Fairy Tales and the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel

Historical Context
1. Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm were scholars who lived and worked in Germany, at a decisive moment in cultural and political history.
2. Between 1780 and 1830 Germany experienced a renaissance, commonly known as the Romantic Movement, associated with such figures as Johann Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. The Romantic Movement was in part a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, which in part sought to explain away the mysterious and the irrational, and emphasized our rational faculties over our emotive life. The romantics emphasized the place of emotion and feeling in individual and social life, and so they tended to focus on dreams, poetry, the arts, narrative, and myth.
3. The early 18th century witnessed the confluence of three factors in intellectual life in Germany: Alexander von Humboldt helped to create the modern, liberal arts style university, historical approaches to studying religious and other ancient texts took root, and the field of religious studies began to emerge out of theology.
4. During this period there was a general revival of the arts and culture, which included a fascination with both language and stories. The general attitude was that to understand a people’s foundational texts and their foundational stories was to understand a people, a culture, or a religion. And so scholars spent a great deal of time collecting, translating and thinking about stories and narrative texts.
a. This effort moved in two directions: (1) scholars collected, translated, edited and studied, using historical methods, the “canonical” texts of the world’s religious traditions. Max Müller (d. 1800) for example, published a fifty volume collection titled the Sacred Books of the East. (2) Others academics turned their attention to folk and oral stories.
b. The genius of the Grimms, who were trained as linguists and historians, was to realize that “low” culture—what we would now call popular culture—was just as constitutive of a people’s beliefs, values, and practices as was “high” culture (classical music, painting, etc.). In helping to create the modern field of folklore studies, the Grimms laid the groundwork for modern cultural studies, which includes the study of popular, “low” culture.
5. There was a political factor at work in this collecting of texts and stories too.
a. In Europe and America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, state nationalisms began to take on the role of traditional forms of religion. Historical narratives and folk stories (myths), monumental buildings and statuary (sacred places), legendary figures (gods and heroes), charters and constitutions (sacred texts), public ceremonies (rituals), and civic holidays (liturgical cycles) worked in unison to form the basis of a collective set of beliefs, values, and identity structures directed at and emanating from the nation.
b. These new nationally oriented identity and belief structures were created by the state, by universities and intellectual elites, but popular culture also played an instrumental role.
c. The study of popular culture emerged in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe, growing out of the work of the Grimms and others, and alongside and contributing to the formation of the modern nation-state.
d. As John Storey notes in Inventing Popular Culture (2003), the “[so-called] discovery of folk culture was an integral part of emerging European nationalisms. The role of the actual folk—rural workers—was mainly symbolic. … [F]olk culture [became] the very embodiment of the nature and character of a nation.”
e. In the Germany of the 1800s, language and collective stories played a role in the shift from a loose collection of princely territories to a unified culture-centric nation-state.
6. The Grimms advocated the preservation of the people’s stories. They went into the field, generally in rural areas, and collected the tales that would later be published as Kinder und Hausmärchen(Children’s and Household Tales), between 1812 and 1857. These published tales went through many versions in the Grimms’ lifetimes.
a. The tales they collected are, at least by name, well-known: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow Shite, The Frog King, Hansel and Gretel—it is a long list.
b. Folktales are stories of the folk, the common people. Now committed to paper and electronic media, these stories were traditionally passed on orally, and no doubt changed in each telling by the storyteller.
c. Folktales were apt to change, and some have dozens of versions, adapted to a particular environment or telling.
d. The Grimms argued that folktales form the roots of all literature.
Some Features of the Grimm Tales
1. The stories collected and published by the Grimms are often different from the stories we think we know:
a. The stories often have strange aspects lost in popular versions told through movies or children`s books; sometimes the endings are odd, or the moral we might associate with some tales isn’t so clear in the original versions
b. The tales are quite gruesome, far more so than the Disneyfied versions we are familiar with through film, television and children’s books.
c. The tales often evoke a sense of the numinous, which Rudolf Otto, the author of the well-know and influential book The Idea of the Holy, defined as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.”
2. The stories have been roundly critiqued as being patriarchal, which they are, though they tend to display women’s power within household and domestic settings. Step-mothers typically receive harsh treatment. (See note 12 on the Sur La Lune site for some thoughts on the treatment of step-mothers in fairy tales.)
3. It is a mistake to think that these tales the Grimm’s collected were merely being told to teach children appropriate behaviours and moral codes (don’t go down to the woods tonight, listen to your parents), or that they reveal a “primitive” view of a world filled with charms and spells and fabulous creatures.
a. On the contrary, the tales are richly suggestive narratives, whose simplicity often belies their sophistication with respect to questions of meaning and interpretation.
b. Folktales speak to basic emotions, sexual and social relationships, ontological considerations (the nature of reality), to our needs and fears and hopes.
c. In societies that are principally oral or non-literate, folktales are vehicles of education, reinforce social mores and structures, emphasize virtues and identify vices, entertain their audience, dramatize life as lived, and open listeners to mystery and wonder.
4. Setting: The Grimm tales are located in settings both familiar and strange. In the woods, at a cottage, by a river, but also, temporally speaking, in a land “once upon a time.”
5. Characters: The characters in these tales are typically simple and, we might say, flat. They are stock characters, not all that psychologically complex, with fairly straightforward motivations. Usually, the characters are driven by a single overriding desire: greed, hatred, jealousy. The characters are stereotypical: jealous siblings, wicked step-mothers, nasty witches, powerless fathers. There is also the hero or heroine, who is cast into the wide-open world in some fashion, and aided or hindered by supernatural forces, powers, or persons.
6. Plot & Style: Formulaic plots inform these tales. Journeys are common, the action is suspenseful. There are repetitious patterns: 12 tasks, 3 wishes, 4 tests, etc. (See note 31 on the Sur La Lune website.)
7. Typically, endings are happy, things work out. Fairy tales inspire hope for their audiences.
8. Themes & Motifs: Usually, the themes in the tales are simple, though powerful. From a developmental perspective, common themes include the struggle for autonomy (from parents), the awakening of sexual life and maturity, anxiety over finding a place in the world, meeting expectations. Enchantment is common: journeys through dark forests, magical spells and cures, the antics of trickster figures, encounters with helpful animals, mysterious creatures, wise old men and women. There are typically enchanted objects: spinning wheels, beanstalks, golden eggs, magic wands, poisoned apples. Heroes face impossible tasks, hopeless situations, enter into foolish bargains but, somehow, with a little help from these mysterious forces, come out all right. Violence is ever-present. In “The Rose Tree,” an innocent girl is killed by her stepmother and her liver is fed to the father; the brother avenges the brutal crime by splitting the step mother in two with an axe, yet there is little descriptive blood and gore. Step-mothers get cut in half with axes, witches are stuffed in ovens, and wolves are boiled alive. There is some very nasty material. Some reasons for the violent character of fairy tales include the cautionary nature of the tales (they keep us wary of the violence of the world), the audience (not children, initially), the realities of life in the country during the times when the stories were written (which was fairly harsh). Sur La Lune has useful material in the annotations as well, for example, with regards to cannibalism and why it appears so often in fairy tales. See, for example, note 40.
9. Women: There is another kind of violence in the Grimm tales. The stories are filled with negative female stereotypes: the frail young girl in need of a good man is common. Many stories portray women as rather helpless (though beautiful) creatures whose futures depend on the kindness of capable (typically handsome) men, whom the women must attract by their pleasing appearance and sweet nature and, in the case of Cinderella, dancing ability. The distorted presentation of women should not be surprising given the traditionally patriarchal nature of Western society in general and 19th century German culture in particular. Men were the earliest serious collectors of folk tales and stories, and the male gender bias is evident in the tales they chose to record and publish. Had women gone into the field and collected tales, as they now do, they would have tended other kinds of stories. Genres are certainly shaped by matters of gender and political power; the Grimm tales are the product of men, and as such they may well not just reinforce patriarchal values, but serve to create them.
The Sacred
1. Though The Grimm fairy tales contain a mix of Christian, pagan belief, and ancient mythological motifs and narratives, fairy tales have rarely been perceived as religious stories by the Church or Western readers in the 20th century. Some evangelical and orthodox Christians tend in the direction of condemning fairy tales for their magic and wizardry. Certainly the Harry Potter books and films, which draw heavily on fairy tale motifs, have been subject to criticism from some Christian groups. In such cases, the fairy tales are seen as religious precisely in their connection to perceived demonic powers.
2. A typical way in which scholarship and artistic treatments connect fairy tales with the sacred has been through the notion of a “time out of time.”
a. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, in a well-known essay titled the “On fairy-stories,” states that fairy tales “have now a mythical or total (unanalyzable) effect … they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself maybe” (in his slim book titled The Tree and Leaf).
b. The sense of being displaced in time, from the ordinary, everyday world to a more universal, distant and yet “eternal” time and place is an experiential factor in some people’s encounter with fairy tales. The “once upon a time” motif prominent in fairy tales does not refer to a time in the past but an eternal sense of time: the story is what is always happening.
c. The adverb “now” in the passage above from Tolkien suggests the importance of tales and legends in modernity. The modern mind, suggests a writer like Tolkien, has become disenchanted, no longer capable of perceiving the world in a mythical or magical fashion—save for the fictive experience offered through story.
d. One reason the Grimm tales (and, later, in the early 20th century, the fairy-like stories of Tolkien himself) took root in European culture is that they stepped in to fill a spiritual void created by the erosion of religious faith and practice in the modern era.
e. Rudolf Otto referred to “the holy” in terms of “numinous” experience; that is, an experience of something strange, other-than-human, and powerful. Some interpreters of contemporary culture (like Tolkien) see fairy stories as containers of a sense of the numinous in a largely secular culture. Elizabeth Brown makes such an argument in her book The Ordinary and the Fabulous. It is through fantastic, fabulous tales that children and adults encounter a sense of the numinous.
f. Today, film has in some measure taken-over from the fairy tale this function of creating mystery. In the films of directors like Tim Burton (Big Fish), Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasus) and Guillermo del Torro (Pan’s Labyrinth) enchantment, magic and mystery are prominent motifs.
g. Certainly fairy tales can (and should) be interpreted and critiqued using the ideas and methods of feminist and other critical theory. Fairy tales can serve ideological purposes and bear on our moral life. The image, for example, of Santa and his list of naughty and nice children, is perhaps morally suspect, if you think that good behaviour should not be induced through rewards and punishment. But because folk and fairy tales are handed down across generations (even millennia) and further, because there are shared motifs and images across diverse cultures, it is often difficult to interpret fairy tales as being merely or even principally ideological tools. Let us close these lesson notes with some thoughts from Jack Zipes, one of the foremost writers on folk and fairy tales, and his consideration of the theme of “wonder.”
Jack Zipes on Fairy Tales and Wonder Tales
1. The tales collected by the Brothers Grimm have their roots in oral traditions in Europe that some scholars refer to as “wonder tales.”
2. Jack Zipes is one of the foremost scholars working in the field of folk and fairy tales. He notes, in his book The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm (NY: Norton: 2002) that scribes began recording oral stories around the 12th century.
3. Zipes writes: “scribes began writing down different kinds of tales that reflected an occupation with rituals, historical anecdotes, customs, startling events, miraculous transformations, and religious beliefs. The recording of these various tales was extremely important because the writers preserved an oral tradition for future generations, and in the act of recording, they changed the tales to a greater or lesser degree, depending on what their purpose was in recording them…. [W]e do have evidence that people told all kinds of tales about gods, animals, catastrophes, wars, heroic deeds, rituals, customs, and simple daily incidents. What we call folk-tale or fairy-tale motifs are indeed ancient and appear in many pre-Christian epics, poems, myths, fables, histories, and religious narratives…. Clearly, the literary fairy tale developed as an appropriation of a particular oral storytelling tradition that gave birth to the wonder folk tale, often called the Zaubermärchen (magic tale) or the conte merveilleux(marvelous tale). As more and more wonder tales were written down from the 12th to the 15th centuries, they constituted the genre of the literary fairy tale, and writers began establishing its own conventions, motifs, topoi, characters, and plots, based to a large extent on those developed in the oral tradition but altered to address a reading public formed largely by the aristocracy and the middle classes. Though the peasants were excluded in the formation of this literary tradition, their material, tone, style, and beliefs were also incorporated into the new genre, and their experiences were recorded, albeit from the perspective of the literate scribe or writer. The wonder tales were always considered somewhat suspect by the ruling and educated classes.”
4. Zipes emphasizes that the structures and themes of these tales were such as to evoke, as their name suggest, wonder in the hearer or reader.
5. “The characters, settings, and motifs are combined and varied according to specific functions to induce wonder and hope for change in the audience of listeners/readers, who are to marvel or admire the magical changes that occur in the course of events. It is this earthy, sensual, and secular sense of wonder and hope that distinguished the wonder tales from other oral tales as the legend, the fable, the anecdote, and the myth; it is clearly the sense of wonder that distinguishes the literary fairy tale from the moral story, novella, sentimental tale, and other modern short literary genres. Wonder causes astonishment, and as marvelous object or phenomenon, it is often regarded as a supernatural occurrence and can be an omen or portent. It gives rise to admiration, fear, awe, and reverence. In the oral wonder tale, we are to marvel about the workings of the universe where anything can happen at any time, and these fortunate and unfortunate events are never to be explained. Nor do the characters demand an explanation — they are opportunistic and hopeful. They are encouraged to be so, and if they do not take advantage of the opportunity that will benefit them in their relations with others, they are either dumb or mean-spirited. The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life and to evoke profound feelings of awe and respect for life as a miraculous process, which can be altered and changed to compensate for the lack of power, wealth, and pleasure that most people experience. Lack, deprivation, prohibition, and interdiction motivate people to look for signs of fulfillment and emancipation. In the wonder tales, those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can recognize the wondrous signs. They have retained their belief in the miraculous condition of nature, revere nature in all its aspects. They have not been spoiled by conventionalism, power, or rationalism. In contrast to the humble characters, the villains are those who use words and power intentionally to exploit, control, transfix, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit. They have no respect or consideration for nature and other human beings, and they actually seek to abuse magic by preventing change and causing everything to be transfixed according to their interests. The marvelous protagonist wants to keep the process of natural change flowing and indicates possibilities for overcoming the obstacles that prevent other characters or creatures from living in a peaceful and pleasurable way. The focus on the marvelous and hope for change in the oral folk tale does not mean that all wonder tales, and later the literary fairy tales, served and serve a radical transforming purpose. The nature and meaning of folk tales have depended on the stage of development of a tribe, community, or society. Oral tales have served to stabilize, conserve, or challenge the common beliefs, laws, values, and norms of a group. The ideology expressed in wonder tales always stemmed from the position that the narrator assumed with regard to the relations and developments in his or her community, and the narrative plot and changes made in it depended on the sense of wonder, marvel, admiration, or awe that the narrator wanted to evoke. In other words, the sense of the miraculous in the tale and the intended emotion sought by the narrator is ideological. Since these wonder tales have been with us for thousands of years and have undergone so many different changes in the oral tradition, it is difficult to determine the ideological intention of the narrator, and when we disregard the narrator’s intention, it is often difficult to reconstruct (and/or deconstruct) the ideological meaning of a tale. In the last analysis, however, even if we cannot establish whether a wonder tale is ideologically conservative, radical, sexist, progressive, etc., it is the celebration of miraculous or fabulous transformation in the name of hope that accounts its major appeal. People have always wanted to improve and or change their personal status or have sought magical intervention on their behalf. The emergence of the literary fairy tale during the latter part of the Medieval period bears witness to the persistent human quest for an existence without oppression and constraints. It is a utopian quest that we continue to mark down or record through the metaphors of the fairy tale.”
6. In the Discussion section, I’ve asked you to think about Hansel and Gretel, in light of this passage from Zipes.