Germany - Fairy tales and folk tales - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


19. Fairy tales and folk tales


Ruth B. Bottigheimer




Fairy tales in Germany derived extensively from the French tradition. For a century, translations and borrowings had enabled German booksellers to repeat the French model: the writings of Charles Perrault, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Charlotte de la Force, Suzanne de Villeneuve, Mme Leprince de Beaumont, and the Cabinet des Fees supplied middle- and upper-class German adults and children with elaborate tales about fairies and simpler fairy tales, such as ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Chapbooks delivered simplified versions of the same material (Gratz 1988: 83ff) to the lower orders.

The French had ascribed fairy tales to women’s authorship, despite the manifest participation by men such as Charles Perrault. German intellectuals took a circuitous route to arrive at the same conclusion. First, they developed a theory of the fairy tale (Mdrchen) that linked it with ancient history, which they defined as the childhood of the human race. Then the childhood of the human race was equated with childhood per se. Because of fairy tales’ simple structure and plot lines (so different from the tales about fairies), J. G. Herder further equated fairy tales with nature. And finally, because a body of gender theory had developed in eighteenth-century Germany that defined women as the incarnation of nature, fantasy and non-rational cerebration, and because - in the same theory - women’s natural state was motherhood, the establishment of the two fairy-tale correlates, childhood and nature, forged a theoretical linkage between fairy tales and women. Much contemporary feminist interpretation of fairy tales is coloured by this conclusion. Enlightenment pedagogues thus denigrated fairy tales as stories told by ignorant nursemaids, or by women, who were understood to be incapable of intellection, and they sought, unsuccessfully, to eradicate fairy tales from the nursery and classroom. Nonetheless, fairy tales entered the precincts of some privileged German homes just as they had in England: Mme de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfants was translated into German as Lehrreiches Magazin fur Kinder and published for girls’ reading in 1760, and Sarah Fielding’s Governess, with its fairy-tale inclusions, was translated into German and published in the following year.

With the rise of German Romanticism, fairy tales were proposed as a paradigm for educating the imagination (Steinlein 1987: 115ff), and when Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm published their Kinder-und Hausmdrchen (1812 et seq.), they labelled their collection a childrearing manual (Grimm and Grimm 1812: preface). The collection eventually contained 210 tales, culled from friends, acquaintances, village informants, children’s almanacs and old books. ‘The Twelve Brothers’ (no. 9) may be taken as typical. Twelve brothers face relinquishing their patrimony and losing their lives if and when their mother bears them a sister. When that happens, they flee to the forest and vow blood vengeance on every girl they might encounter in the future. A full complement of fairy-tale situations ensues and, although the tale ends happily, the sister is exposed to the threat of her brothers’ violence and her mother-in-law’s hatred.

Even before Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their collection of fairy tales, Albert Ludwig Grimm had turned against Enlightenment children’s literature and had issued a call for a revival of the tales like ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Snow White’ (‘Ashenpittchen’, ‘Hansel und Gretel’, ‘Schneewittchen’) which he included in Ilindermdrchen (1808), his collection of children’s fairy tales. In a later book, Linas Mdrchenbuch (1827), A. L. Grimm scolded Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm for the ‘un-childlike style of their fairy tales’.

In time, fairy tales came to form the nucleus of German romantic children’s literature: Wilhelm Hauff’s Mdrchenalmenache (1826-8), E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fairy tales (especially ‘The Nutcracker’) (Ewers 1984: 195), with the fairy tales of Karl Wilhelm Contessa and Friedrich Heinrich Karl Fouque expanding the corpus.

The runaway fairy-tale bestseller of the mid-to-late-nineteenth century in Germany, however, was Ludwig Bechstein’s Deutsches Mdrchenbuch [German Fairy Tale Book] (1845 et seq.). Bechstein’s playful prose style, depictions of loving and unified families, and above all, an ethic of self-reliance in their characters distinguished his tales from contemporaneous collections of fairy tales. Bechstein’s ‘Twelve Brothers’, for example, are filled with joy rather than inclined to homicide when they unexpectedly find their sister in their midst. His fairy tales exemplified bourgeois behavioural norms and social expectations, while Grimms’ Tales expressed values that paralleled those of an agrarian proletariat. However, with the wholesale republication and recirculation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German chapbooks in nineteenth-century Germany, the ethic of Grimms’ Tales was reinforced, and that of Bechstein’s Deutsches Mdrchenbuch denigrated, with consequential results for German children’s literature.

In the late nineteenth century Grimms’ Tales began to dominate the fairy-tale market in German children’s literature. Their eventual hegemony owed much to newly developed nationalist theories of pedagogy, but even after these were displaced in the mid-twentieth century, Grimms’ Tales reigned supreme until they were attacked as fundamentally flawed in the aftermath of German university unrest in 1968. When they re-emerged, it was often with much of the stories’ primitive violence removed, a process that had occurred twenty years before in West Germany’s then sister-state, the German Democratic Republic.