German Fairy Tales

~ Introduction ~


Do you know what a fairy tale is? Here's a test: Is this a fairy tale? "Once upon a time there was a kind and generous king who forgot to pay his termite insurance and lost his entire castle to termites, who ate heartily and lived happily ever after." I trust you're one for one. Question No. 2: Is this a possible story line for a fairy tale? Long ago and far away, there lived a prince. One day, dashing to his darling princess with an armful of gold and precious stones, he inadvertently knocks over a witch, who in her anger transforms the prince into a duck, who for his part waddles into the palace of the princess and quacks (er, explains) that the only way to release him from the duck-spell is for the princess to empty the palace pond overnight with a perforated teaspoon. The princess works and works, and cries and cries, but the pond remains full. Responding to her sobs, a little old (wo)man, to reward some kindness, completes the task while the princess sleeps. The prince (now no longer a duck) and princess marry and live happily ever after. Now, that has the makings of a fairy tale, right? You pass the test. Seriously, the definition of "fairy tale" is impossible to pin down because of the multitude of ever-changing variables. Entire books have been written on the nature of fairy tales. Among them are books that concentrate on such aspects as formal characteristics (Lüthi), genres (Röhrich), psychology (Bettelheim), pedagogy (Tatar), feminist concerns (Bottigheimer), epistemology (Metzger, ed.), sociology (Bottigheimer, ed.), and history (Ellis). A recent book by Christa Kamenetsky on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm has a threefold focus: historical, analytical, and critical. Scholars are also interested in the effect fairy tales have on children. Among their concerns are the violence, dishonesty, male chauvinism, and racial prejudice of some fairy tales. In the following paragraphs, I'll tell you what I consider important elements of fairy-tale form, content, and pedagogy. I think you will like the examples; most come from the 36 tales of my collection (to be added slowly to this web site), and the rest are drawn from other fairy tales in the 211-tale Kinder- und Hausmärchen of the Brothers Grimm.

In the world of fairy tales, many of the expectations of realism are suspended. Not only can animals talk, but mirrors can too, and so can bones and brooks. In fairy tales, witches can do the darndest things to people and non-people, little men can spin straw into gold, animals and even children can be made of gold, human hair can grow to dizzying lengths, coins can appear out of the blue, and the dead can even be restored to life. Characters in fairy tales take all these supernatural things for granted; they are never surprised when they encounter a witch or a giant, when they are given a sack that forever fills itself, or when a passing animal strikes up a conversation with them. In this book, you will meet numerous talking animals: eight goats, four wolves, four foxes, three lions, two bears, two rabbits, several birds, a donkey, a rooster, a dog, a cat, a horse, a toad, an enchanted frog and an enchanted deer. In one fairy tale alone, "Die zwei Brüder," five talking animals of different kinds follow each of two brothers. In another tale, "Die zwölf Jäger," a lion serves as an advisor to a king because the lion knows everything hidden and secret. In "Die weiße Schlange" and "Die Bienen- königin," ducks, fish, birds, bees, and ants assist humans who have shown them kindness. Magic and enchantment are everywhere in the land of fairy tales. Magical items found in this 36-tale collection range from a potion in "Die zwei Brüder" that transforms the imbiber into the strongest man on earth, to a red flower in "Jorinde und Joringel" that renders witches powerless, to the talking head of a dead horse in "Die Gänsemagd." A magic spell transforms the brothers in "Die sechs Schwäne" into swans who shed their feathers and return to their human forms for a quarter of an hour each day. In "Fundevogel," we find a boy metamorphosed into a pond big enough to drown a murderous cook. Evil witches play a role in 12 tales in this book; almost all of them intend serious harm to humans. For example, in "Brüderchen und Schwesterchen," a witch casts spells on all the springs in the forest, so that anyone who drinks out of them will turn into an animal. When Schwesterchen, who hears the voices of the springs, tells the thirsty Brüderchen at each spring what kind of animal he will become if he drinks from that spring, Brüderchen passes up springs one and two, which would change him into a tiger and a wolf, respectively, in favor of the third, which turns him into a deer. Surprisingly, you will meet giants in only one tale, "Das tapfere Schneiderlein." Three tales, "Das Rätsel," "Hans im Glück," and "König Drosselbart," lack both magic and supernatural beings.

Most fairy tales take a hero or heroine through a trial or trials to a happy ending. In "Die zwölf Brüder," the heroine must be silent for seven years in order to release her brothers from a spell, while a similar heroine in "Die sechs Schwäne" needs six years of silence to effect the same end. In "Dornröschen," a prince, in order to enter the castle where Sleeping Beauty lies sleeping, must pass through a hedge of thorns in which many other princes have become ensnarled and have died. In "Die Goldkinder" and "Die zwei Brüder," the heroes must face witches to release their brothers. Fairy tales have a predilection for the number three, and three trials are common. The hero of "Die weiße Schlange" has to accomplish three difficult tasks to win the hand of the princess. The simpleton in "Die Bienenkönigin" must do the same thing for the same reward. The hero of "Das Rätsel" must resist three attempts by the princess to get him to disclose his riddle. The wife in "Die Nixe im Teich" needs three attempts to free her husband from the water sprite. The boy with the lucky skin has to get three hairs from the devil's head. Fundevogel and Lenchen must outwit the cook three times. The miller's daughter gets three tries to guess Rumpelstilzchen's name. The heroine of "Die wahre Braut" makes three appearances in three different dresses to regain her betrothed. The simpleton in "Die drei Federn" inherits his father's kingdom after he defeats his more intelligent brothers in three high-stakes scavenger hunts. With the possible exception of "Der singende Knochen," in which the murdered hero's bones are moved to a cemetery at the end, each story in this collection ends happily, as do most of the Grimms' tales. The experienced reader of fairy tales is not surprised when, on the way to this happy end, the hero fails to learn from his experiences. The youngest son in "Der goldene Vogel" repeatedly disobeys the fox, even though he is given ample opportunity to learn that such disobedience only results in trouble for him. In "Aschenputtel," it takes the prince until the third day to come up with a way of ascertaining Cinderella's identity; later, with blind confidence in his shoe-fitting strategy, he twice heads to the castle with the wrong bride, and has to be told by the birds to turn back.

Fairy tales are stocked with predictable, one-dimensional figures with almost no distinguishing physical or psychological characteristics and no depth of personality. If Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty exchanged personalities, the tales would not change at all; moreover, except for the black hair of Snow White and the long golden hair of Rapunzel, all four heroines could exchange physical features without the stories being affected. There is only slightly more differentiation among princes. The prince in "Aschenputtel" is naive, the prince in "Rapunzel" becomes blind for a while, the prince in "Dornröschen" is brave, and the prince in "Snow White" is hopelessly romantic. Otherwise, they are simply princes. None of them, by the way, has a name. In the longest tale of the Grimms' collection, "Die zwei Brüder," twin brothers are abandoned by their father and raised by a hunter; the story goes on and on until the brothers, having separated, are happily reunited. Through it all, the reader never knows either brother's name. Time and space are in a vacuum in fairy tales. When you enter the world of fairy tales, you find yourself in a never-never land, in no particular country and in no particular time. Many fairy tales begin with "Es war" or "Es war einmal," a few with "Es trug sich zu, daß" ("It happened that") or "Vor Zeiten" ("Long ago"); these formulaic expressions serve only to place the story in the remote past. As often as not, the story simply begins with a sentence whose past-tense verb (with or without "einmal") is the sole indicator of time. With respect to place, we read expressions like "in einem Dorfe," "durch einen Wald" (fairy-tale characters often go into, through, or out of forests), "in ein Reich," with no indication of where the village, the woods, and the kingdom are.

What is there about fairy tales that makes them beloved by children and adults? Children need fairy tales, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to let them know that things will turn out happily for them, that they need not fear monsters, not even the monster they see in themselves (120). In the end, things turn out fine for the heroes of the tales: Hänsel and Gretel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Brave Little Tailor, Snow White, the seven little goats, Fundevogel, the miller's daughter, and many other fairy-tale figures reach a happy ending. Adults enjoy fairy tales for various reasons. Some find in them a kind of common property, something parents and children can share. Others like to reread the fairy tales of their youth and try to understand what made them so fascinating. Still others enjoy comparing and contrasting various versions of the tales. (Did you know that there are over a thousand versions of some fairy tales, including "Cinderella"?) (Dundes, 17) Adults even like to read fairy tales they have never read in any version. Among other things, they enjoy investigating why some tales catch on with the reading public while others do not.

One thing that adults discover about fairy tales is that they are not "repositories of higher truths and moralities," (Tatar, xvii) as they perhaps had imagined. In "Der Froschkönig," the princess, wanting the frog to retrieve her golden ball from a well, makes a promise to the frog which she has no intention of keeping. Later, having been ordered by her father to keep her promise, she takes the frog to her room where she angrily throws it against a wall. With no apparent virtues, beauty aside, to redeem her insincerity and anger, she nevertheless rides off with her prince (the former frog) and lives happily. The Brave Little Tailor uses lies and deception to gain a princess and a kingdom. The hero of "Der goldene Vogel" is compassionate with the fox and, later, with his brothers, but in between he steals the golden bird and a golden horse as well, and repeatedly ignores the advice of the fox; nevertheless, he wins the hand of the beautiful princess. The diminutive Tom Thumb helps a band of robbers steal from the king's treasury, and returns home happily. Eye-for-eye retribution, if not out-and-out revenge, is commonplace in fairy tales. Snow White does nothing to halt the torture of the evil Queen, who is forced to dance in red-hot slippers until she dies. One wonders if Cinderella could not have prevented the birds, her friends, from pecking out the eyes of her stepsisters. In both "Der Wolf und die sieben jungen Geißlein" and "Rottkäppchen," the wolf is killed. The witch is burnt to death in "Hänsel und Gretel." The brothers of the compassionate youth in "Der goldene Vogel" are executed. The evil stepmother in "Die zwölf Brüder" is placed in a barrel filled with boiling oil and, of all things, poisonous snakes. The young hero of "Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren" takes revenge on the king by tricking him into relieving the ferryman at the entrance to hell, a position from which the king will not himself easily find relief. In "Die Nelke," the kidnapping, evil-hearted cook is transformed into a poodle that is forced to eat burning charcoal. "Der Ranzen, das Hütlein und das Hörnlein," not in this collection, tells of a man who cheats three kind charcoal-burners and uses magic items obtained from them to cause immense destruction of property, to take the life of the king and the king's daughter, and to gain the throne. According to Max Lüthi, "the folktale's power of sublimation allows it to incorporate the world," (73-74) including heroes who deceive and act violently.

This leads to the next point: fairy tales, many of them, contain some violence. To be sure, graphic descriptions of violence are rare; nevertheless, among the 211 tales of the Grimms, there are exceptions. In one tale, a father releases a faithful servant from a spell by cutting off the heads of his two sons and smearing the servant with their blood; happily, the restored servant is able to revive the dead sons. In another tale, a young woman hides behind a barrel and watches as murderers chop up a maiden and salt the pieces, with the implication of cannibalism. The worst violence is in a tale, mercifully written in Low German so that not all can read it, called "Der Machandelbaum," in which a stepmother beheads and the chops up her stepson and then puts his body parts in a stew that she serves to the boy's unsuspecting father. None of these tales is in the present collection; however, this collection is not violence-free. The murderous marshal in "Die zwei Brüder" is ripped apart by four oxen. The wicked servant in "Die Gänsemagd" is placed naked into a barrel that has been lined on the inside with nails; the barrel is then drawn by two white horses until she is dead. But the reader sees none of the gory details and feels none of the pain. The most violent scene of this collection occurs in "Der Liebste Roland," where a witch, intending to chop off the head of her stepdaughter, inadvertently beheads her daughter. The stepdaughter then takes the head and allows three drops of blood to fall from it at three different places in the house. As horrible as this scene could be, it probably seems worse on this page than it does in the unreal world of the fairy tale. The Grimms, while eliminating vulgarities from the tales they gathered, chose not to curtail violence because of its inherent role in folktales. (Dégh, 33)

Fairy tales are not models for twentieth-century gender roles. In fairy tales, the quiet woman is a good woman. One thinks of the imposed silence in "Die zwölf Brüder" and "Die sechs Schwäne," involving the age-old stereotype of the difficulty of silence for women. According to Ruth B. Bottigheimer, there is a relationship in "Aschenputtel" and in other fairy tales between the number of direct quotations allowed a character and that character's gender. Cinderella has only six direct quotations in the 1857 edition of the Grimms' fairy tales, whereas she had been allowed to speak directly 14 times in the 1812 edition. The prince, on the other hand, speaks directly only four times in the 1812 edition but eight times in 1857. The stepmother has three more direct quotations in 1857 than in 1812 (59). Men speak, especially powerful men. Good women, on the other hand, hold their tongue; bad women talk a lot. (57-70) In fairy tales, many kings give their daughters in marriage to whomever they please. This happens in "Das tapfere Schneiderlein," "Der goldene Vogel," "Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren," "Die goldene Gans," "Die zwei Brüder," as well as in the tall tale "König Drosselbart." In the latter story, King Thrushbeard teaches his wife "proper" submission by forcing her to do humiliating tasks.

Prejudice against Jews may underlie two of the Grimms' tales, neither printed in this book. In "Der gute Handel," a Jew, thinking he can make a profit, is tricked by a peasant into receiving 300 of the 500 lashes that had been imposed by the king on the peasant. A soldier had been tricked into taking the other 200 lashes. The latter takes the blows bravely, but the Jew whines and wails. The peasant, on the other hand, is rewarded handsomely by the king. Later, the Jew, hoping to earn a reward by reporting the peasant's disrespectful speech, is again tricked by the peasant, who appropriates the Jew's coat. In the other tale, "Der Jude im Dorn," a Jew accuses a servant of stealing a bag of money from him (which the servant had done, claiming that the Jew had himself stolen the money). Granted his last request before execution, the servant obtains release from his sentence by playing his magic violin that compels all listeners, including the judge and the Jew, to dance. The Jew, exhausted and threatened with more dancing, confesses that he stole the bag of money, whereupon he is executed. In two other Grimm tales not in this collection, one finds the unambiguous implication that black skin is inferior to white skin. "Der Königssohn, der sich vor nichts fürchtet" tells of a princess who has been placed under a spell and turned black. To make her white again, a prince has to endure three nights of torture by devils. In "Die weiße und die schwarze Braut," God punishes a mother and her daughter by turning them black.

Given the questionable moral quality of some of the tales, the violence, the archaic portrayal of women, and (albeit rare) the racial deprecations, some scholars and educators question the wisdom of introducing fairy tales to young children. According to Maria Tatar, we must examine the tales anew, letting the stories have their due instead of twisting them into a preconceived psychological framework, as Bettelheim does, in her estimation, in his much-quoted book advocating the reading of fairy tales to children. Tatar says that Bettelheim selectively overlooks tales that do not accord with his oedipal approach and disregards the culture in which the tales originated, thereby misrepresenting fairy tales as therapy for children (xvii-xxvi). Since one finds, even in tales of children, not only gratuitous violence, but also heroes who lie, cheat, and steal, as well as an underlying "pedagogy of fear" (30), it is, according to Tatar, time to consider rewriting certain fairy tales in order to satisfy our culture's pedagogical expectations (xxvi-xxviii).

The philosophers Kant, Locke, and Rousseau all judged fairy tales unsuitable for children. Fairy tales impede the proper development of reason, according to Kant; they provide undesirable, confusing examples, according to Locke; their superstitious content distorts children's sense of reality, according to Rousseau. (216-17). "All printed fairy tales are colored by the facts of the time and place in which they were recorded," writes Tatar, who observes that "it is especially odd that we continue to read to our children--often without the slightest degree of critical reflection--unrevised versions of stories that are imbued with the values of a different time and place" (19). The editor of this book agrees. You, the reader, will soon know fairy tales better than most people do. You will have had time for "critical reflection." You will be able intelligently to respond to Tatar's proposal that fairy tales be rewritten in accordance with modern values.


Works Cited

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

Bottigheimer, Ruth B. Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys. The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

---, ed. Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylva- nia P, 1986.

Dégh, Linda. "Grimm's Household Tales and its Place in the Household: The Social Relevance of a Controversial Classic." Fairy Tales as Ways of Knowing: Essays on Märchen in Psychology, Society and Literature. Ed. Michael M. Metzger and Katharina Mommsen. Bern: Peter Lang, 1981.

Dundes, Alan. "Interpreting Little Red Riding Hood Psychoanalytically." The Brothers Grimm and Folktale. Ed. James M. McGlathery. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.

Ellis, John M. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1983.

Kamenetsky, Christa. The Brothers Grimm and Their Critics: Folktales and the Quest for Mean- ing. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992.

Lüthi, Max. The European Folktale: Form and Nature. Trans. John D. Niles. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Metzger, Michael M., ed. Fairy Tales as Ways of Knowing: Essays on Märchen in Psychology, Sociology, and Literature. Bern: Peter Lang, 1981.

Röhrich, Lutz. Folktales and Reality. Trans. Peter Tokofsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Tatar, Maria. Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton: Prince- ton UP, 1992.

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