Study Guide

Grimms' Fairy Tales Introduction

By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Grimms' Fairy Tales Introduction

You probably suspect by now that there's more to fairy tales than the saccharine, smug Disney films. And guess what? You're totally right.

Sure, in Grimms' Fairy Tales, you'll find magic and enchantment, but disobedient children are also burned to death. Yikes. Sure, there are fairies and witches, but there are also fathers who sell their proud daughters in marriage to the highest bidder. Yowza. And of course there are tons of talking animals...along with violence, dismemberment, and cannibalism. Yes, cannibalism.

Not quite what you were expecting from a collection originally called Children's and Household Tales huh? But that's just what you're going to get here, so buckle up Shmoopers.

There are tales in here you've never even heard of, since only a handful of classical fairy tales gained momentum and became super-popular with the Disneyfication of the genre. A lot of the tales got cleaned up for a mainstream, commercial audience, but some are just too gory to be salvaged.

You guys, these tales are dark. Did we mention cannibalism? Plus, we're talking child abandonment ("Hansel and Gretel") and domestic abuse ("Lean Lisa"), among other horrors. But that's exactly why they're still relevant today: fairy tales use the language of the marvelous to mirror the hopes and fears of our own world, and to show us how a lucky few manage to come out on the other side of the terror-infested forest that is life.

So how did these stories come about? Let's start with the basics. The brothers Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob, were intellectual overachievers of their day (the early-to-mid 1800s). They studied medieval law, linguistics—they even have a phonetics law named after them—and, yep, fairy tales.

Why did such academic dudes go for what some might write off as a bunch of kiddo nonsense? Well, Germany at the time was in bad shape. In fact, there wasn't actually a Germany to speak of, just a bunch of little duchies and baronies and principalities and whatnot. Napoleon was all up in their business, too, making everyone's life tough. The Grimms, along with some of their colleagues, believed that Germany should be a nation, and so they set out to prove it by demonstrating that Germans had shared folklore.

If you're gonna get technical, the term folklore is broader than fairy tales, encompassing all creative genres and oral traditions of a given culture, but the Grimms settled on fairy tales for a few reasons. First, some of their buddies encouraged them to, since there was a folktale- and folksong-collecting vogue at the time. Plus, they thought it'd make a valuable intellectual contribution to the world. And finally, they were in it for the dough, seeing as how they had a bunch of siblings to support. Unfortunately, the first edition of their fairy tales, published in 1812, was full of scholarly annotations and things that are of great interest to nerds, but not so much to the general population. It was hardly a bestseller.

Eventually, though, the growing market for children's literature combined with some canny editing skills helped make the tales more and more popular. Once the Grimms cut some of the scholar-talk and cleaned up the tales (a bit) for the kids, the collections started selling like hotcakes.

Once either Jacob or Wilhelm had written down each story, it was revised, and revised, and revised again. For all their talk of the purity of the folk spirit, the Grimms didn't exactly practice what they preached. Though mostly drawn from oral tradition, the tales have changed so much through editing that we can't really call them authentic. But the fact that they continue to speak to scholars and readers alike attests to their enchantment and significance.

What is Grimms' Fairy Tales About and Why Should I Care?

Fairy tales are just for kids, right? Er. Kind of.

When the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, were collecting and publishing their tales in the early 1800s, they were blazing new ground in children's literature, sure. But fairy tales have never been just for kids. Smarty-pants nobles in the French court of Louis XIV penned fairy tales as a form of entertainment and social critique. Poets and opera-writers borrowed the plots of fairy tales for their works. And if you have ever watched a sport or game where a "Cinderella" team or an underdog (come on, we've all seen Rudy) unexpectedly comes out on top, then you, dear Shmooper, have encountered the pervasive influence of fairy tales.

Obviously the Grimms' tales aren't the only fairy tales out there, but they are sure as shoeshine the most influential in our culture. There's an excellent chance that if you're reading or watching a version of a fairy tale, or even something that's not a fairy tale but features a downtrodden protagonist or a wicked witch, you're treading in the Grimms' territory. You could spend years trying to track down every cultural reference to the Grimms and still not find them all.

Let's face it, reading these fairy tales will make you primed and ready to understand not only modern-day princess-mania, but also the underpinnings of young adult literature, fantasy and science fiction, cinema (not just cartoons), and gender roles. And then you'll live awesomely ever after.

Grimms' Fairy Tales Resources


The Grimm Brothers' Homepage
Compiled by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, this is a treasure trove of stuff related to the Grimms. He provides a list of the tales, most of which he translated from the German himself. He also lists their other major publications and describes their chronology. Got bit by the folklore bug? Check out Ashliman's folk texts page for folktales and legends from around the world, including many analogues of tales from the Grimms' collection. For instance, there are about a billion Cinderellas out there. Who knew?

While this site doesn't focus solely on the Grimms, there's a ton of fairy-tale info here, and the Grimms do come up a fair bit (they've got their own section in the annotated tales page). Also, their CafePress store has some pretty cute stuff in it, in case you're in the mood for some merch.

Project Gutenberg Version of the Tales
Spoiler: the translators of this early version of the tales, Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes, were not super-faithful to the originals. They rearranged the order and only included a small selection. Proceed with caution.

National Geographic's Take on the Tales
There's a whole lotta cool facts here, ranging from biographical info on the brothers to details about their editorial decisions and the actual identities of their storytellers. Geek out if you dare.

130 Years of Illustrations
Check out this awesome link to a new edition of the Grimms' fairy tales, featuring tons of beautiful illustrations that were published alongside the tales from the 1870s to the early 1900s.


Grimms' Fairy Tale Classics, a.k.a. What Happens When Anime Gets a Hold of These Tales (1987-88)
Individual episodes of this animated show interpret different fairy tales from the Grimms' collection. Dubbed into English and aired on Nickelodeon during 1988-89, this show is hard to get a hold of, ahem, legally (though you can find some of the episodes on YouTube). You'll also find it under the name Grimms' Masterpiece Theatre.

Jim Henson's The Storyteller (1988)
This TV series retells a number of Grimms' tales, with adorable muppets to boot. You'll see "Cinderella" and "All Fur" combined in the episode "Sapsorrow," along with episodes based on other tales such as "Hans My Hedgehog" and "A Tale About the Body Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was."

Into the Woods (American Playhouse Production, 1991)
What happens when a bunch of fairy tale characters from the Grimms' collection run into each other in the woods and all their plots get tangled? Well, a lot of singing and dancing, for one. But also drama and angst. It's a fairly popular show and gets adapted for children a lot, but with some of the more violent parts cut out. Sounds familiar, eh?

Ever After (1998)
The Grimm brothers make an appearance in the frame of the story, when Cinderella's descendent tells them how the story "really" went. Apparently Drew Barrymore was involved.

The Brothers Grimm or, How to Make a Folklorist Weep Tears of Frustration (2005)
This is a light-hearted romp through everything that never happened in the Grimm brothers' lives. Portraying them as con artists rather than serious scholars is pretty much the most inaccurate "artistic interpretation" ever. Although, the part about their young lives being spent in poverty was true up to a point, since they were livin' the good middle class life until their dad died.

"Briar Rose" episode of Dollhouse (2009)
Joss Whedon's sci-fi suspense mystery show Dollhouse had an episode based on the Grimms' tale "Briar Rose," which featured a reading aloud of the tale to disturbed children in a group home, with a parallel plot showing an FBI agent heroically setting out to rescue the supposed kidnapping victim he imagines as a princess locked in a tower. Both subplots subvert canonical interpretations of "Briar Rose." Yeah, it's a doozy.


Grimm (No Kidding) (2011)
Wow, the whole "the Grimm brothers were actually monster-hunters thing" is so original. The show does some interesting things with fairy-tale tropes, but again, don't expect the interpretations to be true to the source texts, other than being all "woohoo—more sex and violence that you'd expect from fairy tales!"

Once Upon a Time (2011)
This creative TV series borrows a lot from the Grimms. And then some.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
Haven't seen this oldie? Well, it's in the Disney vault, so you're outta luck.

Cinderella (1950)
It's a classic. Need we say more?

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
This version's less creepy than the original tale, but stirring nonetheless.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
For a more modern take on the classic Grimms' tale, check out this flick.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
It's up to you—who's fairer, Kristen Stewart or Charlize Theron?

Mirror Mirror (2012)
We're not sure Julia Roberts can be all that believable as an evil queen, but we'll roll with it.

Red Riding Hood (2011)
Okay, so it looks a wee bit melodramatic (and way far off of the original plot), but who can resist a movie with Gary Oldman?

Tangled (2010)
Welcome to the world of computer animation, Rapunzel.


Philip Pullman Rewrites the Grimms
Philip Pullman, of Golden Compass fame, is going to rewrite fifty of his favorite Grimms' fairy tales. We're excited. You should be too.

Commentary on The Annotated Brothers Grimm
Maria Tatar, a very cool fairy tale scholar, came out with an annotated version of the collection that's discussed in this article. The illustrations are apparently pretty nifty, too.


Fractured Fairy Tales
You're probably too young to remember the show Rocky and Bullwinkle, but ask your parents: it used to be totally hilarious back in the day. They featured a segment called "Fractured Fairy Tales" which revised some of the better-known fairy tales, including some from the Grimms' collection such as "Rapunzel" and "The Brave Little Tailor." It's irreverent, sarcastic, and filled with slapstick comedy. What's not to like?


Fireside Fairy Tales
Dying to hear these stories out loud? LibriVox is here to help.


Jane Yolen's Briar Rose
This novel retells a Holocaust narrative through the lens of the Grimms' tale "Briar Rose." While not a cheery read, it successfully demonstrates how fairy tales are not all sunshine and puppies, and indeed have deep resonances with tragic human experiences.

Anne Sexton's Transformations
A collection of poems based on the Grimms, this is raw, deep stuff that upsets and unsettles a lot of the social assumptions within the original tales.

Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber
These short stories reinvent the Grimms' and others' fairy tales by saying, "You thought there was enough sex and violence in fairy tales? Well, think again!" Lushly written and darkly erotic, this collection includes such gems as a vampire Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood plus werewolves. It's rated R, so keep the kiddos away.

Donna Jo Napoli's The Magic Circle
Ever wonder what the tale of "Hansel and Gretel" looked like from the witch's perspective? This young adult novel explores her motivations and redemption.

Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch
This collection of rewritten tales (many of which are based on the Grimms') undermines the assumption that all tales must end in the property-like marriage between a man and a woman.

Haydn Middleton's Grimm's Last Fairytale
This historical novel explores the last few months that Jacob Grimm spends with one of his nieces; it's a beautiful if hypothetical reconstruction of the emotional lives of the elder Grimm brother and his family.


The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World
This book, by Jack Zipes (that's the same dude who did the awesome translation we used in this learning guide) describes the lives of the Grimm brothers and their impact upon history and literature.

The Reception of Grimms' Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions
Edited by Donald Haase, a big-hitter in fairy-tale scholarship, this book contains essays on everything from feminist responses to the tales to the use of allusions within the tales.

The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales
This book by Maria Tatar explores the darker side of the tales: cannibalism, infanticide, and incest, oh boy! No pulling punches here.

Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales
Author Ruth Bottigheimer does a great job of showing how the Grimms' tales ladle out social value, a lot of it by what's considered to be appropriate behavior for each gender. A word of caution: while this book is undoubtedly neat-o, some of Bottigheimer's later work (such as Fairy Tales: A New History) is considered to be on shaky ground by other fairy-tale scholars.


Walter Crane's Illustration for the Frog Prince
Walter Crane was one of the better-known artists to illustrate the Grimms' tales throughout history. Google him if you don't believe us.

Fairy Tale Stamps from the German Democratic Republic
What kind of country has images from the Grimms' fairy tales on their stamps? An awesome one. Check out this Briar Rose Stamp.

Little Red Cap Stamp
Shmoop digs this stamp's take on the big bad wolf.

The Bros
Here's a famous portrait of the dynamic sibling duo, looking all studious.

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