tradition or transmission of folktales?73 The question is timely, but an answer may be expected only after the function and influence of the fairy-tale gardens (Märchengärten) have been adequately explored.

In the festive atmosphere of the Grimm anniversary, Frau Dorothea Viehmann, the Märchenfrau from Kassel, narrates again. This charming old lady, in her traditional costume and bonnet and with her Niederzwehrn dialect, was reborn as if stepping out of the familiar picture drawn by Ludwig Grimm. But there is one slight difference between Mrs. Viehmann and her current representative in Niederzwehrn. The latter, unlike her predecessor, has a book in front of her from which she reads her tales—a selection of Grimm Märchen. The present Märchenfrau is Anni Keye, who is in her seventies; she is so impressed by her act that even her husband, who drives her to storytelling appointments, is not sure if it is Dorothea or the Anni he married long ago.

The costumed Märchenfrau and her numerous companions in Germany, and elsewhere in Western Europe, and maybe in the world, become, so to speak, the symbols of folklore transmission. With the printed book in their hands, they communicate their messages by word of mouth. Perhaps they also appear on the film screen. Tradition may live only because—not despite the fact that—it is carried and supported by modern means of communication.

The Märchenfrau is a conscious cultivator of tradition. Ever since a public appeal for an official "German fairy-tale road" (deutsche Märchenstrasse) was made, she has been active in contributing to the program of the Kassel station. Anni is regarded as an important contributor to the Kassel club and group travel programs (as witnessed by the tourist guide for 1985). The length of her tales ranges from three to fifteen minutes: she goes on as long as the customers want to listen. And they do, indeed! The enchantment of the Märchen is as much in demand as before. As reported in Heim und Welt (Jan. 15, 1985), "today's fairytale tellers have become fully integrated into mass tourism." Even more important, according to a poll of the Sample-Institute, 94 percent of West Germans are familiar with the adventures of Hansel and Gretel, 93 percent with Snow White, 91 percent with Little Red Riding Hood, and 90 percent with the Grimm version of Sleeping Beauty (Abend-post, Mar. 28, 1985).

Since the time of the Grimms, folklore has been regarded as the treasury of the past, which must be rescued and preserved. Although traditional folklorists have kept tolling the bell over the demise of the folktale, its techniques of transmission and spread may speed up and change, the formats of the stories may multiply with the introduction of modern media, but the folklorization of the Grimm tales appears as strong evidence for the persistence of the folktale.


1 Rudolf Schenda, "Einheitlich—urtümlich—noch heute: Probleme der volkskundlichen Befragung,' in Klaus Geiger, Utz Jeggle and Gottfried Korff (eds.), Abschied vom Volksleben (Tübingen: Tübinger Vereinigung für Volkskunde, 1970), pp. 124-54.

2 Vilmos Voigt, A folklór alkotások elemzése (Analysis of folklore products) (Budapest: Akadémia, 1972).

3 Hermann Bausinger, "Kinder und Jugendliche im Spannungsfeld der Massenmedien: Die Wiederkehr des Märchens," AJS Informationen, Sept.-Oct., 1976, pp. 1-3.

4 Vilmos Voigt, "A néprajztudomány mai kérdései," Kritika, July, 1986.

5 Walter A. Berendsohn, Grundformen volkstümlicher Erzählerkunst in den Kinder-und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm (Wiesbaden: D. Martin Sänding, 1921); Johannes Bolte and Georg Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder-und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, vol. 4 (rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1963), pp. 467-75.

6 Albert Wesselski, Versuch einer Theorie des Märchens (Reichenberg: Sudetendeutscher Verlag Franz Kraus, 1931), p. 196.

7 Rudolf Schenda, "Märchen erzählen—Märchen verbreiten: Wandel in den Mitteilungsformen einer populären Gattung," in Klaus Doderer (ed.), Über Märchen für Kinder von heute (Weinheim and Basel: Beltz, 1983), pp. 28-30.

8 From the introduction to the 1819 edition.

9 "Wenn wir also hiermit ganz besonders die Märchen der Ammen und Kinder, die Abendgespräche und Spinnstubengeschichten gemeint haben, so wissen wir zweierlei recht wohl, dass es verachtete Namen und bisher unbeachtete Sachen sind, die noch in jedem einfach gebliebenen Menschengemüth von Jugend bis zum Tod gehafter haben"; from the Grimms' appeal to all friends of German poetry and history, cited by Heinz Rölleke in Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm (Munich: Artemis, 1985), p. 65.

10 Ibid., pp. 63-69.

11 Kurt Ranke, Die Welt der einfachen Formen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1978), pp. 87-91.

12 Berendsohn, p. 11.

13 John M. Ellis, One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Heinz Rölleke, "John M. Ellis: One Fairy Story Too Many," Fabula, 25 (1984), 330-32.

14 Schenda, "Märchen erzählen," pp. 31-32.

15 Agnes Kovács, "Benedek Elek és a magyar néprajzkutatás" (Elek Benedek and Hungarian folklore research), Ethnographia, 72 (1961), 434.

16 Wayland D. Hand, "Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm in den Vereinigten Staaten," Hessische Blätter, 54 (1963), 525-44.

17 Kovács, p. 435.

18 Stith Thompson, "Fifty Years of Folktale Indexing," in Wayland D. Hand and G. O. Arlt (eds.), Humaniora Essays in Literature, Folklore, Bibliography Honoring Archer Taylor on His Seventieth Birthday (New York: Augustin, 1960), pp. 49-57.

19 N. J. Girardot, "Initiation and Meaning in the Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Journal of American Folklore, 90 (1977), 280.

20 Ibid., p. 279.

21 Steven Swann Jones, "The Structure of Snow White," Fabula, 24 (1983), 56-71.

22 Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 13.

23 Ibid., p. 16.

24 Ibid., pp. 50-51.

25 Rudolf Schenda, "Folkloristik und Sozialgeschichte," in Rolf Kloepfer et al. (eds.), Erzählung und Erzählforschung im 20. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1981), pp. 489-530.

26 Hermann Bausinger, "Mündlich," Folklore and Oral Communication: Narodna Umjetnost, special issue, 1981, p. 14.

27 Wesselski, pp. 127-31, 156-57, 197.

28 Berendsohn, p. 24.

29 Alan Dundes, "Who Are the Folk?" in his Interpreting Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), pp. 1-19.

30 Linda Dég h and Andrew Vázsonyi , "The Hypothesis of Multi-Conduit Transmission in Folklore," in Dan Ben-Amos and Kenneth Goldstein (eds.), Folklore: Performance and Communication (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), pp. 207-54.

31 Rainer Wehse (ed.), MärchenerzählerErzählgemeinschaft (Kassel: Röth, 1983); National Storytelling Journal 1984— ; Linda Dégh, "Frauenmärchen," in Kurt Ranke (ed.), Enzyklopädie des Märchens (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1985), Bd. 5, Lieferung 1, pp. 211-20.

32 Linda Dégh, Folktales and Society: Storytelling in a Hungarian Peasant Community (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), pp. 146-58.

33 Kovács, pp. 430-43.

34 Dégh, Folktales and Society, pp. 153-54.

35 Ádám Sebestyén, Bukovinai Székely népmesék (Székely folktales from the Bucovina), 2 vols. (Szekszárd: Tolnamegyei Tanács V. B. Könyvtára, 1979-81), vol. 1.

36KHM 4: Fürchten lernen; 21: Aschenputtel; 47: Machandelboom; 80: Vom Tode des Hühnchens; 129: Die vier kunstreichen Brüder.

37 Gyula Ortutay, "Jacob Grimm und die ungarische Folkloristik," Deutsches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde, 9 (1963) , 181 .

38 Wesselski, pp. 127-31.

39 Max Lüthi, "Die Herkunft des Grimmschen Rapunzelmärchens," Fabula, 3 (1959), 112-13.

40 Gottfried Henssen, Überlieferung und Persönlichkeit: Die Erzählungen und Lieder des Egbert Gerrits (Münster: Aschendorff, 1951), p. 16.

41 Vladimir Propp, "Märchen der Brüder Grimm im russischen Norden," Deutsches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde, 9 (1963), 104-12.

42 Felix Karlinger, "Schneeweisschen und Rosenrot' in Sardinien: Zur Übernahme eines Buchmärchens in die volkstümliche Erzähltradition," Hessische Blätter, 54 (1973), 585-93.

43 Laurits Bødker, "The Brave Tailor in Danish Tradition," in Winthorp Edson Richmond (ed.), Studies in Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), pp. 21-22.

44 Richard M. Dorson, "Print and American Folklore," California Folklore Quarterly, 4 (1945), 207.

45 Reidar Th. Christiansen, European Folklore in America (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1962), p. 58.

46 Maud Karpeles, Cecil Sharp: His Life and Works (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), pp. 140-71.

47 Marie Campbell, Tales from the Cloud Walking Country (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), p. 9.

48 Ibid., pp. 24-25 .

49 Leonard Roberts, Old Greasybeard: Tales from the Cumberland Gap (Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1969), see annotations.

50 Kurt Ranke, "Der Einfluss der Grimmschen Kinder-und Hausmärchen," Papers of the International Congress of European and Western Ethnology, International Commission of Folk Arts and Folklore (CIAP) (Stockholm, 1955), pp. 126-35, esp. p. 132.

51 Ibid., p. 127.

52 Lutz Röhrich, "Argumente für und gegen das Märchen," in his Sage und Märchen: Erzählforschung heute (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), p. 21.

53 Sándor Kozocsa, "Grimmsche Märchen in Ungarn: Eine Bibliographie," Hessische Blätter, 9 (1963), 559-74, and Voigt, A folklór alkotások elemzése, pp. 336-38, list seventy-three collections and 220 editions in Hungary between 1861 and 1961. Similar listings are also offered in vol. 54 of the Hessische Blätter: "Dem Gedenken der Brüder Grimm am 100. Todestag von Jacob Grimm 20. September 1963" by H. Ikeda from Japan, K. Briggs from Great Britain, Wayland Hand from the United States, and Vladimir Propp from northern Russia.

54 Gyula Ortutay, "A szimpozion célja" (Goal of the Symposium), A szájhagyomanyozas törvényszerüségei, Nemzetkösi szimpozion Budapesten 1969 május 28-30, ed. Vilmos Voigt (Budapest: Akadémia, 1974), p. 18.

55 Lauri Honko, "What Kind of Instruments for Folklore Protection?" NIF Newsletter, 13, nos. 1-2 (1985) , 3-11 .

56 József Faragó, "Alpine Storyteller Minya Kurcsi," in Linda Dég h (ed.), Studies in East European Folk Narrative (n.p.: American Folklore Society, 1978), pp. 559-618.

57 Dégh, Folktales and Society, pp. 74-76; József Faragó, Kurcsi Minya havasi mesemondó (Alpine storyteller Minya Kurcsi) (Bucharest: Irodalmi könyvkiadó, 1969).

58 This introductory cadence to a complex Märchen I recorded from fisherman János Nagy is typical; see Gyula Ortutay, Linda Dégh, and Agnes Kovács, Magyar nápmesék, 3 vols. (Budapest: Szépirodalmi könyvkiadó, 1960), vol. 2, p. 110.

59 Robert J. Adams, "Social Identity of a Japanese Storyteller" (Diss., Indiana University, 1972).

60 Ibid., p. 154.

61 Ibid., p. 147.

62 Hazel Wrigglesworth, "Folk Rhetoric in the Narration of Ilianan Monobo Folktales" (Diss., Indiana University, 1975).

63 Ibid., pp. 197-204.

64 Ibid., p. 203.

65 Linda Dégh, Pandur Péter meséi (Tales of Peter Pandur), 2 vols. (Budapest: Franklin, 1943).

66 Linda Dégh, "Zur Rezeption der Grimmschen Märchen in den USA," in Doderer (ed.), Über Märchen für Kinder von heute, pp. 122-26; Kay Stone, "Missbrauchte Verzauberung: Aschenputtel als Weiblichkeitsideal in Nordamerika," in Doderer (ed.), Über Märchen für Kinder von heute, pp. 78-98.

67 Hermann Bausinger, Volkskunde (Darmstadt: Carl Habel, n.d.), p. 145.

68 Ibid., p. 146.

69 Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).

70 The fascination of Germans with the forest as the mysterious dwelling of supernatural tale actors is delicately featured in Heine's childhood fantasy poem "Waldeinsamkeit"; see his Sämtliche Werke, ed. Ernst Elster (Leipzig and Vienna: Bibliographisches Institut, n.d.), vol. 1, pp. 391-95.

71 Kurt Ranke, "Betrachtungen zum Wesen und zur Funktion des Märchens," Studium Generale, 11 (1958), p. 656.

72 Listings and folkloristic evaluation of literary and artistic adaptations include Hand, "Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm"; Lutz Röhrich, Märchen und Wirklichkeit, 4th ed. (Wiesbaden; Franz Steiner, 1974); Röhrich, "Argumente für und gegen das Märchen"; Lutz Röhrich, "Der Froschkönig und ihre Wandlungen," Fabula, 20 (1979), 170-92; and Lutz Röhrich, "Metamorphosen des Märchens heute," in Doderer (ed.), Märchen für Kinder von heute, pp. 97-115; Dégh, "Zur Rezeption der Grimmschen Märchen"; Jan Uwe Rogge, "Märchen in den Medien: Ober Möglichkeiten und Grenzen medialer Märchen-Adaption," in Doderer (ed.), Märchen für Kinder von heute, 1983; Wolfgang Mieder, Grimms Märchenmodern: Prosa, Gedichte, Karikaturen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1979); Katalin Horn, "Märchenmotive und gezeichneter Witz: Einige Möglichkeiten der Adaptation," Österreichische Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, 37 (1983), 209-37.

73 Helga Stein, "Einige Bemerkungen über die Märchengärten," paper presented at the Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Edinburgh, 1979.

Donald Ward (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "New Misconceptions about Old Folktales: The Brothers Grimm," in The Brothers Grimm and Folktale, edited by James M. McGlathery, University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 91-100.

[In the following essay, Ward decries the lack of an objective scholarly evaluation of the Grimms' fairy tales.]

One occasionally encounters the contention that the Brothers Grimm were guilty of manipulative deception when they added elements of cruelty to the tale of Cinderella that were not in their sources. The reference is typically to the bloody scene of the stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes in the attempt to make the slipper fit. I find this contention to be somewhat strange, for one merely needs to look up tale type 510 in the Aarne-Thompson index,1 which leads one, in turn, to the monograph by Marian Roalfe Cox2 that documents this motif in scores of variants disseminated from India to Iceland, so that it is immediately evident that the Grimms scarcely could have invented the motif. One could, of course, also consult a more recent monograph, The Cinderella Cycle by Anna Birgitta Rooth,3 which on this particular point would lead one back to the earlier monograph by Cox.

In a recent essay by one of America's finest folklorists, Alan Dundes, one reads, too, that the Grimms were guilty of deception in portraying their main informant for the second volume of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen as a Hessian peasant woman. "Dorothea Viehmann," writes Dundes, "was an educated, literate, middle-class woman whose first language was French not German."4 It is true enough that Katharina Dorothea Viehmann née Pierson (1755-1815) belonged to a fourth-generation Huguenot family. She probably knew French, but it is almost certain that her first language was German. She was of Huguenot descent only on her father's side. Her mother was Martha Gertrud Pierson née Spangenberg (1736-1804), a member of a long line of Hessian innkeepers. Frau Viehmann was brought up, as was her German mother, in a village tavern in which German was necessarily one of the languages in use. Even in regard to the Huguenot side of the family, the French connection was somewhat tenuous. The paternal great-grandfather, who himself was born in Holland, had emigrated to Hesse in 1686, 128 years before the Grimm brothers met Frau Viehmann. More interesting still is the fact that he came to Hesse from Metz, a city in the Alsace-Lorraine, which had been a part of Germany until the year 1648 when France laid claim to the region in the confusion that reigned at the end of the Thirty Years' War. The city remained decidedly German for many years after the French takeover, so it is safe to assume that the great-grandfather had emigrated from a German city to Hesse just thirty-eight years after the French takeover. Because of this background it is almost certain that even the Huguenot side of Frau Viehmann's family had been as German as they were French. As stated, Frau Viehmann's mother came from a long line of Hessian innkeepers, and she, like her daughter, had grown up in an inn where they must have had ample opportunity to hear many tales told by imbibing guests. Indeed, a number of the tales the brothers collected from Dorothea Viehmann, some of which they chose not to include in the second volume, were of the Schwank-like variety that were (and are) told in taverns. The father, who belonged to the Huguenot branch of the family, was named Johann Friedrich Isaak Pierson (1734-98). The thoroughly German names would seem to indicate that even he was ethnically more German than French, although the German names may have merely reflected bureaucratic necessity. The claim, moreover, that Frau Viehmann was "middle class" is also open to question. Frau Viehmann was married to the tailor Nikolaus Viehmann (1755-1825), who had a small shop in the village of Niederzwehren, at that time a farming village. From what we know, the tailoring enterprise was not very successful and the Viehmanns lived in poverty. Frau Viehmann earned additional income by growing vegetables on their small farm, and she carted her wares daily into Kassel, where she sold them door to door.

From all of this information it is evident that Dundes was mistaken in his assessment of the identity of the Grimm informant. How did he arrive at this mistaken information? Dundes, as well as some of the scholars I referred to at the beginning of this essay, cite the same source for their inferences, namely, the recent work by John Ellis, One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales.5 It is a work that is going to mislead many a scholar unless the situation is clarified in emphatic terms.

The most unfortunate aspect of the work is that it is virtually the only thorough investigation of the Grimms' methods of collecting, editing, and publishing the tales that is available in English, and thus scholars who do not read German will depend on it for their information on the topic. The work is clearly intended to be provocative, as the very title recalls the exposé of Field Marshal Montgomery's flawed strategy in World War II, A Bridge Too Far. In my opinion, it was a mistake to choose for a work that purports to be serious scholarship a title that is reminiscent of a journalistic exposé; but the choice is chiefly a matter of taste, and it is not in the title of this work that the problem lies. Nevertheless, the provocative title does indicate a zeal on the part of the author to produce a sensational exposé, a task he accomplishes with a vengeance. If it was Ellis's goal to leave his readers standing aghast at his "revelations," then it can be asserted that he was eminently successful in achieving this. The "fairy story too many" is the Grimm collection of Kinder-und Hausmärchen (hereafter referred to as KHM) itself. It is, according to Ellis, in its claim to be something it is not, as wildly fanciful as the most imaginative of fairy tales.

The most valuable contribution of this book is that it makes available to English readers a wealth of scholarship on the Brothers Grimm that has gone virtually unnoticed in the U.S. for years. Indeed, virtually all of Ellis's material is based upon the research of others. He apparently did not engage in any kind of primary research, did not consult archival materials nor manuscripts or letters. Even though Ellis acknowledges his secondary sources in footnotes, he often does so as a kind of afterthought, giving at least the impression that much of the research is his own. This practice is most disturbing when Ellis compares the manuscript materials with subsequent editions, something he could not have done without the splendid synoptic edition of Heinz Rölleke. Indeed, Rölleke is the author upon whose research Ellis relies throughout his book, a fact that does not, however, preclude him from criticizing this scholar from whose works he draws upon so liberally. The only truly original contribution Ellis has to offer is his tone of indignation at the alleged "fraud and forgery"6 perpetrated by the Grimms. Alas, it is in this original part of his work where Ellis goes far astray.

Ellis places great stress upon the programmatic statement included in the Grimms' prologue to the first edition of KHM. In it the brothers state their goals in the idealized and effluent expressions so characteristic of the Romantic Age. They claim to have collected the material from the simple people of Hesse and maintain that the stories are the survivals of ancient German myth. Moreover, they insist that they treated their sources with all the reverence they deserved, and that they had tried to collect the tales as faithfully as possible: "No particular has been added through our own poetic recreation, or improved or altered, because we should have shrunk from augmenting tales that were so rich in themselves."7 Ellis then attempts to establish that the tales were neither purely German nor collected from the simple folk. He furthermore argues that the tales were thoroughly altered both in content and in form during the many redactions. Most of his inferences here are valid enough, but none of this is in any way new.

Ellis places special importance on the fact that, by the time the second edition of KHM appeared in 1819, the brothers had retreated from their original plan and now freely admitted the fact "that the expression [of the tales] largely originates with us."8 In subsequent editions, Wilhelm Grimm even carries this admission further, stating that they were responsible for both "the expression and the execution of the individual tales."9 These statements are nothing less than an honest admission that the brothers, or at least Wilhelm Grimm, had abandoned the original plan of not "augmenting" the tales in any way as stated in the prologue to the first volume. But with an indignation that defies understanding, Ellis sees these admissions as evidence of "fraud and deception" on the part of the Grimms. It may well be that the original program for publishing the tales as stated in the first volume of the first edition was somewhat misleading, but the open admission of a revision of these standards in subsequent editions was impeccably honest. Ellis, in his zeal to create an exposé, not only distorted the situation, he either overlooked or suppressed information that explains why it was necessary for the Grimms to change their plans. Important for an understanding of Wilhelm Grimm's editing methods is the degree to which the second edition of the KHM of 1819 was a brand-new work. A total of thirty-four tales from the first edition of 1812-15 had been deleted from the collection, including both "Puss-in-Boots" and "Bluebeard" (because they were obviously derivative from Perrault). Moreover, forty-five new tales which the brothers had located in intervening years were added to the collection and eighteen tales had undergone substantial revision on the basis of more complete variants that they had since encountered.

Ellis also seems to have forgotten or ignored the fact that the Grimms were working in an era not only before the availability of recording devices, but also even before shorthand notation had been invented, and were thus forced in many cases to work with fragmentary notes. It is also known that many of the tales they collected were found in fragmented form, and that these either had to be abandoned altogether or expanded on the basis of other materials. In a communication that accompanied some tales he had sent to his mentor, Carl von Savigny, in 1808, for example, Jacob Grimm commented specifically that the beginnings of tales were most appealing because that was the part the narrators remembered best, and that the endings, by contrast, frequently disintegrated into incomprehensible gibberish.10 It is apparent that, already in 1808, the Grimms were working with a dying oral tradition.

All of these factors occasioned a change of plans for the Grimms. They, and especially Wilhelm, who from the second edition on assumed primary responsibility for the KHM, abandoned the hope of presenting the tales in pure form exactly as they had been found. He said as much in the prologue to the second edition and, as has already been pointed out, he intensified this admission in subsequent editions. Had Wilhelm Grimm not revised and restored the tales, no one other than a handful of philologists and narrative researchers would have heard of them today.

Wilhelm, now more than ever, intended the book as a collection of Kindermärchen; and he outlined this goal in the prologue to the second edition, stating further that "we have thus eliminated in this edition any expression that is not suitable for childhood."11 One could well argue that taking such liberties with the material is not in keeping with the rigorous practices of narrative research. To accuse the Grimms of not living up to the rigorous demands of the discipline is an easy trap to fall into. So many later scholars have championed the Grimms as the founders of the study of folklore and of folk narrative research that it is easy enough for one to believe that they had indeed created a rigorous discipline at that time. Ellis not only falls victim to this trap, he falls in head over heels. Throughout the work he criticizes the Grimms for not adhering to the rigorous demands of folkloristic research and the principles of critical text-editing, apparently unaware that the academic world had yet to develop any methods in these areas at that time. At one point Ellis calls attention to the Grimms' sources and remarks that "the overwhelming predominance of references to the Hessian district . . . as the sources of the tales might by itself have raised doubts as to their seriousness as folklorists."12 How could one harbor doubts as to their "seriousness as folklorists" when there existed at that time not the semblance of a field of folkloristic study? In short, Ellis criticizes the Grimms for not adhering to the rigorous demands of scholarship that in that day did not exist!

Ellis also exaggerates the influence that the Perrault collection had on the Grimm tales, accusing the Grimms of hiding the fact that many of their informants, Dorothea Viehmann among them, were educated men and women of Huguenot-French background, all of whom knew their Perrault quite well. In so doing, he conveniently ignores, or even suppresses, the fact that there are all together eight narratives in the Perrault collection, only seven of which qualify as Märchen. The Grimms, by contrast, worked with a corpus of over 250 tales (including those that were deleted, others that were not published, and others that were variants of the published tales). Thus, even if the Grimm variants to these seven tales were directly attributable to the Perrault collection, this would account for only a small fraction of their total.13 Moreover, only two or three of the nearly fifty tales that Frau Viehmann told the brothers can be seen as related to the Perrault stories. Many of the stories she contributed are relatively coarse Schwänke that she obviously had heard in the family tavern.

Ellis also takes the Grimms to task frequently for not identifying their sources—Frau Viehmann being the exception. But Ellis himself completely ignores the existence of known sources for the KHM who certainly could qualify as members of the "folk" (that this designation is itself highly problematic, and that its use is avoided by most scholars of narrative today is another fact of which Ellis is apparently unaware). There was, for example, the retired Sergeant of the Dragoons, Friedrich Krause,14 the shepherd of Köteberg, the rag-collector of Eichsfeld, the "Märchen-Frau" of Marburg (Brentano also had collected narratives from the latter), among others, all of whom are never mentioned by Ellis. Moreover, he makes no reference to the so-called Bökendorfer Märchenkreis, which included members of the Haxthausen and Droste-Hülshoff families, who, although among the educated and middle-class acquaintances of the brothers, nevertheless provided stories in Low German dialect that were obviously from oral tradition.

Ellis also takes the Grimms to task for not revealing the identity of each and every informant, and he attacks Heinz Rölleke for making the apology that the Grimms were silent about the identity of their informants because "they wanted to give the impression that the collective origin of the fairy tales . . . required as it were a collective tradition."15 Ellis characterizes this explanation as "a highly unconvincing argument." First, it must be pointed out that, at that time, there was absolutely no precedent for identifying sources. Who was around then to demand of the Grimms that they provide information about where they acquired their tales when no such demands had ever been voiced or written before? Secondly, if Ellis had been aware of the Grimms' many writings regarding the bearers of tradition, then he would have known that Rölleke's argument is in no way "highly unconvincing." It is based on a thorough familiarity with the thinking of the Grimms on this issue as it has been expressed in many of their writings.

Ellis also attacks Rölleke on another issue. Rölleke had once "warned against conclusions that are too extreme," stating that "one cannot, just from the fact that some of the main contributors were of Huguenot origin, simply conclude that the Grimms' Fairy Tales originate in France."16 Ellis accuses Rölleke of using here "a trick of argument." He asserts that the question is not whether the tales are essentially "all French but whether they are essentially all German. If we keep our eyes on the real issue, rather than on the red herring which substitutes for it here, we shall still have to go on being disturbed by the fact that there is very considerable French presence and influence in a collection which the Grimms tried to pass off as German through and through, knowing that not to be the case."17 If it were really true that the Brothers Grimm had tried to "pass off the collection "as German through and through," Ellis might have a point. The fact is, however, that it is Ellis, and not Rölleke, who is on shaky ground because of his lack of knowledge about the Grimms' notions regarding the provenience of Märchen. It is true that in their prologue to the first volume of the first edition, they voiced pride in the German nature of the collection.18 I do not think an apology is needed for the Grimms' national pride, though, for in 1812 Hesse was still under French occupation, and they clearly felt the need to stress the German component of the work. The significant point here is that they altered their viewpoint considerably by 1819, when the second edition appeared. It was, incidentally, the same year that the first volume of Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Grammatik appeared. Much had happened in the intervening years: The War of Liberation had been successful, and the Napoleonic occupation of the homeland had ended. Rasmus Rask had also published his Untersuchung über den Ursprung der alten nordischen oder isländischen Sprache in 1818, in which he made the first systematic phonology of the Germanic languages showing their relationship to other Indo-European languages. He thus posited the existence of a proto-Indo-European language and thereby anticipated some of the findings Jacob Grimm was to make independently in his Deutsche Grammatik. Moreover, scholars from over much of Europe and Asia, inspired by the work of the Grimms, began to discover narrative traditions that were clearly related to the Grimm corpus.

The situation that the Grimms had suspected earlier that led them to avoid the word deutsch in the title of the KHM (cf. Deutsche Sagen, Deutsche Mythologie, Deutsche Rechtsaltertümer, Deutsche Grammatik, and Deutsche Heldensage) was now beginning to emerge with clarity. It is to the credit of the Grimms that they fully acknowledged, in the prologue to the second edition, that the Märchen were by no means exclusively of German provenience:

Not merely do we encounter these tales in the diverse regions where German is spoken, but also among related Nordic and English peoples. Especially striking is their similarity with Serbian tales, for no one could fall victim to the notion that the tales could have been transplanted into a remote Hessian village by Serbians, any more than the other way around. Finally, there are agreements in individual traits and expressions as well as in the plots of complete tales with oriental (Persian and Indic) tales. The relationship that emerges in the languages of all these peoples and which Rask has recently proven with scholarly acuity is thus repeated precisely in their traditional poetry, which is nothing more than a higher and freer language of man.19

The Grimms thus considered the Märchen to be an Indo-European inheritance—an argument Wilhelm Grimm repeated in both the 1850 and 1857 editions of the KHM—and he certainly gave up the notion of a "purely German" nature of the collection. Ellis, however, ignores all this information. By concentrating on remarks that were made in the first edition during the French occupation of Hesse, he creates his own windmill that, for him, represents the programmatic methods of the Grimms, and that he then attacks with Quixotic self-righteousness.

There is certainly much more that can be said about the methods of the Brothers Grimm. In spite of scores of valuable studies by German scholars in recent years, there remains much work in the way of a truly critical analysis of the sources used by the Grimms, not merely for the KHM but for many of their works. In regard to the Deutsche Sagen, for example, I have noted that the Grimms had a proclivity for labeling a legend mündlich (oral) in cases in which they had clearly acquired the text from a written source.20

If we look objectively at the methods of the Grimms in the context of Western intellectual history, we find the same situation that can be encountered again and again in the history of scholarship. Investigators who are on the frontier of a new wave of ideas let their judgment be dominated by their enthusiasm for the importance of the new mode of thought. This situation was intensified in the case of the Grimms by the great political and social turmoil that was occasioned by the Napoleonic wars. The problem has also been exacerbated by those who virtually deified the Grimms. Such worship, in turn, led subsequent generations into a near frenzy of demythologizing the Grimms and their work. Neither group of scholars has served the Grimms well. An honest and objective assessment is still needed for a genuine appreciation of the contributions of the Grimms to our understanding of human creativity.


1 Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography: Antti Aarne's Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, Translated and Enlarged by Stith Thompson, FFC 184 (Helsinki: Suomaiainen Tiedeakatemia, 1961).

2 Marian Roalfe Cox, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-Five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap o'Rushes, Publications of the Folk-Lore Society, 31 (London: The Folklore Society, 1893).

3 Anna Birgitta Rooth, The Cinderella Cycle (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1951).

4 Alan Dundes, "Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Fabrication of Fakelore: A Reconsideration of Ossian, the Kinder-und Hausmärchen, the Kalevala, and Paul Bunyan," Journal of Folklore Research, 22 (1985), 5-18; see esp. pp. 8-9.

5 John M. Ellis, One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

6 Ibid., p. 103.

7 Ellis's translation, pp. 13-14.

8 Ellis's translation, p. 17.

9 Ellis's translation, p. 19.

10 Dieter Hennig and Bernhard Lauer (eds.), Die Brüder Grimm: Dokumente ihres Lebens und Wirkens (Kassel: Weber & Weidemeyer, 1985), p. 537.

11 "Vorrede" to the second edition; quoted from Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder-und Hausmärchen, nach der zweiten vermehrten und verbesserten Auflage von 1819, ed. Heinz Rölleke, 2 vols. (Cologne: Eugen Diederichs, 1982), II, 542.

12 Ellis, p. 27.

13 See the essay by Heinz Rölleke in this volume for a more detailed discussion of the repertoires of the Huguenot informants.

14 See the contribution by Gonthier-Louis Fink in this volume for a discussion of this informant and of the tales he contributed.

15 Ellis, p. 28.

16 Quoted from Ellis's translation, p. 107.

17 Ellis, p. 107.

18 "Vorrede" to the first edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Berlin: Reimer, 1812); quoted from Wilhelm Grimm, Kleinere Schriften, ed. Gustav Hinrichs (Berlin: F. Dümmler, 1881-87), 1, 332.

19 "Einleitung: Über das Wesen der Märchen," in Kinder-und Hausmärchen, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Berlin: Reimer, 1819), I; quoted from Wilhelm Grimm, Kleinere Schriften, I, 337f (my own translation).

20 Rudolf Schenda, of the University of Zurich, has lately been investigating the sources of the Swiss narratives that appeared in the Grimms' Deutsche Sagen and has noted a proclivity on the part of the brothers for attributing oral sources to legends of diverse origins. See for example Rudolf Schenda, "Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm: Deutsche Sagen Nr. 103, 298, 337, 340, 350, 357 und 514: Bemerkungen zu den literarischen Quellen von sieben Schweizer Sagen," Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, 81 (1985), 196-206.

Jack Zipes (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Exploring Historical Paths," in The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World, Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1988, pp. 43-61.

[In the following essay, Zipes offers a socio-historical perspective on the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales, examining the ways in which these stories depict the social customs and classes of the German people.]

Inevitably [the characters of Grimm's tales] find their way into the forest. It is there that they lose and find themselves. It is there that they gain a sense of what is to be done. The forest is always large, immense, great, and mysterious. No one ever gains power over the forest, but the forest possesses the power to change lives and alter destinies. In many ways it is the supreme authority on earth and often the great provider. It is not only Hansel and Gretel, who get lost in the forest and then return wiser and fulfilled.

Once upon a time there was a prince who was overcome by a desire to travel about the world, and the only person he took with him was his faithful servant. One day he found himself in a great forest when evening came. He had not found a place to spend the night and did not know what to do. Then he noticed a maiden going toward a small cottage, and when he came closer, he saw that she was young and beautiful.

("The Riddle")1

The boy set out with this letter but lost his way, and at night he came to a great forest. When he saw a small light in the darkness, he began walking toward it and soon reached a little cottage. Upon entering, he discovered an old woman sitting all alone by the fire.

("The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs," pp. 110-11)

The little tailor traveled on and came to a forest. There he met a band of robbers who planned to steal the king's treasure.

("Thumbling's Travels," p. 164)

Once upon a time a forester went out hunting in the forest, and as he entered it, he heard some cries like those of a small child.

("Foundling," p. 189)

Meanwhile, the poor child was all alone in the huge forest. When she looked at all the leaves on the trees, she was petrified and did not know what to do. Then she began to run, and she ran over sharp stones and through thornbushes. Wild beasts darted by her at times, but they did not harm her. She ran as long as her legs could carry her, and it was almost evening when she saw a little cottage and went inside to rest.

("Snow White," p. 197)

Once upon a time there was a man who had mastered all kinds of skills. He had fought in the war and had conducted himself correctly and courageously, but when the war was over, he was discharged and received three pennies for traveling expenses.

"Just you wait!" he said. "I won't put up with that. If I find the right people, I'll force the king to turn over all the treasures of his kingdom to me."

Full of rage, he went into the forest, and there he saw a man tearing up six trees as if they were blades of wheat.

("How Six Made Their Way in the World," p. 274)

When the rooster was ready, Hans My Hedgehog mounted it and rode away, taking some donkeys and pigs with him, which he wanted to tend out in the forest. Once he reached the forest, he had the rooster fly up into a tall tree, where he sat and tended the donkeys and pigs. He sat there for many years until the herd was very large, and he never sent word to his father of his whereabouts.

("Hans My Hedgehog," p. 394)

There was once a poor servant girl who went traveling with her masters through a large forest, and as they were passing through the middle of it, some robbers came out of a thicket and murdered all the people they could find. Everyone was killed except the maiden, who had jumped from the carriage in her fright and had hidden behind a tree.

("The Old Woman in the Forest," p. 440)

Let no one ever say that a poor tailor cannot advance far in the world and achieve great honors. He needs only to hit upon the right person and, most important, to have good luck. Once there was such a tailor, who was a pleasing and smart apprentice. He set out on his travels and wandered into a large forest, and since he did not know the way, he got lost.

("The Glass Coffin," pp. 522-23)

Once the guardian angel pretended not to be there, and the girl could not find her way back out of the forest. So she wandered until it became dark. When she saw a light glowing in the distance, she ran in that direction and came upon a small hut. She knocked, the door opened, and she entered. Then she came to a second door and knocked again. An old man with a beard white as snow and a venerable appearance opened the door.

("Saint Joseph in the Forest," p. 634)

A prince, a foundling, a miller, a miller's daughter, Thumbling, a sorcerer, a brother, a sister, a king, a forester, a princess, three poor brothers, a blockhead, a discharged soldier, a miller's apprentice, a tailor and a shoemaker, a hedgehog/human, a hunter, a poor servant girl, a poor man, a poor tailor, a pious, good little girl, St. Joseph, a hermit, and the Virgin Mary.2 These are just a few of the characters in the Grimms' tales whose fates are decided in the forest, and it is interesting to note that the forest is rarely enchanted though enchantment takes place there. The forest allows for enchantment and disenchantment, for it is the place where society's conventions no longer hold true. It is the source of natural right, thus the starting place where social wrongs can be righted. In a letter to Wilhelm on April 18, 1805, Jacob stated:

The only time in which it might be possible to allow an idea of the past, an idea of the world of knights if you will to blossom anew within us and to break away from the norms (Sitten) that have restricted us until now and shall continue to do so is generally transformed into a forest in which wild animals roam about (for example, wolves with whom one must howl if only to be able to live with them). I believe that I would have been naturally inclined to do this. A constant warning against this and my drive to be obedient have fortunately suppressed this inclination. I can only be happy about this since one or just a few individuals would not be able to achieve anything worthwhile by doing this, and I would have easily gone astray.3

The forest as unconventional, free, alluring, but dangerous. The forest loomed large metaphorically in the minds of the Brothers Grimm. In 1813 they published a journal entitled Altdeutsche Wälder (Old German Forests) intentionally recalling the title of Johann Gottfried Herder's Kritische Wälder (Critical Forests, 1769)—Herder being the man who was responsible for awakening the interest in German folklore by the romantics. This journal was to contain traces, indications, signs, and hints with regard to the origins of German customs, laws, and language. It was as though in "old German forests" the essential truths about German customs, laws, and culture could be found—truths which might engender a deeper understanding of present-day Germany and might foster unity among German people at a time when the German principalities were divided and occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. The Volk, the people, bound by a common language but disunited, needed to enter old German forests, so the Grimms thought, to gain a sense of their heritage and to strengthen the ties among themselves.

In her critical biography of the Brothers Grimm,4 Gabriele Seitz sees both the Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales, 1812, 1815) and the journal Altdeutsche Wälder as part of a political program conceived by the Grimms to reactivate interest in the customs, laws, and norms that bound German people together through language. And, to a certain extent, one could look upon the Grimms' act of developing and collecting the tales as the cultivation of an "enchanted forest," a forest in which they were seeking to capture and contain essential truths that were expressive and representative of the German people—truths that the German people shared with other peoples, for the tales were considered by the Grimms to be Indo-Germanic in origin and to possess relics of the prehistoric past. If one studies the notes to the tales that the Grimms compiled, it is apparent that they wanted to stress the relationship of each tale to an ideal Urvolk and Ursprache while at the same time focusing on German tradition with the express purpose of discovering something new about the origins of German customs and laws.

Historically, the Grimms did indeed succeed in creating a monument in honor of the German cultural heritage, bringing fame and renown to Germany through their tales. But, perhaps they succeeded more than they would have liked in the creation of a peculiar German monument—for the tales have been the subject of ideological debate, attracting both ultraconservative scholars such as Josef Prestel and Karl Spiess, who used them to promote a racist ideology, and radical critics such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and even Antonio Gramsci, who sought to grasp their revolutionary appeal.5 Furthermore—and perhaps this is the most questionable aspect of the Grimms' success from their own original viewpoint—their enchanted forest, created to illuminate and celebrate basic truths about German culture, was turned into and still is a pleasure park, where people stroll and pluck their meanings randomly with complete disregard for the historical spadework of the Grimms. Certainly the personal approach and sampling of the tales are legitimate ways of appreciating the tales, but often they have been endowed with more "magical power" than they possess and have been appropriated in a manner that makes them appear ahistorical and juvenile.

To counter the general tendency of dehistoricizing the Grimms' tales, I want to demonstrate how deeply they are entrenched in central European history of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. My purpose is not "historicist" in a narrow philological sense, that is, I do not want to treat the tales as historical texts of a particular epoch whose authorship, chronology, composition, and "truth value" need to be documented. Rather, I am more interested in the complex levels of historical representation that reveal the socio-political relations of a period in a symbolical manner. By reexamining the tales critically as social commentaries that represent aspects of real experience of the past, we can learn to distinguish social tendencies in our own culture and times more clearly and perhaps comprehend why we are still drawn to the Grimms' tales. Some historians like Eugen Weber6 and Robert Darnton7 have already taken a step in this direction by arguing that the tales are repositories of peasants' social and political living conditions. In particular, Darnton has reconstructed the way French peasants saw the world under the Old Regime by asking what experiences they shared in everyday life and then interpreting the tales as direct expressions of their experiences. Though his interpretations are valid to a certain degree, Darnton simplifies the problem of symbolic representation by assuming that the oral tales of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries were direct expressions of the common people and not mediated by literate recorders who always played a role in the transmission by altering style and themes. Moreover, he does not even mention that many of the tales that were in the oral tradition between 1700 and 1900 were actually taken from church sermons, educated travelers, and plays written by educated people of a different class.8 It became customary during the Baroque period for priests and preachers to include folk tales as exemplary stories in the vernacular when they delivered tales to the peasants to convey their messages just as it was customary for educated travelers to read stories or tell tales about their travels to peasants and artisans gathered in an inn. To be sure, the tales were remembered by their listeners and retold in a different way—but not always, and they were not always altered drastically. The peasants were not always the preservers of the oral tradition. To assume that the viewpoint of a folk tale always equals the viewpoint of the "average" French or German peasant is misleading especially since there were major differences among the peasants themselves.

For instance, this misassumption undermines an interesting historical study entitled "Hessian Peasant Women, Their Families, and the Draft: A Social-Historical Interpretation of Four Tales from the Grimm Collection" by Peter Taylor and Hermann Rebel.9 They begin their article by recounting the history of the Hessian draft system and the attitudes of the peasants toward the draft at the end of the eighteenth century. Their intention is to show that some of the Grimms' tales reveal more about the common people's dispositions toward the military and family relations than do contemporary documents. They argue that

a more fruitful approach to fairy tales is to see them in connection with actual social life and social institutions, as a popular (and not elite) ideological product focused on the inherently imperfect and conflicting workings of a given social order. . . . Fairy tales are indeed ideological creations emerging from the folk and often do address themselves to the psychosocial strains in an historically evolving social system; the crucial difference in approach is not to see the tales and their contents as expressions of strain but as objective linguistic and conceptual materials—"symbolic templates"—by which members of a population fashioned for themselves analyses that continually interpreted, and reinterpreted their social politics, (p. 352)

So far, so good. However, as we shall see, their next step in their approach is a wobbly one. On the basis of four tales from the Grimms' collection, "The Twelve Brothers," "Brother and Sister," "The Seven Ravens," and "The Six Swans," they argue that there is a social development in the pattern of these tales that can be related to ultimogeniture and the attitude of sisters toward brothers who were drafted into the army. They stress the importance of the female peasant storytellers, "old Marie" and Dorothea Viehmann, who were allegedly the sources of the tales, for they certainly represent popular viewpoints and were custodians of popular culture. Given the popular origins of the tales, Taylor and Rebel assume that they express a peasant view from below and show how each one, with certain variations, involves brothers who are dispossessed because of their younger sister, sent into exile, transformed into animals, and rescued by their courageous sister, who helps them resolve the question of dispossession. Next Taylor and Rebel supply the historical basis for interpreting the patterns of the tales as they do: ultimogeniture was a common practice in Hessia at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, and, they argue, the tales represent the defense of a a new non-patrimonial inheritance system, in which the youngest daughter is allowed to inherit the family property and maintain it in the family's interests. Taylor and Rebel claim that the

themes of sexual exchange must be tied to the changing social circumstances of inheritance. Here the tales portray strategies that contradict conflicts over narrowly defined access to patrimony, whether matriarchal or patriarchal; they advocate (if indeed they advocate anything) strategies of inheritance that neither dispossess male siblings or force them from the social framework of family life into a world of outlawry and military violence, (p. 367)

Some questions arise. Why was there a change in inheritance practices in Hessia? Why did they become more non-patrimonial? Why, according to the tales, did the youngest sister, who benefited from the new system, want to help her brothers? Taylor and Rebel demonstrate that Hessia had made a business of drafting and selling peasant soldiers to other nations, and that the military was run as a kind of state business. Given the fact that many sons of peasants were obliged to serve in the army and could earn a living through the military, the fathers often preferred to leave their property or the bulk of their property to daughters, whom they could influence. In addition, the laws of preferential partibility allowed the father to control the reconstitution of the property and the services of the son-in-law. So it would seem that daughters in Hessian peasant families might rejoice in becoming the sole heirs of property. However, Taylor and Rebel argue, by inheriting property they were placed under greater stress to follow their fathers' dictates by marrying the right kind of man (if they could find a man in Hessia, for so many were drafted) and producing the right kind of children in accordance with inheritance strategies. Evidence shows that women balked at becoming heirs because of the pressures and because they did not want to remain in Hessia where it was difficult to find husbands and live under restricted circumstances. Many Hessian women chose migration rather than stay in Hessia, and, Taylor and Rebel claim, the four Grimms' tales they selected for analysis provide some explanations for social conditions and changes in Hessia:

In all four tales examined, the sisters sought to bring their brothers back into the world of people, into the social world of families; and to reject the role of "advantaged heir" to accomplish this. In all but one of the tales—in which the simple act of renunciation suffices—reconnection is accomplished by emigrating with a husband through whose family the brothers reacquired their human social shape. If these tales have social validity, then some of the observed female outmigration represents the effort by an unknown number of Hessian women to marry outside the state in order to offer their brothers a place of refuge, a family to which they could attach themselves to escape the calculated and dehumanizing meshes of preferential partibility and the draft, (p. 375)

In conclusion, Taylor and Rebel maintain that, though the tales may have represented other things for the audiences of the early nineteenth century, they

were also symbolic analyses which held up to view the negative social consequences of the existing social and military systems. They were passionate and often violent polemics that not only expressed and took a stand against the dehumanizing and painful experiences arising from a narrow system of property devolution working in conjunction with a draft state; they also advocated alternative action for women. The tales demonstrate a relatively sophisticated but non-revolutionary social consciousness in their advocacy of the riskier path of emigration, one that consciously rejected a system where security and profit were gained at the cost of dispossession and of the destruction of family relations, (pp. 375-76)

As I mentioned before, this "historical" interpretation is certainly interesting if not ingenious, but it is highly flawed because the historians have not done their historical homework. First of all, there is the problem of narrative perspective. Taylor and Rebel claim that the original sources were two peasant women, "old Marie" and Dorothea Viehmann. Yet, in reality none of the tales was told to the Grimms by these women. "The Twelve Brothers" was supplied by the sisters Julia and Charlotte Ramus, daughters of a French pastor; "Brother and Sister" was provided by Marie Hassenpflug, who came from a middle-class family with French origins; "The Seven Ravens" also came from the Hassenplug family; and "The Six Swans" was obtained from Dortchen Wild, daughter of a pharmacist and the future wife of Wilhelm. In other words, not one of the tales emanated directly from the peasantry, and certainly not from the sources given by Taylor and Rebel. Indeed, "The Six Swans" was even printed in a collection of literary fairy tales at that time.10

Even if one were to give Taylor and Rebel the benefit of the doubt and assume that the tales, despite the bourgeois origins of their informants, were told to the middle-class women by peasant women, there is the problem of changes and transformations by the Brothers Grimm. As I have shown in Chapter Two, in my discussion of "Brother and Sister" and "The Twelve Brothers," it is possible to show a certain disposition on the part of the Brothers to collect and alter the tales according to their ideal sense of family. Interestingly, some of the remarks made by Taylor and Rebel reveal that there was possibly a shared feeling on the part of Hessian women about maintaining family cohesion—but the vision of family in the Grimms' tales becomes more and more bourgeoisified from 1812 to 1857. Unfortunately, Taylor and Rebel do not take this into account.

Finally, from a folklorist viewpoint, the four tales they discuss are tale types that can be found in many different countries and are hundreds of years old. They are not peculiarly Hessian, and it is most unclear as to what they have to do with the draft system in Hessia. They show signs of matrilineal intiation and marital rites that may be pre-Christian. Undoubtedly they were changed over the years and could be connected to Hessia of 1800. But not in the unhistorical and unscholarly manner in which Taylor and Rebel have worked.

In approaching the Grimms' tales from a historical and ideological perspective, we must constantly bear in mind that we are dealing with multiple representations and voices within the narrative structure of each tale. First, depending on the tale, there is the viewpoint of the informant, more than likely often an educated female, who had memorized a tale probably told by a peasant or read in a book. Next, there is the viewpoint of Jacob or Wilhelm, who revised the oral or literary tale that was collected. Not to be forgotten, there is the viewpoint of the submerged creator of the tale—probably a peasant, artisan, soldier, or journeyman—who sought to represent his or her experience through a symbolical narrative at a given time in history. And, finally, there are the viewpoints of intervening tale tellers who pass on the narrative from author to listeners and future tellers. By conserving the material according to narrative formulae that had been cultivated in both an oral and literary tradition in central Europe, the Grimms were maintaining a dialogue about social experience with the anonymous original creator, intervening tellers of the tales, the direct source of the informant, and the informant. In so doing, they contributed to the institutionalization of discursive genres such as the fable, the anecdote, the legend, the magic fairy tale, all of which were in the process of being conventionalized.

It is difficult to define just what a Grimms' tale or Märchen is, for there is very little unanimity among folklorists, literary critics, ethnologists, psychologists, and historians as to what exactly an oral folk tale or a literary fairy tale is. However, among the different endeavors to create a working definition, it appears to me that Dietz-Rüdiger Moser has summarized the major characteristics of the folk tale with clear categories that can enable us to grasp the historical signification of the Grimms' tales. According to Moser,

the fairy tale is a narrative work of fiction that is complete in itself, transmitted, and therefore conservative, and it contains typical figures, properties, situations, and aspects of action that serve the portrayal of how conflicts are solved on the basis of fixed moral notions. Those events that are described in it can leave the immediate realm of experience. Yet, the conflict that it treats is continually anchored in this realm.11

Moser emphasizes that the

portrayal of how conflicts are solved must be recognized as the dominant concern of the genre, and the portrayal is realized in a consequent and uniform way. Accordingly the analysis must distinguish between the immediate initial and internal conflicts that are effective for the action and the central conflict that is constitutive for the particular total message.12

Though the Grimms' collection contains numerous tales that that cannot be considered fairy tales (such as anecdotes, fables, and legends), the majority of them do fit Moser's definition: they are definitely concerned with the solution of conflicts, and they contain a moral viewpoint that the Grimms modified according to their own principles. Due to the fact, however, that the Grimms did not always alter the viewpoint of the informants, there are sometimes ambivalent solutions and viewpoints that are depicted because of the gap between the Grimms and their informants. Most important is that the representative conflict and attitudes assumed toward the resolution of this conflict reveal the social and political relations of particular social types in the culture of a nation during a certain historical stage of development.

Given their legal training under the guidance of Karl von Savigny, the Grimms were particularly sensitive toward social types and the theme of justice in their tales, and they tried to connect these types to German customs and law.13 Though the Grimms never categorized their tales according to social roles and functions, it is certainly possible to elicit a sociological typology from them. Such a typology can help reveal more than we already know about the social and political purpose behind the Grimms' shaping and revising of their tales. If we were to catalogue the tales according to social types, that is, examine the tales as representative of customary attitudes and patterns peculiar to the major protagonist who carries the action, we would find the following principal types:14

magician (2) huntsman (4)
drummer (1) elf (1)
thief (2) gambler (1)
merchant (1) water nixie (1)
goldsmith (1) cook (1)
miller's daughter (4) musician (1)
miller's apprentice (4) journeyman (1)
shoemaker (1) army surgeon (1)
woodcutter's daughter (2) king (1)
woodcutter's son (1) God (2)
servant (8) St. Joseph (1)
Jew (1) Virgin Mary (2)
shepherd (2) hermit (1)
blacksmith (1) soldier (9)
fisherman (2) tailor (10)
foundling (1) thumbling (2)
daughter of a rich man (2) prince (17)
son of a rich man (1) princess (12)

In addition there are seventy-eight tales in which farmers, poor people, sons and daughters of poor people, and peasants play major roles. Then there are twenty-seven tales about animals. In keeping with the oral tradition, the Grimms referred to their characters in terms of their social class, family standing, or profession. Here and there they used typical names such as Hans, Heinz, Lise, Else, and Gretel to stress the common quality of their protagonist as a type of simple person, everyman, or lazy person.

The Grimms were eager to understand and trace commonalities and peculiar characteristics of their types—both social and tale—and so they very rarely accepted and printed tales that were too similar in theme and structure. Whenever they collected several versions of the same tale type, they would either combine these versions into one or alter the best of the versions—in any event, creating their own synthetic tale. By synthesizing social and tale types, the Grimms hoped to reveal customary behavior, and thereby enable readers to learn about general folk attitudes and draw conclusions about the right way to behave in given circumstances. In light of their empiricalethical bias, it is interesting to see how the forest serves in a majority of the tales as a kind of topos: it is the singular place that belongs to all the people; it levels all social distinctions and makes everyone equal. The forest allows for a change in the protagonist's destiny and enables the social type to distinguish him or herself.

The importance of concentrating on social types rather than on, for instance, tale types and motifs (in the manner often done by folklorists using the Aarne-Thompson type classification15 and the Thompson motif index16), is that doing so brings us closer to the historical reality of the Brothers Grimm and enables us to learn more about their personal proclivities in collecting, selecting, and rewriting the tales. Furthermore, it may also help us learn something about the life of particular social types during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, conditions surrounding the type, and different attitudes toward the type. The Grimms spent their early childhood in the country and were strongly attached to the agrarian customs and ways of life which they began studying closely when they were young. Class and legal distinctions were made clear in their home, especially by their magistrate father. The Grimms' tales are filled with depictions of agrarian types, artisans, and townspeople, and their idiomatic expressions and proverbs were noted down by the Grimms and incorporated into the tales.17 In general, then, their tales tend to blend their ideal notions of the people, their trust in a monarchical constitutional state, and their empirical findings about customs and law that reveal what they believed were basic truths about the origins of language and Gemeinschaft.

To illustrate how they worked with social types and the significance of these types for their tales, I want to concentrate on two different tale cycles that focus on the soldier and the tailor and the normative patterns that evolve from the action of the tales. Often it is obvious that the original teller of the tale must have been a soldier or tailor or someone who shared their experiences, and that their representations formed the basis of the later work done by other storytellers and, eventually, the Grimms. However, I shall not focus on the relationship of the original storyteller or the source of the text as Rölleke often does. This is not because I dismiss this approach but because I feel that the changes, stylization, and subjective selection process of the Grimms is more important for a comprehension of the total meaning of the tales in their socio-historical context. As I have already remarked, the Grimms were more than just midwives; they conceptualized many of the tales and lent them their indelible substantive mark.

There are ten soldier tales in the Children's and Household Tales:18 "The Three Snake Leaves," "How Six Made Their Way in the World," "Brother Lusting," "Bearskin," "The Devil's Sooty Brother," "The Blue Light," "The Devil and his Grandmother," "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes," "The Boots of Buffalo Leather," and "The Grave Mound."19 The sources for these tales vary greatly: Johann Friedrich Krause, a former soldier; Dorothea Viehmann, a peasant woman; the landed-gentry family, the von Haxthausens; literary works published by Friedmund von Arnim and Philipp Hoffmeister. The original sources of all ten tales were evidently soldiers themselves, and the relatively high percentage of soldier's tales in the Grimms' collection is most likely a direct result of the Napoleonic Wars and the vast increase of soldiering as a profession in the European population.

Ever since standing armies became widespread in the seventeenth century, more and more men from the peasantry and lower classes were recruited as common soldiers.20 By the eighteenth century there was a definite shift in the social and economic structure of the German principalities due to the rise of the military as a dominant political force. To keep standing armies and increase their power, the German sovereigns had to levy taxes on the populace at large. As the officer corps developed and played a role in the administration of different regions, the army elite formed a caste that exercised great influence in domestic and foreign policies. Moreover, the code of discipline and punishment and the actual regimentation within the army anticipated the type of control that would be utilized in schools, prison systems, insane asylums, and factories as society became more rationalized and institutionalized. The common soldier's lot was miserable.

As a member of the standing army, the common soldier had few rights and had to undergo long periods of strict drilling and guard duty during peacetime. Although soldiers were allowed to have another trade on the side, their first obligation was to the army, and they were under constant surveillance by the officers to make sure that they would not desert. Corporal punishment was the rule for any offence, and death sentences were common for desertion and at times for disobeying orders. The leisure time of soldiers was generally spent drinking and frequenting taverns where camp followers and easy women were to be found. During wartime, the soldiers suffered immensely because their food and clothing were scant; they were more like canon fodder than anything else. Since the peasantry and the bourgeois town and city dwellers were obligated to house the soldiers and pay for their maintenance, there was a distinct antipathy toward both the military establishment and the soldiers, often considered the dregs of society. Indeed, even the so-called "dregs," the common soldiers, did not like to serve in the army and did not think highly of their military commanders. As soon as a soldier found a good reason to resign or desert, he did. Very rarely did a common soldier have anything good to say about the army as an institution. The major factors that kept most soldiers in a standing army were money (even if it was not much) and the threat of punishment.

Given these general conditions, it is not by chance that most of the Grimms' tales reveal the common soldier's dissatisfaction with the treatment he receives from his superiors. Moreover, the tales also incorporate the general anti-military sentiment common among the peasants and the bourgeoisie. Of the ten tales that focus on the soldier, eight of them deal with discharged or ex-soldiers, who are down and out and want to gain revenge on the king or their former officers. One tale deals with a poor farmer who enlists and becomes a hero for the fatherland (perhaps a reference to the Napoleonic Wars) while another depicts three soldiers who desert. The general purpose in all these tales, the motive of the protagonists that stamps the action, is the struggle to overcome a desperate situation. The ex-soldier wants to survive a bad experience as soldier. None of the protagonists starts with an idealistic goal. The last thing on their minds is rescuing or marrying a princess (although that might occur). On the contrary, the ex-soldiers all want simply to get by and obviously, if possible, raise their social status. They have nothing to lose, and this is the reason that the soldier protagonist is, without exception, fearless. Yet, bravery is not what society demands from a soldier if he wants to be reintegrated and accepted—especially when that society is hostile toward the military and expects correct behavior according to the Protestant ethic. So a soldier's integrity must be tested, and often the forest plays a role in determining his destiny—for it is here that the soldier is not only tempted by evil forces but also given an equal chance to be recognized.

For instance, it is in the forest that the discharged soldier, "full of rage" (p. 274) against the king in "How Six Made Their Way in the World," finds the extraordinary companions who help him gain vengeance on the king. The two discharged soldiers in "The Devil's Sooty Brother" and "Bearskin" meet the devil in the forest, and he enables them to procure money and marry well. The discharged soldier in "The Blue Light" meets a witch in the forest who facilitates his discovery of the light that, in turn, helps him marry a king's daughter and punish the king. One of the soldiers in "The Devil and his Grandmother" must go into the forest to visit the devil's grandmother to solve the devil's riddles and save their souls. The soldier in "The Boots of Buffalo Leather" gets lost in the forest, helps a king overcome robbers, and is rewarded for his fearlessness.

If it is not the forest where the soldiers must prove themselves, then it will still be outside in the fields or a graveyard. With the exception of "The Three Snake Leaves," in which the enlisted soldier fights for the fatherland, all the soldier tales depict ex-soldiers, who must go outside society and make pacts with unconventional figures such as the devil, the devil's grandmother, or a witch to attain their goals. Even in "The Three Snake Leaves," the enlisted soldier, who marries a king's daughter, is murdered by her and can only gain justice through the magic of the snake leaves. Despite the pacts with suspicious creatures, the ex-soldiers, always fearless, remain their own men. That is, they never lose their souls to the devil or witch but outsmart them.

If we were to draw a composite picture of the common soldier in the Grimms' tales, he would be fearless, cunning, virtuous, generous, honest, opportunistic, and ambitious. An exception here is Brother Lustig, who nevertheless possesses many of the above attributes. These attributes are always manifested in a manner that allows the soldier to gain retribution for the mistreatment he received in the army. On one level, it would be possible to argue that the Grimms favored the soldier tales because of the slights they themselves experienced in a rigid class society. From a psychological point of view, it would be interesting to study their fondness for the soldier tales as compensatory narratives; and this would also work on a more social level—for certainly the tales were socially symbolic acts of creation by the original narrators, and they contained their wish—fulfillments to gain revenge against their superiors, even if this meant metaphorically aligning themselves temporarily with the devil. That the soldiers' are good if not better men than their kings and superiors is proven by the way in which the soldiers keep their hearts pure. (It is this basic innocence or purity of heart that permits even Brother Lustig to gain a place in heaven.)

The common lot of the soldiers in the Grimms' tales indicates a definite sympathy for their social condition and the need to improve their treatment, both in the army and in society. After all, they have served their king and country and should be rewarded. Unlike women, who are rarely encouraged in the tales to assume an active role in determining their destiny, the soldiers as men are expected to become socially useful and fight for their goals. Heroines are generally portrayed as domestic figures or figures who need domestication. Heroes are generally adventurers who need experience and a touch of respectability to become successful as public figures. Here the soldier tales reflect the clear nineteenth-century patriarchal notions about gender roles that the Grimms shared with their society at large: the male hero must prove himself by asserting himself and showing through his behavior to what extent he is graced by God. Implicit in the normative behavior of the "good" soldier is a patriarchal reinforcement of the Protestant ethic.

The tales about tailors also exemplify the Grimms' social and religious creed and are closely related to the soldier tales. There are eleven such narratives in all: "The Brave Little Tailor," "The Tailor in Heaven," "The Magic Table, The Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack," "Thumbling's Travels," "The Two Travelers," "The Clever Little Tailor," "The Bright Sun Will Bring It to Light," "The Glass Coffin," "Sharing Joys and Sorrows," "The Gifts of the Little Folk," and "The Giant and the Tailor."21 Here again the sources used by the Grimms ranged greatly from the Hassenpflug family to publications by Franz Ziska, Emil Sommer, and Jakob Frey. Originally all of the tales were told by journeymen and townspeople. Almost all the tailors in the tales are journeymen or apprentices; none are master tailors. Unlike the soldiers, who are uniquely portrayed as sympathetic and admirable figures, the tailors are more differentiated as protagonists. On the one hand, they appear to be shifty and dubious characters reflecting the attitudes of townspeople toward men who were often out of work and wandered from town to town. (Ever since the middle ages the profession of tailoring was not highly regarded because it did not demand much skill or material. Nor did one have to be exceptionally strong, so that the weaker sons were generally apprenticed to master tailors. In addition, there were so many tailors that a tailor's life was generally one of poverty.22) On the other hand, the tales also depict some industrious tailors bent on overcoming difficult obstacles and desirous of becoming respected citizens in society. These characters use their wit and skills to try to become master tailors or better and win admiration because of their shrewdness.

Although some of the Grimms' sources date back to the fifteenth century, there is little doubt that the tales tend to characterize the hazards and vicissitudes in the lives of the tailors as they traveled from town to town and job to job in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The eighteenth century saw a change in the structured lives of tailors.23 Formerly the guilds had exercised great control over employment, prices, and conditions in the trade, but with the growth of manufacturing, the establishment of clothing shops, and the expansion of cities, there was a gradual shift leading to their weakening. This development meant that many apprentices and journeymen did not have to join a guild to find employment. Or, the trade succumbed to the free market and brutal competition for customers. Whereas the guild masters (Zunftmeister) of each town or locality had customarily divided the work among themselves and had provided training and housing for apprentices and journeymen, this system was becoming obsolete by the beginning of the nineteenth century. As Wolfgang Renzsch points out:

A very small group of well-to-do important master tailors faced a large number of tailors who could only make a miserable living. To be sure it was relatively easy to establish oneself as a master tailor because the trade did not demand much of an initial capital investment. But the leap from a type of proletarian existence as craftsman must have been enormously difficult. The medium-sized shops—shops with approximately three to five journeymen—were very scarce.24

In fact, since it was so difficult to make a decent living as master tailor, most remained journeymen for the majority of their lives, and they were constantly looking for better situations. Given the hardships tailors endured, it is no surprise to find them cutting corners and resorting to dubious means to make a profit or to make a living. Consequently, there is an underlying attitude of suspicion and awe toward tailors in the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales: the tailor is not to be trusted. He is often boastful, tricky, and sly. On the other hand, there are also the good souls, the industrious tailors who uphold the good name of their craft and demonstrate that they can do solid work. Yet, whether the tailor be cunning, carefree, or hardworking, he is more often than not portrayed as a wanderer, someone in search of a better situation than tailoring.

Almost all the tales begin with the tailor either on his journey or about to set out on a journey. The plucky fellow in "The Brave Little Tailor" starts out to show the world how brave he is right after he has revealed how stingy he is in his dealings with an old peasant woman. The tailor's sons in "The Magic Table, The Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack" must leave their father's house under duress and learn other (certainly more profitable) trades that ultimately free their father from tailoring. The tiny fellow in "Thumbling's Travels" goes out into the world and learns how difficult it is to work as a tailor's apprentice. The tailor in "The Two Travelers" comes to realize that he must give up the carefree life and settle down if he is to be happy and successful. The simpleton tailor in "The Clever Little Tailor" is the one who solves the riddle of the princess and abandons tailoring to marry her. A starving tailor's apprentice kills a Jew on the road in "The Bright Sun Will Bring It to Light" so he can establish himself in a nearby town. A lucky young tailor in "The Glass Coffin" gets lost in a forest and eventually rescues a princess, who becomes his wife. In "The Gifts of the Little Folk" another tailor has luck on a journey and is rewarded with gold by the little folk. Finally, a boastful tailor in "The Giant and the Tailor" leaves his workshop to see what he can see in the forest and is eventually cast out by a giant because he is such a nuisance.

There are two basic motifs in these tales that are related: 1) either the tailor wants to abandon his trade and move on to something better because the trade (perhaps like spinning) is unprofitable and dreary; or, 2) the protagonist learns how to settle down and become an established, more responsible tailor. Here again the forest or the great wide world is the domain where the tailor is given a chance to change and where his fate is decided. For instance, the brave little tailor meets the giant in the forest, demonstrates his skills and courage, and later performs amazing feats in the forest to become king. The tailor's three sons in "The Magic Table, the Gold Donkey, and the Club in the Sack" and Thumbling have adventures in the forest and outside world which test their valor and cunning before they settle down. This is also the case with the tailor in "The Two Travelers," who is sorely tested and loses his eyesight in the forest. It is through the loss of sight that he regains a sense of priorities, and it is in the forest that he learns to see again. The forest also appears in "The Glass Coffin," "The Gifts of the Little Folk," and "The Giant and the Tailor" as the place where the tailors can attain a sense of themselves and acquire fortune if they put their talents to good use. If they fail, as in the case of the tailor in "The Giant and the Tailor," they are severely punished. "The Tailor in Heaven," "The Bright Sun Will Bring It to Light," and "Sharing Joys and Sorrows" are all about tailors who are either cocky or cunning and endeavor to make their way through the world by tricking and exploiting others.

As in the soldier's tales, there is a normative behavior pattern established by the protagonist's comportment. The good tailor is indeed cunning but also compassionate, hardworking, generous, and brave. More often than not he is searching for a secure place in society and must prove he is worthy enough to meet society's demands and win this place, one that is generally above his station. The good tailor is one who becomes a king or gets rich because he makes the best of his talents. The bad tailor is the drunk; the murderer; the arrogant man, who lacks compassion; and who takes little notice of the rights of his fellow human beings.

The appeal of the male protagonists, whether they be tailors or soldiers, is that they demonstrate a distinct willingness to rectify social injustices, particularly when they are class-related. Although the Grimms did believe in a class society and in maintaining distinctions among different groups of people, they also believed in social mobility and universal respect for a person's qualities—no matter what the person's class was or what trade a person plied. In fact, as time passed, their sentiments against class distinctions and the aristocracy grew more radical.25 Such a progressive turn in their politics was merely the logical outcome of their democratic sentiments that were embedded in their folklore projects from the beginning. This is why the forest as a topos is so important in their tales, and it also was evidently important in the minds of the oral narrators—especially when they depicted the soldier or tailor in need of overcoming prejudices or searching for some magical help to bring about a new sense of social justice.

In 1852 Wilhelm H. Riehl, a remarkable political thinker and folklorist, who was a contemporary of the Grimms, wrote a book entitled Land und Leute, in which he discussed the significance of the forest for the German people:

In the opinion of the German people the forest is the only great possession that has yet to be completely given away. In contrast to the field, the meadow, and the garden, every person has a certain right to the forest, even if it only consists in being able to walk around it when the person so desires. In the right or privilege to collect wood and foliage, to shelter animals and in the distribution of the so-called Losholz from communal forests and the like, there is a type of communist heritage that is rooted in history. Where is there anything else that has been preserved like this other than with the forest? This is the root of genuine German social conditions.26

Further on, Riehl stated:

It is generally known that the notion of privately owned forests developed only very late with the German people, and this was a gradual development. Forest, pasture, and water are according to ancient German basic law to be open to common use of all the people in the region (Markgenossen). The saying of Wald, Weide und Wasser (forest, pasture, and water) has not yet been entirely forgotten by the German people.27

Despite the ideological tendentiousness of the above remarks and also in some of Riehl's other studies of social customs, everyday life, and social classes of the German people, he draws our attention here to the manner in which the Grimms accepted and portrayed the forest in their tales and also the manner in which various social types related to the forest. As Urwald, the forest is the seat of tradition and justice, and the heroes of the Grimms' tales customarily march or drift into the forest, and they are rarely the same people when they leave it. The forest provides them with all they will need, if they know how to interpret the signs.

The Grimms themselves were fascinated by the forest and, by extension, all that gave rise to what constituted German culture—language, law, and craftsmanship. They considered the tales that they collected signs and traces of the past and present that enabled them to glean essential truths about the German people. This is ultimately why the social types such as the soldier and the tailor and topoi such as the forest need further study if the Grimms' cultural investment in the Children's and Household Tales is to be fully grasped. After all, it was through their persistent hard work, integrity, cunning, devotion to an ideal of the German people, and their belief in the Protestant ethic that they advanced in society and provided us with an Erziehungsbuch to be used with great care. Yet, even more than an Erziehungsbuch, their collection is historically like an enchanted forest that can illuminate the past while providing hope for the future. We need only learn to read the signs.


1 Jack Zipes, tr. and ed., The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (New York: Bantam. 1987), p. 92.

2 See such other tales as "The Girl without Hands," "The Robber Bridegroom," "Fitcher's Bird," "The Six Swans," "The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn," "The Golden Goose," "The Miller's Drudge and the Cat," "The Two Traveling Companions," "The Donkey Lettuce," "Simelei Mountain," "The Three Green Branches," "The Hazel Branch."

3 Hermann Grimm, Gustav Hinrichs, and Wilhelm Schoof, eds., Briefwechsel zwischen lacob und Wilhelm Grimm aus der Jugendzeit, 2nd rev. ed. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1963), p. 49. "Die einzige Zeit, in der es möglich wäre, eine Idee der Vorzeit, wenn Du willst der Ritterwelt, in uns aufgehen zu lassen, und aus den Sitten zu treten, die uns vorund nachher einengen, wird jetzt gewöhnlich in einen Wald verwandelt, in dem wilde Tiere herumgehen, (z.B. Wölfe, mit denen man heulen muss um mit ihnen nur leben zu können.) Ich glaube ich hätte von Natur Neigung dazu gehabt; ein beständiges Warnen davor und mein Trieb gehorsam zu sein, und dankbar—haben sie unterdrückt und ich kann nicht anders als froh darüber sein, da einer oder einige doch nichts Rechtes tun können, oder ich leicht in die falsche Manier gekommen war."

4 Gabriele Seitz, Die Brüder Grimm: Leben—Werk—Zeit (Munich: Winkler, 1984).

5 See "The Fight Over Fairy-Tale Discourse: Family, Friction, and Socialization" in Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (New York: Methuen, 1983), pp. 134-69; and Lucia Borghese, "Antonio Gramsci und die Grimmschen Märchen" in Brüder Grimm Gedenken, ed. Ludwig Denecke, Vol. 3 (Marburg: Elwert, 1981): 374-90.

6 Eugen Weber, "Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales," Journal of the History of Ideas, 42 (1981): 93-113.

7 Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984). In particular, see "Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose," pp. 9-72.

8 Cf. Elfriede Moser-Rath, Predigtmärlein der Barockzeit: Exempel, Sage, Schwank und Fabel in geistlichen Quellen des oberdeutschen Raums (Berlin, 1964); Rudolf Schenda, "Orale und literarische Kommunikationsformen im Bereich von Analphabeten und Gebildeten im 17. Jahrhundert," Literatur und Volk im 17. Jahrhundert: Probleme populärer Kultur in Deutschland, eds. Wolfgang Brückner, Peter Blickle, and Dieter Breuer (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1985), pp. 447-64; Rudolf Schenda, "Vorlesen: Zwischen Analphabetentum und Bücherwissen," Bertelsmann Briefe, 119 (1986): 5-14.

9 Peter Taylor and Hermann Rebel, "Hessian Peasant Women, Their Families, and the Draft: A Social-Historical Interpretation of Four Tales from the Grimm Collection," Journal of Family History, 6 (Winter, 1981): 347-78. Hereafter page references cited in the text.

10 For information about the sources, see Heinz Rölleke, ed., Kinder-und Hausmärchen, Vol. 3 (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1980), pp. 441-543.

11 Dietz-Rüdiger Moser, "Theorieund Methodenprobleme der Märchenforschung," Ethnologia Bavaria, 10 (1981): 61.

12 Moser, "Theorieunder Methodenprobleme," p. 61.

13 See Alice Eisler, "Recht im Märchen," Neophilologus, 66 (1982): 422-30.

14 The number in parentheses indicates the total number of tales in which the social type plays the major role in the narrative.

15 Cf. Antti Aarne, The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, trans, and enlarged by Stith Thompson, 2nd rev. ed., FF Communications Nr. 3 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedekatemia, 1961).

16 Cf. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols. (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1955).

17 Cf. Wolfgang Mieder, "Wilhelm Grimm's Proverbial Additions in the Fairy Tales" and "Sprichwörtliche Schwundstufen des Märchens. Zum 200: Geburtstag der Brüder Grimm," Proverbium, 3 (1986): 59-83; pp. 257-71 as well as his book "Findet: so werdet ihr suchen!" Die Brüder Grimm und das Sprichwort (Bern: Peter Lang, 1986).

18 If one were to include Herr Fix und Fertig, which was part of the 1812 edition (source: Johann Friedrich Krause) and eliminated in 1819, there would be eleven soldier tales. I have translated this tale as Herr Fix-It-Up in my The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, pp. 647-50.

19 The titles in German are: Die drei Schlangenblätter, Sechse kommen durch die ganze Welt, Bruder Lustig, Bärenhäuter, Des Teufels russiger Bruder, Das blaue Licht, Der Teufel und seine Grossmutter, Die zertanzten Schuhe, Der Stiefel von Büffelleder, and Der Grabhügel.

20 The following remarks about soldiers are based to a large extent on the findings of Jürgen Kuczynski, Geschichte des Alltags des deutschen Volkes, 1650-1810, Vol. 2 (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1981).

21 The German titles are as follows: Das tapfere Schneiderlein, Der Schneider im Himmel, Tischlein deck dich, Goldesel und Knüppel aus dem Sack, Däumerlings Wanderschaft, Die beiden Wanderer, Vom klugen Schneiderlein, Die klare Sonne bringt's an den Tag, Der gläserne Sarg, Lieb und Leid teilen, Geschenke des kleinen Volkes, and Der Riese und der Schneider.

22 Cf. Frieder Stöckle, ed., Handwerkermärchen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1986), pp. 7-39. For a general picture of the living and working conditions of the artisans in Germany, see Reinhard Sieder, Sozialgeschichte der Familie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1987), pp. 103-24. This chapter deals with "Die Familien der Handwerker."

23 Cf. Geoffrey Crossick and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, eds., Shopkeepers and Master Artisans in Nineteenth-Century Europe (London: Methuen, 1984); and Wolfgang Renzsch, Handwerker und Lohnarbeiter in der frühen Arbeiterbewegung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980).

24 Renzsch, Handwerker und Lohnarbeiter, pp. 71-72.

25 Cf. Jacob's 1848 speech that he held in the Church of Paul in Frankfurt, "Über Adel und Orden," in Reden und Aufsätze, ed. Wilhelm Schoof (Munich: Winkler, 1966), pp. 63-69.

26 Gunther Ipsen, ed., Die Naturgeschichte des deutschen Volkes (Leipzig: Kröner, 1935), p. 73.

27 Ipsen, ed., Die Naturgeschichte, p. 73.

Christa Kamenetsky (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8087

SOURCE: "Folktale Characters," in The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics: Folktales and the Quest for Meaning, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 81-97.

[In the following essay, Kamenetsky describes folktale character types in the Grimms' tales and presents Wilhelm Grimm's view of the significance of folk stories.]


Mythical and epic origins determined not only the deeper meaning of folktales but also the nature and dimensions of their characters, according to the Brothers Grimm. Folktale characters appeared in many forms, some human, some super-human, some in the shape of birds, fish, animals, plants, trees, or even stars and stones. Creatures of land, sea, air, and the very firmament above were animated and alive, spoke with a human voice, and had a human soul.1 They laughed, wept, and took an active part in human thoughts and endeavors, assumed various human shapes, and ultimately returned to their original forms. A clear line of division between the animate and inanimate world did not exist among the folktale characters of long ago, for in one way or another they all shared in God's creation.2

Many folktale characters themselves embodied the mythical powers of good and evil. Whereas in myths and epics there had been gods and goddesses, in folktales often these were in human shapes while the magic power of the gods was transferred to heroes or to magic objects. In that sense, magic objects in folktales were mythical too, for they aided the hero in his struggle or protected him in times of danger. Wizards, witches, magic wands, magic potions, and magic spells all had their mythical counterparts in various cultures, and so did the very power capable of transformation used to perform great feats or to escape a foe. As the theme of metamorphosis was deeply rooted in world mythology, explained Wilhelm, so also the smaller magic objects like golden apples, the water of life, or the speaking well represented echoes of myths and epics. One might only recall the Edda's reference to Idun's magic apples, the water of Mimir's well, or the speaking falcon in the myth of Thjalfi to recognize their echoes in folktales.3

In his discussions of folktale heroes, Wilhelm Grimm drew upon many comparisons with heroes of German and Germanic myths and epics, especially while identifying forces of good and evil. Among others, he referred to Sigurd and Siegfried, who were kind, courageous, fearless, and strong, while seeking a symbolic power of evil and treachery in Loki and Hagen. Yet, he also sought out for his comparison some heroes of Greek mythology and epic, be they the glorious Odysseus, Perseus, or the infamous Ajax. In facing the human struggle against the forces of evil, he said, folktale heroes everywhere affirmed a folk belief in the universal need for justice.4

Like the world of myth and epic, the folktale world was governed by such universal laws of justice. If a protagonist was unable in this life to assert himself by good deeds and strong actions because perhaps he was treacherously slain, justice would follow after his death. Of course, there were some humorous tales to which this rule did not apply, but in most folktales sooner or later justice would reign. If humans did not carry out justice, some spirits might appear in the shape of animals, fish, or birds to set things right. In the folktale "The Juniper Tree," for example, the spirit of the dead mother appeared in the shape of a white bird to avenge the murder of the little boy. Corresponding to the mythical theme of resurrection, a dead soul might rise again from the waters of the river to seek its love or its due revenge. In that sense, the speaking head of the dead horse Fallada in "The Goose Girl" might remind one of Mimir's head in Norse mythology, just as talking ravens in the folktale "The Seven Ravens" might evoke the mythical image of Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory), the wise birds of Wotan.

In folktales, as in myths and epics, the old God or Eternal Justice most often would come to the aid of those who were innocent. From the mistletoe to the dwarfs working with metals underground, numerous examples show how the folktale world sided with the one who was at a natural disadvantage. This aspect was an integral part of the universal folk belief in justice.5

Folktale characters also shared with characters of myths and epics certain exaggerated features that, at least to some degree, set them apart from reality. Often, they were very tall or very small, very clever or very dumb, very fast or very slow, very powerful or very weak. Whatever happened in folktales was not told on a human scale but rather in superdimensional or diminutive terms. With respect to human emotions and ethics, too, there were no in-between situations. A person was either very sad or very happy, very wicked or very good. Such an exaggeration, both in physical and spiritual terms, added a powerful emotional appeal to folktale characters and plots, because it enhanced with clarity the necessity and probability of any given situation while adding suspense to the folktale's action.

Wilhelm urged modern storytellers and editors of folktales to respect their element of exaggeration, as it represented a significant heritage of epic literature and the folk tradition. An attempt to reduce a folktale character or action to human size by cutting it down or softening some traits meant to deprive the folktale character of its mythical dimensions. In some cases such a reduction might even deprive the story of its emotional appeal and its innate sense of humor.

Another mythical quality of the folktale character was its reflection of naivete and purity, both of which were an integral part of Naturpoesie that was also evident in myths and epics. Characters possessing such radiant qualities remained untouched by the turmoil of event, they were immune to temptations and even to a head-on attack by the dark forces of evil. According to Wilhelm Grimm, it was the folktale character of Boots who best represented these qualities. As such, Boots certainly was not a modern invention but had numerous predecessors in myths, epics, folk books, and legends.

In trying to determine the most predominant characters in the common folktale, Wilhelm Grimm called attention to the following types: Boots (Dummling; Dümmling), The Giant and Tom Thumb (der Riese and der Däumling, Daumesdick, or dwarf), the Fool (der Narr, der Laienbürger, or Schildbürger), the Braggart or Liar (der Aufschneider or Lügner), the Thief (der Dieb), and the Practical Joker or Brother Jolly (Bruder Lustig).6 He pointed out in his analysis that especially Boots, the Giant, and Tom Thumb bore a strong relationship to characters known in mythology and some older literary sources, whereas the Fool, the Braggart, the Liar, the Thief, and the Practical Joker were more closely related to characters in the German Volksbücher (folk books) and other legends dating back to the Middle Ages, including Baron von Münchhausen and Merry Tyll (Till Eulenspiegel).

Boots was the "Dummling" or "Dümmling" in German folktales, a sort of male Cinderella. His name derived from the word dumm, which may mean naive or dumb but not necessarily stupid in the ordinary sense, for he was wise in his own way and usually also successful at the end. He was the abused fellow who was forced to sleep in the ashes or under the stairwell, to scrub the floors, and to do the meanest jobs. Yet even though he was kicked around, despised, ridiculed, and rejected, he never turned angry nor plotted revenge. Suffering silently, he remained kind, loving, patient, and sincere. The evil nature of others simply left his soul untouched.

In focusing on the quality of naivete that marked the character of Boots, Wilhelm compared him to the legendary British Perceval (Parzival), who was also called the tumbe klare, suggesting that even though both characters appeared to be dumb, dull, and a bit slow-witted to everyone around, they had in common a certain inner clarity and purity that set them apart from others and also above fate. Unrelated to worldly cleverness, their wisdom consisted of a pure heart and a clear moral vision. Both saw and judged the world only with the heart. Free from greed and vanity, they were unaware of their goodness and also free of calculation involving their own advantages.7

Wilhelm compared Boots to the naive character of Rennewart in an old French legend who, in spite of having to render the meanest services in the kitchen, never lost the innocence of his heart. Wilhelm also compared him in his innocence and kindness to the radiant Norse sun god, Balder, who was mortally wounded by the mistletoe yet, according to the Edda, had risen after death. There were also parallel traits in the characters of Sigurd and Siegfried, both of whom were remembered in folk tradition as innocent heroes who died at treacherous hands.

For centuries, Boots had always been a favorite folktale character among children and grown-ups, mainly because he was always good-willed, good-humored, and kind. When people and events turned against him, his inner strength and joyous disposition helped him to overcome all adversaries and fate itself. Somehow he always managed to come out on top, for usually a good spirit protected and saved him in a miraculous way. Even if he died in a folktale, his innocence and purity remained triumphant, for he would live on forever in the hearts of listeners.

Why was it Boots and not Ashputtel or Cinderella whom Wilhelm Grimm singled out as a predominant folktale type? Judging by the known variants in the oral and printed variants of related tales in the European folktale tradition, this character type was predominantly male, not female. Still, at his time, Boots was more dominant in folktales than Ashputtel, as far as this type of naive character was concerned. Undoubtedly, this conclusion was based on his definition of the type.

In Wilhelm's view, the "core" of the Boots tale did not involve a change of fortune or status (from rags to riches) but rather the character's retention of purity and naivete. He emphasized in this connection some dominant ethical dimensions derived from the theme of justice. Boots did not passively wait for his good fortune, he wrote, and neither was the happy ending merely a result of good luck. He was successful not because he was lucky, said Wilhelm, but because he deserved it. In such a reversal of fortune the folktale firmly expressed the folk belief in God's reign of justice—that justice would prevail whenever an innocent person was wronged or slain. Such endings ultimately gave proof of man's optimism in the eternal victory of good over evil. By no means was such a character as Boots to be understood as a weak person. By showing him as a naive and altruistic person who accepted poverty and hardships with humility and kindliness, the folktale marked his inner strength.

The same inner strength that marked the character of Boots was also present in Ashputtel. Wilhelm Grimm's analysis shows that good looks, however, were irrelevant to her character, unless the "fair face" and graceful appearance became true mirrors of a beautiful soul. Naive folktale characters became "beautiful" only when they mastered their fate without suffering damage in the purity of their souls. To qualify for the Boots type, it was also not sufficient if a character suffered abuse and ridicule or had to sleep in the ashes. Prerequisites were an inner radiance, a kind and joyous disposition, and a purity of heart. By such prerequisites, Disney's Cinderella would not fit under this type, as she was too pretty and not radiant enough from within. What she altogether lacked was naivete.

The big, clumsy Giant was another significant folktale type. Yet he did not come alone: usually a small fellow outsmarted him at the end. Wilhelm Grimm recognized this folktale character also in variants in Norse mythology and in folktales around the world. His physical prowess, ill matched by his slow wit, made him a rather ridiculous figure, especially when he was outwitted by a little fellow like Tom Thumb called Däumling, who was named after the Daumen or thumb. Däumling means "little thumb." Folktales involving the Giant as a type usually were humorous in nature, as they underscored his bigness by contrasting him with the physical and mental opposite, be it a small and clever dwarf, a featherweight Jolly Taylor, a dwarf, or a witty Däumling. As foils, both the Giant and the Däumling were well-liked character types in many countries, for young and old everywhere enjoyed how the little guy teased the big fellow. It was especially humorous when the Giant first bragged about doing some impossible things and then was frightened out of his wits by the littlest creature. In some cases, the little guy, too, was a braggart when he tried to overcome some physical disadvantages in this manner, but unlike the Giant, he was usually successful in resolving difficult problems, simply by putting to work his mind.8

Wilhelm referred to a broad range of variants in folktales, myths, and legends as he discussed such stock characters of the Giant and Tom Thumb. In doing so, he was free from all domestic considerations that later so much bewildered educators as they contemplated the ethics of folktale characters and their possible influence on children. Of course, he knew that it was neither well-mannered nor decent of the Däumling to brag, to lie, to cheat, and to steal, but he felt that young and old gladly forgave him his tall tales and misdeeds, because he used them by law of compensation as a means of self-defense. Instead of being angry with him, they laughed at how he tricked his enemy. Besides, he pleased the audience by the ways in which he cleverly managed to live up to some of his most incredible promises. In the interest of folk humor and folk justice, people had come to embrace gladly in folktale characters what in real life they looked upon with contempt, said Wilhelm. This type of humor had been accepted since the Middle Ages, and it still appealed at the present.


The Brothers Grimm thought that folk books (Volksbücher or chapbooks) were one of the greatest sources of folktale characters, next to medieval manuscripts and epics. One of the most predominant character types that emerged from the folk books was the Fool. He was the silly character, known in German legends also as the Laienbürger (later called Schildbürger). Variants of this type could be found in the legendary Till Eulenspiegel (Merry Tyll), with his fool's cap, as well as in the Seven Swabians. In the German tradition, the female counterpart of the male Fool was dumb little Catherlieschen, who appeared in various folktales. In India, the male fool was known as Paramaria, in Finland as the giant Kullervo (in the epic of Kalevala), and in Ireland as Darly Duly.9 All of these characters pretended to be innocent while doing the most outrageous and absurd things. They carried out all orders literally yet in the wrong way, either because they didn't know better or because they truly enjoyed playing tricks on people. They appeared to be obedient to the letter of the law, and in spite of it, or because of it, they usually affected the very opposite. The humor arising from the related stories was derived from the stark contrast between what they hoped to achieve and what they actually did achieve. The endings of such fool's tales often held in store a surprise for the listeners: a completely unexpected turn of events that evoked cascades of laughter.

The Fool usually set out to do impossible things from the beginning to the end of the given story. He might climb to the sky on a thin blade of grass and slide down again on a rope made of hay. Wilhelm Grimm referred in this context to the tales numbered 112, 138, and 159 in the Kinder-und Hausmärchen, all of which focused on the Fool as the main character. He made reference to the legendary character of Baron von Münchhausen, but in comparative terms also to fools in several foreign collections, such as Norway or the Slavic countries. In Serbia the Fool appeared as King Beardless and in Ireland as Daniel O'Rourke. Still, Wilhelm felt that the Fool in some medieval tales of the tenth century emerged more convincingly than in all of these combined. As a genre, the fool's tale was unsurpassed in its humor, and as a character type, the Fool added life and laughter to folklore on the broadest scale.10

Another folktale character that could be traced back to the tradition of the Volksbücher was the Braggart or the Habitual Liar. He lied throughout the entire tale while maintaining the appearance of credibility. Granted, there were also some purely nonsensical tales in which eagles swam, fish flew, and hares skated on ice, yet in contrast with such stories or tales from the "Schlaraffenland," where the laziest man was king, the best liar's tales always retained some element of probability.

Many of the liar's tales depicted characters and used a language that were truly creative. By defying all laws of reason and logic, they had a liberating effect upon the listener's imagination. Wilhelm wrote that in such tales, "the human imagination satisfies the longing to use with full liberty that knife that cuts all restraints."11 These comments show that Wilhelm Grimm was far ahead of the European didactic age in which educators tried to find a moral purpose in every story they heard or read. Instead of looking for a moral or purpose in folktales, he recognized the need for imaginative stories and emotional freedom. He knew from his studies of medieval literature, as well as from his own love of the oral tradition, that braggarts, liars, and fools had a legitimate place in storytelling. Their humor was needed to bring vigor and warmth to the heart. Remarkable were his insights into the need for nonsense—the upside-down world of tomfoolery in the storytelling tradition—that was not always considered legitimate literature for children in the nineteenth century.

Wilhelm felt that compared with epic literature and some medieval legends and poems, many folktales of the oral tradition gave merely a weak reflection of the humor contained in the printed sources. The Modus florum of Ebert's transmission (Vol. 13, 20), for example, or the tales of Merry Tyll (Till Eulenspiegel) and of Baron von Münchhausen were unsurpassed in their vitality and humorous appeal. Some medieval literary tales, such as the old folkbook story of the king who promised his daughter to the one who would tell the biggest lies, were told so vigorously that the best living storyteller would have a hard time competing with them.

He felt it especially remarkable to what degree the medieval German Volksbücher had retained traces of the old folk speech that transmitted the humor of the Middle Ages in such a lively, direct, and colloquial way. Compared with the language of the Volksbücher, the language of folktales was sometimes a bit pale and repetitious. These observations on the language of the old folk books and their sources for folktale variants give significant insight into the reasons why both Wilhelm and Jacob considered some medieval literary sources worthy of inclusion in their folktale collection.

The Thief was another folktale character who had been well-known in the medieval folk-book tradition. In the Kinder-und Hausmärchen this character found its best expression in the tale "The Master Thief." Wilhelm compared this character with the trickster in North American Indian tales, finding him compatible in terms of his cleverness. Folktales depicting the Thief as the main character were meant for enjoyment, not for teaching vices or virtues. The character of the Thief was as timeless and poetic in folktales as he had been in myths and epic poetry. In whatever folk tradition he might appear, he was always in a humorous context.

Finally, there was the character of the Practical Joker, who in German folktales was best known as Brother Jolly (Bruder Lustig). He not only fooled people of all ranks and classes but even played jokes on Holy Peter and the Devil himself. Yet instead of receiving his due punishment at the end of the tale, he sometimes reaped the highest reward. In one case, he even managed to gain admittance into Heaven—not because he repented or was forgiven but because he used another clever trick.

Such a seemingly antimoralistic outcome in a folktale, explained Wilhelm, could also be found in certain blasphemous folk comedies. The outcome was always to be understood within a humorous context and not otherwise. Tales of this type were simply not meant to convey a useful lesson. He admitted that a type like Brother Jolly certainly taught us nothing except resourcefulness, cleverness, a bit of cheer. Yet wasn't that enough for a good story? Granted, all that Brother Jolly cared about was having a good time. Yet even if he seldom, if ever, worried about the difference between justice or injustice, good or evil, he was never malicious or ill-natured himself.

Why was Bruder Lustig so well-liked by young and old? He was popular because his tricks were humorous but without malice and because he himself was basically good-hearted. Above all, however, they liked him on account of his freedom of action. Without bothering about possible consequences, he took liberties that no one else did take, disregarding all taboos, rules, or obstacles, jumping over hurdles, and doing exactly what was strictly forbidden. In that sense he resembled Shakespeare's Falstaff, said Wilhelm, who, as a Fool, was as well-liked in Germany and elsewhere as was the German folktale character. Whether Brother Jolly appeared in the company of God or Holy Peter or as the Bear-Skinner (Barenhäuter), he consistently took advantage of them all and usually escaped punishment and death. Even when he was finally caught, he remained undefeated in his spirit.

Laughter and wit were always on Brother Jolly's side. He possessed neither the innocence of a Perceval nor the purity and inner radiance of Boots, but the audience warmed up to him because of his cheerfulness, self-confidence, defiance, and cleverness. Above all, however, they liked him because of his undefeated optimism and spirit of liberation. All of these qualities, claimed Wilhelm, represented an integral, lovable part of the native tradition and should never be changed.

Wilhelm Grimm accepted the full range of human characters that had been popular in the oral and printed tradition. As he embraced the folktale characters' purity, innocence, and generosity of heart, so he also accepted their nonsense, tomfoolery, thievery, trickery, and practical jokes. Such characters as tricksters, braggarts, liars, fools, and thieves were, of course, no ideal models for character training, yet together with the Dummling and the other good-hearted creatures, they expressed the full, vigorous spirit of the folk heritage, both at home and abroad. This was the spirit of Naturpoesie that taught children to appreciate life and nature without preaching.

The Grimms thought that cosmetic modifications or added moralities most certainly would detract from the vitality of the characters' poetic substance.12 They would also undermine the traditional folk humor that belonged to their substance. With all their exaggerated traits, both good and evil, these characters should be accepted just as they were and had been known for ages. He knew, of course, that some persons would raise objections. The Giant, believing in might above right, was often too rude and too crude; Tom Thumb showed off, lied, stole, and used sly tricks; and the Fool, the Braggart, the Liar, the Thief, and Brother Jolly were constantly engaged in outrageous, irreverent, and unlawful things. Yet essentially folktale characters yielded no more than what was already present in nature and life itself and also no more than what could be found in myths and epics. To soften such character traits even mildly meant to go against nature and against life as well, but especially against the folk tradition. It was a different matter, insisted Wilhelm, if one modified some crude expressions contained in the folk books and other medieval sources, for these were unrelated to the major characters or a given tale's substance. In referring to crude expressions Wilhelm had in mind the bawdy and crafty language used in some medieval sources, such as the works of Hans Sachs and Johann Fischart, which in an undiluted form might still shock some readers in our time.

Within the context of their medieval literary studies, both Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm concerned themselves intensively also with animal characters, especially with those related to the verse poem of Reynard the Fox. They looked for parallel characters in the oral folk tradition, be they in regard to the slyness of the fox, the viciousness of the wolf, or the gentleness of the dove. When, in cooperation with his brother, Jacob published in 1834 his six-hundred-page edition of Reinhart Fuchs (Reynard the Fox), he observed in his preface that the character types among the animals were modeled upon human types. Yet, they differed from human characters in that they admitted neither change nor development: a fox always remained sly, just as a wolf remained vicious and a dove gentle. The same was true for the animal characters in folktales, where, very much like in fables, some exaggerated human traits remained fixed to them throughout the ages and also throughout proverbs and stock expressions. In an essay "The Nature and Origin of Animal Tales,"13 Wilhelm emphasized the creatures' unchanging characters, noting that nothing else was said about their sins or virtues that fell outside of these stereotypes. In their actions, the animals usually followed their natural instincts. In spite of many variants and developments throughout history, their characters had essentially remained the same.

Both Brothers Grimm agreed that such characters should not be changed in the editing process either, as they were deeply rooted in epics, myths, and medieval folk literature. They searched in these animal epics, like in folktales, for some traces of Naturpoesie. In Wilhelm's essay "On the Mythological Significance of the Wolf,"14 which he published in the Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum in 1865, he called attention to the unchanging symbolic nature of animal characters that took on an almost fable-like rigidity. He also noted parallel traits based on tradition in fables, folktales, myths, and epics but especially with the animal characters in the fables of Aesop and Babrius.

In an essay that Jacob wrote in 1812 for Friedrich Schlegel's Deutsches Museum,l5 he presented his findings of a detailed comparative study of Reynard the Fox in various cultures, including France and the Netherlands. In discussing the language and motifs of this epic, he acknowledged its rootedness in various cultures and traditions. Among others, he referred to the Latin version of Echasis captivi (1043-1046), the Flemish Isengrimus by the poet Nivardus (about 1150), the Old French epic Roman de renart (between 1174 and 1250), and the Dutch version of Van den Vos Renarde (thirteenth century), comparing them to folktale variants that existed within a widespread naturally grown structure that resembled that of "branches and buds." His German sources, to which he also alluded with this organic simile, were the Middle High German Reinhart Fuchs by the poet Heinrich den Glichezare ( 1182), the Low German Reynke de Vos (1498), and some folkbook versions of the Middle Ages.

When Jacob responded to the animal epic in terms of expressing a feeling for home and country by writing: "It appears to me that I still sense in this epic the Germanic fragrance of the forest in the essential qualities and structure of these tales. . . ,"16 He did not think it was possible to tell which of the various epics had preceded the other, as far as the origin of the folktale characters was concerned. Rather, it satisfied his scholarly and personal interest to discover as many European variants of the tale as possible.

In France Jacob had prepared handwritten copies of the Old French Roman de renard, of which he attached to his essay a sample of his own vivid translation. In reflecting about the animal characters in this epic, he expressed his surprise at their correspondence with those of a Hessian folktale and also with respect to certain motifs that he had not seen in either the Low German, Flemish, or Dutch versions of the tale. Upon presenting to his readers the need for a more systematic exploration of animal-tale variants in the folk tradition, he appealed for their cooperation to collect for him stories in poetry, song, or prose, in a complete form or in fragments, about such creatures as the fox, the wolf, the bear, the dog, the cock, the sparrow, and the cat. He urged them to search for these in "remotely situated mountain and forest villages, where nature itself has granted something like a refuge even for the old customs and traditions."17 This appeal was similar to another one, designed on a much broader scale, that Jacob sent out as a Circular-Brief three years later, also with respect to his request for accuracy in the recording of such tales.

It is evident from both Wilhelm's and Jacob's discussion of animal characters that they considered them an integral part of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen.


The Grimms' various essays on folktale characters and types show that they were looking with particular interest for German and Germanic sources in order to obtain the native flavor of traditional folk characters in relation to their naivete and purity, a vigorous folk humor, or the symbolic language of Naturpoesie. In this connection, they used both oral and literary sources in complementary terms. In their editing and translation work with medieval literary sources, they were often informed by their oral folktale collections, and in their work with folktales, they were enriched by a close reading of medieval manuscripts and epics. The poetic and symbolic nature of myth and epics was common to both.

The Grimms were delighted whenever they came across a homey flavor in folktales, be it in the image of a native character, in a motif, or in a colloquial expression, one that, as Jacob put it, still carried the "fragrance of the native forest." On the other hand, their search for Naturpoesie in folktales was as universal as folk poetry itself, and they never lost sight of international and comparative perspectives. It is this broad-minded attitude that added a humanistic touch to their scholarship, also within the realm of folktales.

The humane aspects of folktales were derived from their rootedness in the reality of the past. They emanated a warm and intimate feeling for the Middle Ages, the countryside, the small towns and villages, and the simple life within them. Viewed from this perspective, folktale characters, too, could be partially considered a reflection of the Middle Ages, for they concerned themselves intimately with the life of the simple folk in forests and valleys as well as of kings, queens, princes, and princesses residing in hilltop castles and landed estates. As Wilhelm saw it, the main heroes and heroines of folktales were mainly descendants of simple peasants, shepherds, charcoal burners, fishermen, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and various other craftspeople, most of whom were engaged in a quiet and steady occupation.

As the folktale dwelt on exaggerated types rather than on unique individuals, it was self-evident that the historical reality of such characters had some definite limitations, but the setting, the structure of society, and the common-folk environment in villages and towns were reflections of reality. This was especially true in regard to the ways in which it mirrored poverty and hardships encountered by many characters at the beginning of the tales. To a large degree, such adverse conditions reflected the life of the common man as it had been throughout the centuries and as it still is to some extent today. Poverty in folktales, like cruelty and war, brought about suffering, tears, and unhappiness. Such conditions reflected the reality of life, and they belonged to the folktale world as they belonged to life because they always had been an integral part of the true experiences of mankind. Reading about such harsh life conditions would make us more humane, as it would induce us to take part in the life of others who were less fortunate than us.

In contrast to epic heroes who often were descendants of gods or kings or both, folktale heroes were mostly simple fellows and young girls of humble origin. They were unspoiled, innocent, and content with the bare necessities for survival. Yet poverty never made them greedy but rather fostered their altruism. They were used to getting along on a crust of bread, asked little or nothing for themselves, and were ready to share what little they had with others. Their ancestry was unknown, they inherited nothing, and they struggled for survival from day to day. Sometimes they were poor young orphans or semi-orphans forced to wander into the wide world to earn their daily bread. The little girl in "The Twelve Months" had to walk into the snowy woods with bare feet, clad only in a paper dress, to search for strawberries in the middle of the winter. The Star Child parted with her shirt and shared her last crust of bread to help a poor stranger; Hansel and Gretel were neither bitter nor angry when their parents deserted them in the dark forest, but understood their plight and prayed for God's help.18

Reminders of life's harsh reality were ever-present in folktales, said Wilhelm Grimm. This was so because they represented a truth with which the storytellers themselves had been well familiar. Having customarily come from the peasant class or the lower classes of society, they had experienced first-hand what it meant to be poor, thus projecting their own problems into the stories. Simple folk had always known such hardships, and in the past had not objected to rediscovering them again in the folktale world, because hardships made the stories more credible. Within the context of human hardships, even the character of the stepmother was realistic too, said Wilhelm Grimm. On and off, one could still hear and read reports in the newspapers about child abuse and child desertion that made one shiver. In such cases, it was usually extreme poverty, not an evil nature, that drove some parents to abandon their children—unfortunately even at the present time. In that sense, the stepmother represented some realistic traits derived from adverse conditions of the life of common folk rather than the portrayal of a monster.

But folktales also showed the bright side of life in terms of miracles, rich rewards, and happy endings that transformed all sadness into happiness: a dwarf would help the freezing little girl in the paper dress; a good child would be blessed by a rain of golden coins or a radiant new shirt embroidered with stars; and Hansel and Gretel would return to their father's house with boxes full of money to last them a lifetime. Such transformations of fate were not merely wishful thinking but rather a reflection of common-folk optimism based on their faith in eternal justice. Regardless of how cruel the human condition might be, they believed that justice would come to set things right.

Moreover, a struggle against the harsh reality would set the stage for the folktale character's courageous actions. Thus it was not the background of action but rather a needed challenge that brought out the best in the protagonists. It gave rise to hope, strength, and determination but especially to the power of love, which was capable of overcoming all powers of evil. In that sense, folktales did not present poverty and hardships as permanent conditions, for they were meant to be overcome. In struggling against the odds, folktale characters were blessed with hopeful actions but not crushed by the spirit of resignation. Sometimes they were assisted by helpers and miracles, but mostly they fended for themselves.

Folktale characters often had very little education, yet they were close to nature and possessed a fine intuition, a good common sense, and a remarkable wit. Some were more serious in nature whereas others were more humorous, but they all struggled against the odds and in the end usually overcame all obstacles—even if it meant to outwit the Devil himself. The folktale's portrayal of such a successful struggle showed, said Wilhelm, that the storytellers had a deep faith in the resourcefulness, wit, and ingenuity of the common folk.

Would some traditional folktale characters frighten children listening to the tales? Wilhelm did not think so. He emphasized that the reflection of adverse conditions of life would lead children to a strong feeling of empathy for those who were lonely, frightened, and abused and thus would humanize children in the best sense of the word. Such an effect could also be expected from listening to folktales involving evil stepmothers. In this connection, he referred to a legend of Stiefmütterchen (Little Stepmother),19 which is the German name for the pansy. The legend esssentially called attention to the plight of poor children by relating the story that the yellow and purple flower petals were the chairs for the mother's real children, while the small green leaves supporting the flower petals were the seats of the deprived children who had no chairs. What did this legend mean? Wilhelm thought that it reminded children of the lot of unfortunate creatures. Some children had no mother and were so poor that they didn't even have a chair to sit upon. The young listeners would realize by themselves, he thought, that these poor children did not deserve such a fate, and upon experiencing such a realization, they would extend to the children a feeling of warm sympathy in their prayers.

Wilhelm's views on reality undoubtedly reflected the Romantic vision of the child. With his own kindness he projected nothing but kindness into others, always believing that good would prevail.20 It is important to realize his own innocent and naive perspective on the world that was far removed from the perspective of gore and evil of which some critics are still accusing him in our time. His detached mythical view of the subject seemed to tame the dark and threatening forces in folktales, for he considered them merely an antithesis to the powers of love, goodness, empathy, and justice. Who but Wilhelm Grimm would have thought that the characters of a dragon or an evil stepmother were needed to arouse the listener's love and empathy for the suppressed? In this context, the unpleasant and potentially fearful aspects of folktale characters were not merely reflections of folk reality; they served to develop the child's sensitivity and love for others. The symbolic and literary interpretations of Max Lüthi, the aesthetic views of Hermann Bausinger, and the psychological views of Bruno Bettelheim21 are not so very far removed from such thoughts, although they are based on different premises and also follow different lines of argumentation.

Wilhelm not only addressed with his discussion questions of ethics and folklore in general but he also anticipated the needs of the child. Children exposed to such harsh characters and events would not at all feel depressed and dejected, he wrote, but liberated and free, for in the folktale hero's struggle against evil they would rediscover in their own soul a spark of warmth and affection for those who suffered or were lost or abandoned. These were the gentle and liberating forces of folktales that had a positive effect upon the child's soul. Folktales had a strange yet fascinating way of blending history with the present conditions of simple life, he observed, and, even more so, of transforming the world of reality by the power of the soul.

To the child, the folktale world was really a gentle world, he said, for if it seemed that "might was right" and that evil powers gained the upper hand, one should wait for the power of love and magic to take their effect. Folktales also had frail and gentle characters, those who merely smiled and transformed the world. These were the ones who won the greatest battles. The folktale's most touching moments were the ones that appealed to the heart. It was the greatest miracle of all when the innocent laughter of a frail little princess banished an evil spell or when a simple truth spoken by a small child destroyed a mighty castle of falsehood and pretense. A single tear, wept in sympathy for a suffering creature or human being, transformed a fearful monster into a loving prince. Such was the power of love that it changed the world. In this gentle, humanizing touch lay embedded the true magic of the folktale. Such thoughts, he said, were no idle dreams of an idealist. Feelings were as much a reality as the world outside, and the feelings that a child experienced in listening to a story were a powerful reality indeed.

A most humane aspect of the folktale was its power to console. In the folktale world no harsh reality would ever be present without its counterpart: hope, brotherly love, pity, empathy, or simple sharing. When, after a long and lonesome walk through the dark forest, Hansel comforted Gretel and both sent their prayers to God, all fear was wiped away and the listeners glowed in a feeling of warmth and affection. There was also faith in God, who would help those asking for his support, provided their hearts were innocent and pure. It was this faith that dominated the impression that a child would gain from a folktale, not the image of the harsh and cruel life conditions affecting the common man. As the protagonists struggled toward freedom, their love and resourcefulness would dominate in the end and push back the harsh reality with its powers of evil. In the focus of attention was the struggle itself, led on by hope. In that sense, folktales had much to offer to make the world more gentle and more humane.22

Sometimes folktale characters would only partially succeed in gaining such a freedom. In such a case, a character might discover to his dismay that he had retained the wing of a swan instead of an arm or that he had lost an eye along with his tears. Such elements were not arbitrary inventions of individual storytellers, claimed Wilhelm, but expressed symbolically traditional images revealing the loss of inner purity or the loss of a truth. Their origin could be traced back to myths and epics, where human symbols abounded within a sphere of vivid images of this kind. Such folktale symbols were as true to life as were the images of reality contained in others. No effort was needed through sermons or long explanations to convey their meaning to the child, because they spoke a language of true human experience that appealed directly to the heart.

The most significant thing that folktales had to offer, said Wilhelm, was that they taught us about ourselves, our inner resources, altruism, kindness, empathy, and genuine strength. This, too, was a reality, as it focused on the hidden powers of all humane aspects in this world that lay embedded in our souls. The folktale helped us to rediscover it and put it to work. There was poetic justice in the tale in which the Dummling gained at the end all of the fortunes, for he had suffered from abuse and ridicule. Yet it was more than that, said Wilhelm, namely "a lesson in poetry itself," for it spoke of the power of purity, goodness, truth, innocence, compassion, and love. Wherever such powers were evident, there was sunshine, there was Naturpoesie.

Finally, Wilhelm warned readers not to make folktale characters the object of a lesson or a moralistic example. Folktales never preached. Lessons derived from folktales were lessons in poetry, not in morality.23 Even though this poetry had not been the folktale's original purpose and the folktale was not told because of it, poetry was its natural attribute and the secret of its universal appeal. It developed from the folktale "as a fruit grows from a healthy blossom—without any additions" by a storyteller. The vivid images and symbols of this poetry needed no explanation, as the listening child would instantly recognize in them his own experiences, his compassion for others, or his own true self and his soul. Such a discovery gave the reader a feeling of elation while making him rejoice in his own better self and, above all, in his newly won relationship with others. In reading folktales, he would cast off the bondages of selfishness and falsehood and commit himself to the spirit of light, truth, and freedom.


1 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Berlin: Reimer, 1812). Preface.

2 The Grimms shared such Romantic thoughts with other German Romantic writers. These ideas were especially close to the philosophy of Friedrich W. J. Schelling. See Burton Feldmann and Robert D. Richardson, eds., The Rise of Modern Mythology: ¡680-1860 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1972), pp. 302-05.

3 Wilhelm Grimm, "Über das Wesen der Märchen," in Kinder-und Hausmärchen, 2d ed. (Berlin: Reimer, 1819), Introduction, pp. xxi-liv. The analysis of Wilhelm's ideas in relation to folktales is based on the unabridged text of his essay in the 1819 edition.

4 Wilhelm Grimm, "Über das Wesen der Märchen," in Gustav Hinrichs, ed. Kleinere Schriften von Wilhelm Grimm Vol. I (Berlin: Ferdinand Dümmlers Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1881), pp. 344-48; 350-51. For the reader's convenience, page references are given to the shorter version of this essay that is more readily available in Hinrich's edition.

5 Ibid., pp. 332. (See Wilhelm's notes on this account.)

6 Ibid., pp. 355-587.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., p. 335.

9 These detailed comparisons appear only in the original 1819 edition of the Kinder-und Hausmärchen but not in Hinrich's abridged versions of the introductory essays in Kleinere Schriften.

10 For a comprehensive discussion of German Volksbücher and their relevance to an understanding of the Grimms' concept of Naturpoesie, see Max Lüthi, "Europäische Volksliteratur" in Albert Schäfer, ed., Weltliteratur und Volksliteratur (Munich, Beck, 1972), pp. 55-80.

11 Wilhelm Grimm, "Über das Wesen der Märchen."

12 In the preface to the same edition Wilhelm wrote his famous words about an education in Naturpoesie (nature or folk poetry), which frequently have been mistranslated or misinterpreted as a didactic message: "Wir wollten indes durch unsere Sammlung nicht bloss der Geschichte der Poesie einen Dienst erweisen, es war zugleich Absicht dass die Poesie selbst, die darin lebendig ist, wirke: erfreue, wen sie erfreuen kann, und darum auch, dass es ein eigentliches Erziehungsbuch daraus werde." ("We wish to offer with our collection not only a service to the history of poetry but simultaneously the intention to make effective the poetry itself that is alive within it: to delight those who are capable of enjoying it. It is for this reason that it (the Kinder-und Hausmärchen) should become a true book of education."

13 Wilhelm Grimm "Über das Wesen und den Ursprung der Tierfabeln" and Grimm vol. 4 (1887), and Wilhelm Grimm, "Die mythische Bedeutung des Wolfes," Ibid. This essay was first published in Grimms' journal Altdeutsche Wälder (1813-1816). See also Jacob Grimm, Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin: Reimer, 1834).

14 See Dieter Hennig and Bernard Lauer, eds. Die Brüder Grimm. Dokumente ihres Lebens und Wirkens (Kassel: Verlag Weber & Weidemeyer, 1986), especially pp. 475-84 in reference to various works by the Brothers Grimm pertaining to "Reinhart Fuchs" (also called Reineke Fuchs or Reynke de Vos in fables) and related animal fables. The sources listed and discussed in this work were prepared on the basis of exhibits in the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, as well as in Berlin and Hanau, between 1985 and 1986.

15 Jacob Grimm, "Über das Wesen der Tierfabel," Aus den Kleineren Schriften von Jacob Grimm; Die Schriften der Brüder Grimm in einer Auswahl für das deutsche Volk (Berlin: Meijer & Jessen, 1911), pp. 343-63.

16 Ibid.

17 Jacob Grimm, "Reinhart Fuchs" Kleinere Schriften von Jacob Grimm vol. 4 (Berlin: Dümmler, 1869), pp. 53-63.

18 Hennig and Lauer, eds., p. 333.

19 Ibid., pp. 334-35.

20 Hermann Grimm, "Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm," in Literatur trans. Sarah Adams (Boston: Cupples, Upham & Company, Publ., 1886), pp. 254-85.

21 The ideas of these critics and others are discussed in Chapter 10.

22 Hennig and Lauer, eds., p. 335.

23 Ibid., pp. 336-37.

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Brothers Grimm World Literature Analysis