Study Guide

Grimms' Fairy Tales Religion

By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm


Once upon a time there was a hermit who lived in the forest at the foot of a mountain, and he passed the time by praying and doing good deeds. To honor God he would carry several pails of water up the mountainside each evening. Since there was always a hard wind that dried out the air and soil in the mountain peak, many an animal was able to quench its thirst because of the water he carried, and many a plant was refreshed. (The Three Green Twigs.590)

The best Christians, it's implied, lead a Christ-like life, devoid of, say, running water. We hope they're not too attached to fancy things like toilet paper.

"My!" exclaimed the Jew. "What's the sense of all this fiddling? Please stop all this fiddling, sir. I have no desire to dance." The servant kept playing nevertheless, for he thought, You've skinned plenty of people, so now the thorns will give you some of your own treatment in return. (The Jew in the Thornbush.368)

Holy anti-Semitism, Batman! This tale, along with a few others in the Grimms, expresses the negative attitudes that many European Christians held toward Jews, representing them as shrewd and deserving of punishment. It ain't pretty, but that's history.

Then she fell to her knees, called out to the Lord, and prayed. Suddenly an angel appeared who closed one of the locks in the stream so the moat became dry and she could walk through it. Now she went into the garden accompanied by the angel. She caught sight of a beautiful tree of pears… she approached the tree and ate one of the pears with her mouth to satisfy her hunger. (The Maiden Without Hands.110)

Even if your dad chops off your hands, the Lord will take care of you. Just, like, pray and stuff. Later in the tale, God even restores her hands, demonstrating that faith pays off.

A light erupted above her, and the Virgin Mary descended with the two little sons at either side and the newborn daughter in her arms. She said to the queen kindly, "Those who repent their sins and confess will be forgiven." (The Virgin Mary's Child.10)

But until you repent, holy figures like the Virgin Mary might make your life totally miserable. Religion is kind of a mixed bag in these tales, if we're being honest.

So the Lord turned around and went across the street to the small house. No sooner had he knocked than the poor man already had the door open and asked the traveler to enter. (The Poor Man and the Rich Man.289)

Attention: this is only a test. This is only a test. This is—oh, well, if you turned away God in disguise, you didn't just fail the test. You freakin' bombed it. Welcome to a religion where religious figures can test you incognito at any time and dole out rewards or punishments based on your actions.

The old lady looked and saw her two children there. One was hanging on the gallows, the other broken on the wheel. "You see, that's what would have happened to them if they had lived longer and God had not taken them to himself as innocent children." The old lady went home trembling and thanked God on her knees for having shown her more kindness than she had been able to understand. (The Little Old Lady.593)

The lesson here is (and yes, this is yelling): DO NOT QUESTION GOD'S JUDGMENT. Just don't. Seriously. Don't.

The village priest had taken a liking to the farmer's wife and kept wishing he could spend one whole day alone with her in pleasure. The woman would have liked that too. (Old Hildebrand.321)

Even priests aren't always holy in these tales. In fact, sometimes they're cads and deserve the punishments that the protagonists dole out. Did we mention religion was a mixed bag in Grimms'?

"If the devil comes home and finds you, it will cost you your neck." (The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs.104)

Not only does the devil want your soul, he also wants to eat you! Sounds like a great guy.

"If you hire yourself out to me and will be my servant," the devil said, "you'll have enough for the rest of your life. But you've got to serve me seven years, and after that you'll be free." (The Devil's Sooty Brother.337-338)

The devil's not all bad once you get on his good side. So we end up getting a pretty multifaceted image of the devil (like all religious figures) in these tales. What are some other tales that feature the devil? And what kind of impression do you get of the guy?

Eventually, the children lost their patience, and one Sunday they waited until the nixie was in church and then ran away. (The Water Nixie.267)

Nixies are supernatural critters, but they still go to church? Yeah, it's mind-bending, but just go with it. Non-humans in fairy tales (ranging from nixies to animals) are often given human ideals and identities (a little thing we like to call anthropomorphism, and religion's just one of 'em.