Germany has long been considered a land of fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm collection of Märchen popularised the tales they collected here, and plenty of German villages, houses and forests look like they might have sprung straight out of a story book.
But having moved to Germany a little over a year ago, I’ve become more aware of the smaller ways in which the famous fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm reflect their cultural origins. For the first time, I can see evidence of the roots they sprung from in the world around me – roots I wouldn’t have noticed while in my Australian homeland.
I’ve been reading a German version of Grimm’s collection (as well as referencing a Brothers Grimm Folk & Fairy Tales English translation I recently bought), and these origins have become all the more obvious.
So I thought I’d have a look at 4 popular fairy tales in the collection that I consider to be very “German” –
- Hansel & Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel),
- Snow White (Schneewittchen),
- Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen)
- Rumpelstiltskin (Rumpelstilzchen)
– and identify what elements in these tales give them, from my perspective as a foreigner, a particularly local flavour:
The Gingerbread House
Last Christmas I learnt that a man in a village not too far from here constructs a little gingerbread hut in his front garden every time Christmas rolls around. Local children often come to visit it. This struck me as amusing, given the Hansel & Gretel associations with this kind of thing… but the fact remains that gingerbread is a popular food with a long tradition here. Gingerbread was being crafted by German monks back in the 13th Century, and in the 1600s the bakers of Nuremberg became famous for shaping gingerbread into works of art (see Gingerbread House). So gingerbread artistry is not the pure invention of a fanciful story teller who thought up this tale.
For me, gingerbread has always been associated with Christmas, but from my first visit to Germany I realised that most things I consider to be ‘Christmassy’ have German origins (or German-inspired American origins). Living here now, I see just how entrenched gingerbread is as a christmas staple. My German grandmother-in-law always gives me lebkuchen in a satchel of various home-baked cookies for Christmas.
Hansel & Gretel is not the only fairy tale to use gingerbread, there’s also ‘The Gingerbread Man’. However, that tale is actually American in origin.
A few years ago I read a brilliant and sobering book called Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany by Lyndal Roper. It analyses the extensive witch hunts that occurred in Germany in the 16th & 17th Centuries (I talk about it more in another post: The Danger of Believing in Witches) .
When reading those accounts, I noticed how many witches were said to have eaten babies, killed children, or cursed children to make them lame. With the high infant mortality rate at the time, it seemed the witch hunts were also a way for superstitious people to blame others for their ill-fortune if they had miscarriages, disabled babies or ill children.
I never questioned why the witch in Hansel & Gretel might want to eat the children (she was just an evil witch!) but within this context it’s clear that was what witches were believed to do. Even the plan of the evil witch-like step mother to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver makes a little more sense in this context.
I noticed quite a few German landmarks have ‘Hex’ or ‘Hexen’ (witch) in their names. In one local city, the ‘Hexenturm’ is actually a place where a tower once stood that held people accused of witchcraft. While now witches are largely quaint storybook figures, the history of real belief in witchcraft here is evident in the more sinister fairy tales and the sites of former witch trials and burnings.
This was perhaps the most striking thing I noticed when reading the German version of some well-known fairy tales… the sheer number of diminutives used. In German, the suffixes -chen and -lein are added to the end of words to make the object described smaller, cuter and more endearing. It’s like us using -kin in English in something like Munchkin.
So add a -chen to the end of Haus and you have a Häuschen – a small house. In this context, the name Rumpelstiltskin, originally Rumpelstilzchen, makes more sense. Apparently a Rumpelstilz was a kind of goblin that rattles posts or raps on planks, like a poltergeist, and the –chen indicates he’s small. Even the nickname Little Red Riding Hood is more succinct and logical in German: Rotkäppchen.
These suffixes add a cute, childish kind of sound to the tale. I guess they have a similar effect to the nonsense words or the silly names you see in English nursery rhymes.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why Snow White ends up at the house of seven dwarves… when she arrives at the Häuschen (small house), the narrator makes a point of listing all the small things the dwarves have: the Tellerlein (small plates), Löffelein (small spoons), Becherlein (small cups) and Bettchen (small beds) etc. There’s even a rather Goldilocks moment when she chooses the Bettchen that is not too large or small but just right for her. The whole passage feels a lot like an excuse to refer to lots of cute, small things using diminutives.
Forests, Woodcutters and Hunters
Many fairy tales involve forests, woodcutters, and huts or hidden houses in the woods. Having wandered through dark, pine-heavy German forests and seen many a hut, I can see how such things would have fascinated and cropped up in the tales people told. Also forests in Germany aren’t the vast semi-arid bushlands or tropical rainforests I’m used to in Australia. The idea that a little girl might wander through a forest next to her village to reach her grandmother’s house, or simply to get to the next village, makes sense.
You can see evidence nowadays of the old woodcutting industries in the Black Forest (and presumably in other forests). There’s a cardboard factory next to a river in the Black Forest near here, and its location is no accident. Wood is even still being cut in places for processing or firewood. Many people cut and gather their own firewood.
Furthermore, hunting and shooting clubs exist in nearly every town, and I once walked past a post-hunt gathering where men in their traditional hunting hats stood over their kills (see above photo). These modern-day hobbyist hunters and woodcutters are a far cry from those that appear in tales like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, but they are still remnants of what once would have been widespread professions.
Towers and Castles
Many other European countries have old castles and towers, they are not unique to Germany. That said, Germany does seem to have more than its fair share of them, and the medieval forts and ominous towers often look very much like those you might encounter in a fairy tale – especially when nestled amongst the trees of a forest or perched on the tip of a large hill near a village. You can imagine a damsel locked away in one of these, waiting for a prince or a knight to come and rescue her.
Along one part of the Rhine, the Rheingau region, castles pop up so regularly on the hills on either side that you almost stop noticing them anymore.
There’s also the simple fact that a few of the rhymes in famous tales work better in the original German.
While we’ve found a good replacement in:
“mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest of them all?”
The German original is (and again, note the diminutive -lein):
“Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand,
wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?”
(mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the most beautiful in the whole land)
But the final taunt of Rumpelstiltskin really works better as a rhyme in German than any English version I’ve encountered:
“Ach, wie gut, dass niemand weiß,
dass ich Rumpelstilzchen heiß”
(Oh how good that nobody knows
that my name is Rumpelstiltskin)
Tales in The Wider World
Of course the Brother’s Grimm tales didn’t all originate in Germany. Fairy tales are often thousands of years old, having traversed borders and transformed through a long history of oral storytelling, and parallel tales can be found in countries all over Europe and sometimes beyond. Exact tracing to an ‘origin’ story or location can be difficult.
However, many of the well-known fairy tales today were popularised by the Grimm’s collection, which were the German versions of these tales, and have thus been influenced by local custom and language in their retelling and evolution.
I find it fascinating to read these tales in the context of their original setting. Many of them have influences from German culture and language that I would have never noticed when learning them as a child. Even better, I can go visit the man with the gingerbread house, or stumble across a hut when walking in the forest, and feel a little like I’m on the edge of a fairy tale.