‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ – Albert Einstein
I’m taking a slight departure from picture book reviews today to talk about fairy tales. As a German teacher, and former college professor, I’ve spent a lot of time with fairy tales — teaching the history of the Grimm brothers and their collection of the folk tales handed down in oral tradition as well as the literary fairy tales of the Romantic movement with their intricate tales of madness. Then of course, there are the Disney adaptations with all the blood and violence stripped out, and the marvelous modern re-tellings which turn expected norms on their ears and put familiar characters in diverse new settings.
I read aloud to my kids every night and we’ve done Harry Potter, Narnia, Percy Jackson and many other series, but I thought I’d take a break and pull my “Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales” off the shelf. The boys appreciate hearing a story from start to finish in one night (another perk of picture books!) and I’m ashamed to admit I never read the boys many fairy tales when they were little. We’re avoiding the old standby tales like Snow White and Cinderella (even though the original Grimm versions are much more exciting and bloody) in favor for a few of the obscure ones I discovered in graduate school and often use in my teaching.
So come with me and explore a few stories which deserve way more attention than they’ve been given by “mainstream media:”
- Mother Hulda (Frau Holle): This is the typical “hard work is rewarded, laziness is punished trope” combined with the “evil stepmother” conceit and the rule of threes. In this case, the beautiful stepdaughter ends up in a magical land where the bread asks to be taken from the oven, the apples ask to be picked and an old woman asks to be cared for. Fulfilling these requests ends in a reward of gold…so her lazy stepsister tries the same trick and…well, you can probably guess, but I encourage you to read and find out. It’s a great lesson in writing parallel structures and pacing– and while the moral is a little “on the nose,” that’s true with most fairy tales.
- The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren): As Grimm fairy tales go, this one is on the long side, and includes a lot of action. Interestingly, the main character was said to be lucky because he was born with a “caul” over his head (i.e. part of the birth membrane), necessitating some explanation as I read it to my sons. That esoterica aside, it’s a very dramatic story including shape shifting, tricking the devil, and sweet revenge that takes a long, long time. Similar to Mother Hulda, there’s also a pivotal lesson against greed.
- The Seven Ravens (Die sieben Raben): I first read this story when it appeared in a German textbook I used to use in my college courses. The translation I read to my children last night interpreted a line very differently– in the German (and the translation linked here), the little girl who is trying to save her brothers (who have been transformed into ravens) cuts off her finger to use it as a key to unlock the gate in the mountain. In the translation I have at home, she simply sticks her finger into the lock. (Big difference!) The story itself has a sad premise: a father curses his sons when they trip bringing back water to baptize their baby sister and ends up turning them into ravens– pretty cruel punishment considering the children are described as anxious to perform the task set to them and the father is described as “in such agony” about getting the water that he spoke thoughtlessly. It’s an odd story, to be sure, but it’s got a happy ending, and a brave female lead who literally travels to the moon and back to save her brothers.
- The Hare and the Hedgehog (Der Hase und der Igel): This charming story is a very close sibling to “The Tortoise and the Hare,” but much more interesting. After the arrogant hare and clever hedgehog agree to race, the hedgehog gets his wife to play along and trick the hare by standing at the finish line, making the hare think the hedgehog had won. They raced over and over until the hare dropped dead, at which point Mr. and Mrs. Hedgehog enjoyed a bottle of brandy and a good laugh. It would make a great Warner Brothers cartoon.
- The Wolf and the Fox (Der Wolf und der Fuchs): Again, this is a bit like an Aesop’s fable and follows the traditional characterizations of the wolf as being violent and fox being clever. In this story, the wolf and fox have a living arrangement, but the wolf constantly threatens the fox with being eaten if he doesn’t procure food for him. My children and I wondered why the fox didn’t just leave. It reminds me of an abusive relationship and in the end the fox gets the better of the wolf through his cleverness which makes the entire story worth reading.
Next month we’ll explore a few of those fairy tales which don’t really need reviving– after all, the complete collection contains 211 tales, and it’s not arrogance to say they are not all “Cinderella.” (Spoiler alert: there’s racism! And sexism! And a dead dog!)