8 Brothers Grimm fairytales and their fascinating legacy
19th century Germany witnessed an incredible surge in interest in folklore, a fact that can easily be observed in the music, literature, and visual art of what would come to be known as the Romantic era. Compared to the many influential thinkers of this period, the Brothers Grimm are often regarded as a mere curiosity.
However, their work – collecting and publishing over 200 folk stories that would one day make up their “Children’s and Household Tales” – had a massive influence on the way we think to this day. Let’s take a look at eight of the most famous stories the Brothers Grimm collected, and some interesting facts about each.
One of the most recognisable mediums through which tales collected by the Brothers Grimm have been passed down to our age are Disney films. Although the origin of the Cinderella story is around 2.000 years old, the modern version as set down by the Brothers Grimm dates from 1812.
Cinderella provides a good example of a tendency of the Brothers Grimm to emphasise brutal and violent elements that are often left out of later, more family-friendly renditions. For example, the story ends with two doves swooping down and pecking out the eyes of the evil step-sisters as punishment for their wickedness.
2. Snow White
The story of Snow White and the (originally unnamed) Seven Dwarfs is another classic story that Walt Disney borrowed from the Brothers Grimm, who in turn borrowed from sources as ancient as the Old Testament.
The trope of a charming prince who enters only at the very end, in a kind of deus ex machina – to both resolve the plot and introduce a romantic element – is one of the most recognisable elements of the story, and the gullibility with which Snow White eats the poisoned apple serves as an early version of the classic warning for children not to eat food provided by strangers.
3. Hansel and Gretel
However, it is Hansel and Gretel, not Snow White, who serve as the classic cautionary tale against trusting strangers. Set against the backdrop of a famine, Hansel and Gretel is classic Brothers Grimm, complete with a cannibalistic witch who ends up burning in her own oven, and two innocent children who, through their wits, are able to survive in a society that has abandoned them.
It is telling that so many of these stories, which were primarily designed for children, paint such a dark and distrustful picture of not only strangers, but also close relatives. These tales suggest societal priorities very different from the children’s tales and TV shows of today, which tend to emphasise cooperation and trust.
4. The Musicians of Bremen
The Musicians of Bremen is less famous outside of Germany for obvious reasons, and is less of a parable than a feel-good adventure story, at least by the standards of the Brothers Grimm.
In the story, a donkey, a cat, a dog, and a rooster escape from a farm in which their usefulness is nearing its end. They end up displacing a group of robbers in a cottage in the woods, where they relieve them of their ill-gotten gains and settle in for a happy and idyllic retirement.
The Musicians of Bremen has been viewed by many as a critique against either capitalism or feudalism (or both), a point of view aided by the fact that in some renditions of the story, the three robbers are a bear, a wolf, and a lion: classic heraldic devices representing the nobility.
5. The Frog King
The Frog King uses the classic trope of transforming from sort of animal to (invariably) a charming prince that can be seen more recently in stories and films such as Beauty and the Beast and Shrek. The Frog King was a personal favourite of the Brothers Grimm and served as the first entry in their publication “Children’s and Household Tales.”
Although most people know the version in which the frog turns into a prince after being kissed by the princess, the original had this transformation occur after he was thrown against a wall, presumably in disgust.
Rapunzel is one of the large subset of Brothers Grimm fairy tales that are raunchier than one would expect for a children’s tale. Most people know that the titular character Rapunzel has long, golden hair and is confined to a castle, where a prince beseeches her to let down her hair so he can visit.
But many don’t know that the evil sorceress who imprisoned her there eventually cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, casts her out of the tower, and blinds her lover as punishment for Rapunzel becoming pregnant. Naturally, the prince’s eyesight (and in some renditions, Rapunzel's hair) is restored when he is reunited with Rapunzel after wandering for years in search of her.
7. Little Red Riding Hood
Probably one of the most famous of the stories the Brothers Grimm collected, Little Red Riding Hood is a parable that features a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, or in this case, the clothing of an elderly grandmother.
Like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood warns against the dangers of being too trusting, in this case even towards those that seem vulnerable and harmless. And because this is the Brothers Grimm, the stories also share a gruesome ending in which the antagonist suffers a morbid but well-deserved demise.
Our last Grimm fairy tale has roots that some allege go back 4.000 years. The titular character Rumpelstiltskin is an imp-like creature that can perform wonders, but always demands a high price. After forcing a miller’s-daughter-turned-princess to surrender her first-born child to him, Rumpelstiltskin finally meets his match when the princess beats him at his own game and is able to correctly guess his name.
True to their method, the Brothers Grimm edited the ending of the story to ensure that Rumpelstiltskin met a gruesome fate by literally tearing himself in half, while everyone else lived happily ever after.