Burning, Starving and Maiming: Nursery Rhymes Without Happily Ever Afters

Original Illustration from Struwwelpeter

We all know fairy tales can be a little violent and frightening, despite the fact they seem aimed at children: wolves eating people, children getting poisoned or abandoned by evil stepmothers. However, a year or two ago I was made aware of a German children’s story – a kind of nursery rhyme – that I found more disturbing and amusing than any of the fairy tales I’d heard.

It was this brief send-up in a Family Guy episode that first brought my attention to the topic:

When I watched this clip I presumed it was just making fun of the usual German stereotypes. You know the ones: no sense of humour, overly logical and practical, too direct. Then my significant other (who is German) informed me that this clip actually depicts, in shortened form, a well-known German children’s story.

Yes. The story of a naughty boy who sucks his thumbs even though his mother tells him not to… until a wandering tailor comes and cuts of his thumbs with a giant, sharp pair of scissors.

And apparently there’s a whole collection of these joyful moral tales.


Struwwelpeter Book Cover

Front Cover of Struwwelpeter (depicting a boy who refused to cut his nails or comb his hair, and is thus derided by everyone)

The story that Family Guy parodied, which is titled Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher (The Story of the Thumb-Sucker), is from the book Struwwelpeter (1845), written by German author Heinrich Hoffman. The book contains 10 stories told in verse, accompanied by illustrations.

Almost all of them have delightful endings that involve a misbehaving child either dying, suffering, or being injured in some way. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug (The Truly Sad Story of the Matches): a girl wants to play with matches, but a cat tells her not to. She plays with them anyway and burns to death.
  2. Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar (The Story of Soup-Kaspar): Kaspar, a chubby, healthy boy, refuses to eat his soup. Five days pass in which he continues to refuse his soup, so he wastes away and dies.
  3. Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert (The Story of Flying Robert): despite the fact he knows boys and girls should stay inside during storms, Robert goes outside during a storm. The wind catches his umbrella and takes him into the clouds and far away, where no one hears his cries. He is presumably never seen again.
Illustration: Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug

Illustration from Struwwelpeter

For summaries of the rest you can check out the Wikipedia page (or, thanks to the Gutenberg Project, you can also read the full English translation of the book and the original German version online, replete with illustrations).

Mark Twain wrote an English translation of the book titled Slovenly Peter, and the tales have inspired songs, stories, films and plays both in Germany and abroad.

Struwwelpeter isn’t, however, the only collection of German nursery rhymes in which naughty children meet grisly ends.

Max und Moritz

Illustration: Max und Moritz

Illustration from Max und Moritz

Max und Moritz, written by Wilhelm Busch and published in 1865, tells the story of two trouble-making boys.

The boys play 7 nasty pranks on people in their village: killing and stealing a widow’s chickens, sawing a hole in a bridge so a tailor falls through and nearly drowns, filling a teacher’s pipe with gun powder, putting bugs in their uncle’s bed, etc.

While trying to enact their 6th prank, Max and Moritz have a near miss: they fall into a vat of baker’s dough. The baker bakes them in the oven, but they survive and escape by gnawing through the crust.

With their 7th prank they aren’t so lucky. The boys hide in a grain store and cut holes in sacks of grain. The farmer discovers them, puts them in the sacks instead and takes them to the mill. They get ground to pieces and fed to the ducks. And as the ending makes very clear, no one was sad about it. In fact, all the people in the village express their delight, and the story concludes:

Kurz im ganzen Ort herum
Ging ein freudiges Gebrumm:
»Gott sei Dank! Nun ist’s vorbei
Mit der Übeltäterei!!«

(Soon in the whole place
there was a joyous humming
“Thank god! Now it’s over,
these evil doings!!”)

You can read the full German version here, and the English summary on the Wikipedia page.

Illustration from Max und Moritz: Ducks Eating Remains

Illustration from Max und Moritz

Grisly Ends and Missing Body Parts

It’s funny, but despite being familiar with a number of dark fairy tales, these nursery rhymes strike me as that extra bit more absurd and brutal.

I think it’s because in these stories it’s often the children, rather than adults or animals, that meet grisly ends. The fantasy element is almost altogether absent, so you’re left with real-world children dying in creative and exaggerated ways, often at the hands of normal adults rather than wolves or witches. The stories are presumably meant to be funny and over-the-top, and for children they probably are… though I can’t help but feel that some of them, particularly the thumb-cutting one, might have been a tad disturbing to me as a child, particularly when accompanied by the illustrations.

The German Perspective

Of course, I didn’t grow up with these stories. Perhaps if I had, they would seem a little more normal to me.

I don’t think my partner realised how absurd and amusing they appeared to foreigners until he saw the Family Guy sketch. According to him, he took these nursery rhymes quite seriously when he was a kid, rather than viewing them as jokes or funny stories. He was struggling to understand both why the kids in them were so naughty, and why their punishments were so severe. His parents did, however, explain to him that they were not to be taken too seriously: that they were old stories and wouldn’t be written that way anymore. Nowadays it seems most adults and teachers are aware these tales go a little far with their moral warnings, and ensure they’re taken with a hefty grain of salt.

German and English Traditions

Book Cover: Fantastic Mr. FoxThe story of the severed thumbs reminded me a little of two of my own childhood favourites: The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (by Beatrix Potter) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (by Roald Dahl). Both these stories involve animals having their tails cut or shot off, and I remember finding this severing of body parts a little disquieting. I don’t know how I would have fared with the thumb-sucker story. And I can’t even begin to describe how disturbing I found the cartoon rendition of Watership Down… bunny rabbits dying left right and centre (though I’d argue that story wasn’t really meant for children).

In addition, there are more ancient fables like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which have a similar moral flavour (though admittedly in that one the sheep die, not the boy). In the American tradition you also have stories like those of Br’er Rabbit, which involve trickster animals that learn lessons, but these are generally pretty harmless.

So when it comes down to it, I can’t think of any nursery rhymes or fables in the English tradition that quite match these German ones for their bizarre and brutal endings. I’d hesitate to proclaim our English nursery rhymes any less sinister, because I might be biased by the fact I’ve grown up with them, or I might simply be forgetting some… but if there were a competition for gruesome and absurd nursery rhymes, I think 19th Century Germans might be leading the pack.

I certainly wont be reading The Truly Sad Story of the Matches or The Story of the Thumb-Sucker to any children any time soon.

6 thoughts on “Burning, Starving and Maiming: Nursery Rhymes Without Happily Ever Afters

  1. Well. These are a bit over the top. Many of the fairy tales we all grew up with actually started in a collection by the Brothers Grimm. More Germans, that explains why people get their heads cut off and are dragged through the streets in barrels lined with nails.


    • Yes, it’s impressive how many popular fairy tales originate in Germany. I’m actually currently reading the Brothers Grimm fairy tale collection. It’s fascinating to read these 19th Century versions… they are indeed pretty dark. Though there are also some popular fairy tales of English origin that have similarly grisly and violent content: e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, The Three Little Pigs. So in that respect the Germans don’t have a monopoly.


  2. The American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book called “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales” that also touches on this topic. According to Wikipedia: “Bettelheim suggested that traditional fairy tales, with the darkness of abandonment, death, witches, and injuries, allowed children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms. If they could read and interpret these fairy tales in their own way, he believed, they would get a greater sense of meaning and purpose.”


    • Yes I think that makes a lot of sense… there’s something about the impossible events, talking animals and magical creatures of fairy tales that I think somehow renders them less confronting and more symbolic. I know, for example, the concept of a witch baking in the oven, or of giants grinding human bones, didn’t bother me as a child, probably because it was all so obviously make believe. Though with Struwwelpeter, which almost entirely removes the fantasy element, the stories seem a little too close to home for children to comfortably and remotely “grapple with their fears”.


  3. What do you think of “Santa Claus is coming to town”? It comes near to Orwells 1984 in my opinion and given todays social media in the internet and their surveillance not only by governmental agencies but by large companies that pretend to “only to adjust to your preferred subjects” it is terrifying in my opinion.


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