Study Guide

Grimms' Fairy Tales Cunning and Cleverness

By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Cunning and Cleverness

So Brother Lustig handed him the knapsack through the bars of the gate, and Saint Peter hung it up beside his chair. Suddenly Brother Lustig said, "Now I wish myself into my knapsack." Within seconds he was inside the knapsack and inside heaven as well. So Saint Peter was obliged to let him stay there. (Brother Lustig.276)

Tricking your way into heaven does take some craftiness. Of course, it also helps to have a magic wishing sack. But still, we can't imagine Brother Lustig's going to be all that popular up there.

She looked at everything for many hours, and in her joy she did not notice that the ship had sailed. […] "Oh!" she cried out in horror. "You've deceived me!" (Faithful Johannes)

Apparently, tricking a princess into accompanying you onto a ship is okay if you intend to marry her, and if your social status actually matches hers. This tale actually contains layers of deceit, which is all presented as totally justified so long as it's for a good cause (as when Faithful Johannes follows the advice of ravens to save his king, but has to lie about his intentions).

Naturally, none of what the cat had said was true. He did not have a cousin, nor had he been asked to be godfather. He went straight to the church, crept to the little jar of fat, and began licking and licking until he had licked the skin off the top. (The Companionship of the Cat and the Mouse.5)

Gotta watch out for those cats, they're tricksy fellows (especially gotta watch out if you're a mouse). And it just goes to show that if you make a pact with someone in these tales, we'll it's a fifty-fifty shot if you'll come out of it as planned.

When the bear saw this, he felt like having some nuts too. So the little tailor reached into his pocket and gave him a handful. However, these were not nuts but small stones. The bear put them into his mouth and could not crack open any of them, no matter how much he tried. (The Clever Little Tailor.381)

Yes, my friends, this tailor was clever enough to outwit a bear. And not just any bear, but a talking bear. Let's see you do that, Dwight Schrute.

Gretel ran to see who was there, and when she saw the guest, she put her finger to her lips and whispered, "Shhh, be quiet! Get out of here as quick as you can! If my master catches you, you'll be done for. It's true he invited you to dinner, but he really wants to cut off both your ears. Listen to him sharpening his knife!" (Clever Gretel.265)

Gretel, the servant, eats both the chickens intended for dinner that night, and tricks both the master and his guest into thinking something else is afoot. An early form of class-consciousness, or good clean fun?

However, he granted her one last request; she could take the dearest and best thing that she could think of with her, and that was to be her parting gift. […] Then she embraced him, kissed him, and asked him to drink to her parting. He agreed, and she ordered a strong sleeping potion. The king took a big swig, but she only drank a little. Soon he fell into a deep sleep, and […] she drove him to her house and put him to bed. (The Clever Farmer's Daughter.321)

There sure are a lot of tales with "clever" in the title, aren't there? In this case, interpreting a command literally is a way of getting away with something, and one-upping the commander when it comes to cunning.

She put her two sisters into a basket and covered them completely with gold until nothing could be seen of them at all. Then she called the sorcerer to her and said, "Now take the basket away. But don't you dare stop and rest along the way! I'll be keeping an eye on you from my window." The sorcerer lifted the basket onto his back and went on his way. The basket, however, was so heavy that sweat ran down his face. At one point he sat down and wanted to rest for a while, but one of the sisters called from the basket, "I can see through my window that you're resting. Get a move on at once!" (Fitcher's Bird.157)

Devising a way to smuggle your sisters out of a murderous sorcerer's house? That requires cunning times two, at least. This tale condones constructive cleverness (using it to save your own life) over destructive cleverness (how the sorcerer deceives girls when he gives them an egg to guard, basically setting them up to fail).

"It's yours," the devil answered, "if you give me half of what your field produces during the next two years. […]" The peasant agreed to the bargain. "Just so that we do not quarrel about how to divide everything," he said, "you shall have everything that grows above the earth and I shall get everything beneath it." The devil was quite satisfied with the proposal, but the cunning little pleasant had planted turnips. (The Peasant and the Devil.548)

Yep, in some fairy tales you can even trick the devil himself.

Once upon a time there was an old fox with nine tails who believed that his wife was unfaithful to him and wanted to put her to the test. So he stretched himself out under the bench, kept perfectly still, and pretended to be dead as a doornail. (The Wedding of Mrs. Fox.136)

When it doubt, play dead. It works every time.

When the apple was ready, the queen painted her face and dressed herself up as a peasant woman, and crossed the seven mountains to the cottage of the seven dwarfs. (Snow White.186)

What's the point of being an evil sorceress if you don't also get to disguise yourself from time to time? Not like it's all that necessary; Snow White lets the evil queen in disguise give her three poisonous things (the apple being the last) over time. Sometimes you don't even have to be all that cunning to off your naively trusting stepchild.