In these tales, stuff just kind of happens, and the narrative voice usually doesn't linger on the events. For instance, when Gretel pushes the witch into the oven, we're told: "The witch began to howl dreadfully, but Gretel ran away, and the godless witch was miserably burned to death" (58). A human being was just incinerated and we only get a one-sentence description of it. No remorse on Gretel's part either.
So yeah. Stuff: it happens. Then more stuff happens. It's a little more exciting than See Jane Run when Jane is running away from a wicked stepmother or incestuous father, but same idea.
We'll resist the urge to say duh. These are the fairy tales upon which all subsequent fairy tales are modeled. Okay, not all, but a lot. So these are pretty conventional, happily-ever-after stories full of magic and romance and cannibalism.
About that last part: before fairy tales were sanitized in the process of becoming acceptable for children's literature, they were told by and for adults, too. So some of them have some pretty mature themes, sex and violence among them. The Grimms weeded a lot of those out, but there are still moments when we're like, Whoa! That dude totally ate his son by accident. And so on.
A few of the tales also fall under the headings of fables, parables, and folklore, legend, and mythology, because the Grimms didn't really distinguish between all those categories the way we might today. All the stories they collected kind of got lumped in together, in part because they were all distinctly different from the elite written literature of the time. Yes, this is the sort of thing that gives folklorists and archivists nightmares.
Technically, in the original German, the collection was titled Kinder- und Hausmärchen, which translates to Children's and Household Tales. This is not, as you can see, the most attention-grabbing title in the world. When's the last time you heard household in the title of a book and were just dying to read it?
It's been variously translated over the years, with some titles drawing attention to the fact that it's the GRIMMS' FAIRY TALES DID YOU HEAR ME I SAID GRIMMS'! Mostly, the titles for the collection draw attention to the fact that a) the collection includes fairy tales, b) they were collected by the Grimm brothers, and c) they're intended for kids. In this case, we're left with Grimms' Fairy Tales. Nice and straightforward, sure, but the title's nothing to write home about.
How do most of these tales end? Say it with Shmoop: "and they all lived happily ever after." Well, most of them. Most of the time. If you're virtuous and good, you'll definitely get a happily-ever-after. If you're not-so-good, or plain old bad, then you've probably got a gruesome end awaiting you.
For instance, "The Six Swans" ends like this: "Then, to the king's great joy, the children were brought to him, and as a punishment the wicked mother-in-law was tied to the stake and burned to ashes. Thereafter, the king and queen, along with her six brothers, lived for many years in peace and happiness" (The Six Swans.171). This is a pretty sweet deal for the king and queen, but not so much for the king's mother.
Very few tales conclude with, "And then the wicked stepmother/witch/false bride retired to a cottage where she took up ale-making and was a little lonely but otherwise okay." And the gendered nouns aren't an accident, either; wicked women are gruesomely punished while bad dudes, like, oh, we don't know, incestuous fathers or fathers who cut off their daughter's hands go unpunished. This is yet another example of how the tales are super-saturated with social meanings.
Fairy tales mostly happen in "once upon a time" land, which we doubt you could find on a map. However, observe:
• Exhibit A: lots of characters are kings, queens, princes, and princesses. That means the setting has some form of feudalism going on, which was historically found in European medieval society.
• Exhibit B: castles up the wazoo. Again, this is a characteristic of Europe, the place of all things old.
Despite this decidedly European atmosphere, though, most fairy tales don't happen in a specific place or time; a few mention place names, but mostly as a way to indicate the exotic or foreign.
For instance, we hear about a count from Switzerland in "The Three Languages." Man, it must've taken foreeeever to get to Switzerland before cars or planes. It must've seemed positively outlandish. Also, "The Three Black Princesses" is set in East India, which we're betting seemed super-exotic since very few Germans of the early 1800s would've had the chance to go there.
Just like some places have names, they also appear on maps (unfortunately, not maps that exist in our world). For example, in "The Raven," the protagonist learns that he must rescue a princess at the golden castle of Mount Stromberg. He meets a helpful giant who says, "I'll look it up on my map. It shows all the cities, villages, and houses." The mountain turns out to be thousands of miles away, which luckily doesn't take too long when you go by Giant Express.
Otherwise, we get to see a lot of cottages and forests. Nice places, right? They're yet another indication that the settings of most fairy tales are modeled on some imagined past because there sure aren't that many forests around anymore. And nobody today would live in a cottage unless it had WiFi. Sometimes tales are set in caves, but mostly people get rescued from those.
Come to think of it, caves and other natural spaces function to signify not-civilization, whereas cottages and castles are based on the idea of civilization. So you could divide a lot of fairy-tale settings into "civilized spaces" and "uncivilized spaces." Just for kicks.
While the fairy tales themselves have unspecified or deliberately exotic settings, the context in which the fairy tales were being told had some definite qualities. Germany was not yet Germany, but rather a collection of regions that more or less spoke German (or related dialects). Napoleon was carving up the region to his liking, leading to yet more anxiety about which places belonged to whom.
Industrialization, capitalism, and democracy were some new concepts also floating around and influencing people when the tales were being recorded and published. The French Revolution had already happened, the United States had existed for a few decades, and the Industrial Revolution was well under way. With all this newfangleness up in the air, who wouldn't want to escape to a pleasantly comfortable medieval-ish setting where wishes came true?
With the exception of some quaint phrases and plant names you've probably never heard of, the language of the Grimms' fairy tales is pretty easy to understand (though your mileage may vary by translation). But don't confuse simplicity with slack-jawed stupidity: the tales depict conflicts and scenarios that are relevant to everyone—adults included.
Gosh, these tales are just filled with old-timey, quaint things like spinning (who even knows how to spin anymore?), agriculture (lots of farmer characters), and the feudal system. Because it's awesome having a hereditary monarchical government. And worrying about your children starving during a famine. Golly, we sure miss the good old days!
But all joking aside, there's not much to say about the writing style here, because it's clear that the Grimms weren't all that worried about, well, style. They had stories to tell, so they told them—no frills, no fluff. Just the facts, ma'am, with a healthy dose of matter-of-fact magic.
Back in the day, people had to spin their own thread and yarn and stuff from scratch. And by "people" we mean "women." It was apparently tedious work, and so we get tales in which women try to get out of it by any means necessary. Some critics even argue that spinning was such an important part of women's lives that they did it during most of their free time. And to pass the time while spinning, they would tell tales…that were, sometimes, about spinning. Yikes.
We get glimpses of spinning (and the mixed feelings about it) in a handful of tales. In "Rumpelstiltskin," a poor miller lies about his daughter's ability to spin straw into gold, and thus puts her life on the line. The king at first threatens her life if she cannot fulfill this task, but then offers to marry her when she does. You know, because marrying your homicidal captor constitutes a happy ending and all.
Similarly, in "The Three Spinners," a mother beats her daughter because she is "a lazy maiden who did not want to spin, and no matter what her mother said, she refused to spin" (The Three Spinners.50). When the queen passes by and inquires about the ruckus, the mother makes an exaggerated claim about her daughter's ability to spin tons of flax, which of course the maiden can't pull off. Three ugly old women help her accomplish this monumental task, and at the wedding they each say that spinning is what has made them ugly, thus getting the maiden off the hook forever. The moral of the story seems to be that marrying a prince is nice, but no longer being forced to spin is even nicer, especially if it means you'll stay pretty.
In "The Lazy Spinner," the whole point of the story is also about getting out of spinning. The main female character is Lazy-with-a-capital-L: "Whenever her husband gave her something to spin, she never finished it, and whatever she did spin, she did not wind but left it tangled on the bobbin" (The Lazy Spinner.41). She then tells her husband to chop wood to make her a reel so she can actually finish her spinning, but she uses that opportunity to creepily whisper a prophecy about how both chopping wood and spinning will cause death. She manages to get out of spinning, but the tale ends: "you yourself must admit that his wife was a nasty woman" (The Lazy Spinner.42). Not spinning is a plus, but not wanting to spin makes you nasty? Mixed messages, much?
Oh, and Brier Rose? Yeah, spinning didn't work out so well for her either, seeing as she pricked her needle on a spindle and took the longest nap ever. The subjugated heroine in "Mother Holle" also has a bad time with spinning: "Every day the poor maiden had to sit near a well by the road and spin and spin until her fingers bled" (Mother Holle.88).
So spinning is this awful task and it makes you ugly and it's required for every woman to do…we're not getting a good vibe here. One notable counterexample is "Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle," wherein the good, pious girl spins and spins and attracts a wealthy husband because she's so hardworking (maybe he doesn't know that the ugly comes later).
Spinning can lead to snagging a desirable spouse or riches (as in "The Three Spinners," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Mother Holle"), but we're not sure if that makes spinning a good thing or not, given all the other bad stuff that comes with. So while spinning is a sure sign of womanhood in these tales, it's both a blessing and a curse.
A lot of the tales take place in cities and castles, but a good deal of the action also occurs in non-civilized places. Where does Little Red Cap talk to the wolf, which leads to digestion problems for all involved? The forest. Where does Snow White get dropped off by the hunter who's supposed to kill her? The woods. Where does Rapunzel wander once the sorceress kicks her out? The desert. You get the idea.
While we don't always get a description of how a forest or landscape looks, it often feels the way a character feels. So, when Snow White is left in the forest, here's how it's described: "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" (Snow White.182). Yeah, she's lonely all right, and the wild beasts aren't helping.
Sometimes the wilderness is a place not only of potential danger or refuge, but also of empowerment. When the prince in "Iron Hans" releases the wild man and accompanies him into the forest, Iron Hans nurtures him and then tells him to go off on his own. Every time the prince needs something, Iron Hans emerges from the forest with some rockin' armor and stuff for the prince.
In "Saint Joseph in the Forest," the heroine meets the saint…in the forest. Good things happen for her, and bad things happen for her nasty eldest sister. This reinforces the idea that what you bring into the wild influences your experience of it. Kind of like when Luke Skywalker goes into a cave during his Jedi training and fights an imaginary Darth Vader…who turns out to be himself. The lesson here is that if you're headed into the wilds, it's best to get some therapy first.
Just reading some of these tales is enough to make one's stomach start growling. There's a pot that makes endless amounts of sweet porridge ("The Sweet Porridge"); there's a table that covers itself with any and every kind of food ("The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn"); there's a supply of bread, meat, and wine that never runs out ("The Raven"); and there's an endless feast that only someone with an extraordinary appetite can consume ("How Six Made Their Way in the World"). And let's not forget the poisoned apple in "Snow White," the gingerbread house in "Hansel and Gretel," and the cake and wine being brought to Granny in "Little Red Cap."
Why the preoccupation with food, other than that it's delicious? In many cultures, food is a concrete representation of social networks and relationships. When one of the sons in "The Magic Table, the Golden Donkey, and the Club in the Sack" returns home with a table that will magically feed people, he proudly tells his father, "Just invite all our relatives and friends. I'll provide them with good refreshments and a fine meal. My table will give them more than enough to eat" (The Magic Table, the Golden Donkey, and the Club in the Sack.128). And when the heroine in "One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes" is practically starving, a maternal helper-figure gives her a goat that will magically feed her.
You know the saying, "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach"? That goes for more than just courtship rituals; families feed each other as an expression of love and caring, and people celebrate holidays and special occasions with food. Exchanging food is a social act, so being able to feed people just because, as the magic tables and porridge pots of the tales do, is something really special.
Also, most of these tales originated from and were told by peasants. And agricultural life was harsh, yo. There was no guarantee that you'd always have enough to eat. So it makes sense that in "The Crumbs on the Table," a rooster urges the hens to pick crumbs from their mistress's table while she's gone. She returns and they get a beating. If we put on our metaphor-goggles, this seems like a pretty good analogy for the haves and have-nots of society; some folks are lucky enough to have plenty of food, while others are reduced to scrounging for crumbs at the risk of their own safety.
Having enough food is, by most standards, a good thing. Since fairy tales are about wish fulfillment, why not throw in a description of a good meal while you're also marrying a princess and being generally awesome?
Not every character can carry a tune, but you'll hear more than just a few ditties in these tales. We get to see competent musicians, as in "The Marvelous Minstrel," and incompetent musicians, as in "The Bremen Town Musicians." Rapunzel draws the prince to her with her singing, while the protagonist of "The Jew in the Thornbush" has a fiddle that compels anyone listening to it to dance as long as the fiddle is played.
Byproducts of music, such as dance, also feature in the tales. The princesses in "The Worn-out Dancing Shoes" are the ultimate dancing queens, sneaking into an otherworldly realm every night just to get their groove on. Lots of rhyming and rhythmic speech also occurs in the tales, as magical formulas, descriptive phrases, and pleas for help. Rumpelstiltskin reveals his name to the queen's hidden agent as he screeches a charming little rhyme about how he'll get the queen's child the next day. Song, music, and dance function as more than mere entertainment in the tales. They convey important information and literally make magic happen.
Fairy tales tend not to narrate what happens to you or me. They tell us about That Person Over There Who Is Often Royalty (Or Soon To Become Royalty). Using the third person narrative voice is the most effective way to tell us that Person A was orphaned and is bummed about it, while Person B sees through Person's A disguise to notice that they're actually kind of hot, and sometimes we get a glimpse of Person C's thoughts as she whips up yet another miraculously beautiful dress to bring the two lovebirds together.
For instance, in "Little Red Cap" we get to see the wolf's predatory thoughts: "The wolf thought to himself, This tender young thing is a juicy morsel. She'll taste even better than the old woman. You've got to be real crafty if you want to catch them both" (Little Red Cap.93). But then we see Little Red Cap's thoughts as she enters the cottage: "She was puzzled when she found the door open, and as she entered the room, it seemed so strange inside that she thought, Oh, my God, how frightened I feel today, and usually I like to be at Grandmother's" (Little Red Cap.95). These exchanges help us see that the wolf, unlike other fairy-tale animals, is definitely not a friendly helper figure, even if we do get a chance to relate to his thoughts.
The use of the third person also gives us enough narrative distance to avoid leaking empathy every time someone is killed in fairy tales ("Nameless Suitors," we feel for ya). At the same time, fairy tales manage to be pretty personal. Who doesn't feel bad for orphans and mistreated youngest siblings? Getting the occasional look at their thoughts also helps convince us that we're rooting for the right person. Good and evil tend to be pretty clearly delineated in fairy tales, and the "omniscient" part of the "third person omniscient" definitely helps with that.
Okay, there are two tales that appear in the first person: "The Tale About the Land of Cockaigne" and "A Tall Tale from Ditmarsh" which are nonsense tales and don't really fit the overall pattern, but we thought we'd mention them anyway. What's with the weird change of pace? And what about those dialogue tales? We'll leave those questions up to you.