The Brothers Grimm Household Stories

2012 Book 115: Grimm’s Household Stories, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; Lucy Crane translation (7/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: Fantasy and Science fiction Coursera text: week 1

My Review 
This is a short, illustrated collection of Grimm’s folktales. All of the most famous of Grimm’s tales are in there, without too many of the redundant same-story-but-slightly-different tales that you’ll inevitably come across in a longer collection. The illustrations are enjoyable. The translation has a few small errors (apparently), but overall I think it’s a good place to start with the Grimm brothers.

Essay for Coursera
Many critics claim that the Brothers Grimm had sexist portrayal of women in their stories. These critics ignore the negative portrayal of men that is also endemic in the tales. 
Despite misgivings, Hansel and Grethel’s father leads them into the forest to die. When they return, he leads them back out again because “when a man has given in once he has to do it a second time.” In other stories, like Aschenputtel or The Three Little Men in the Wood, the father conveys not one moment of disquietude at the injustice done to his daughter. Many men in the tales are spineless. In The Fisherman and his Wife, the husband returns time and again to ask the princely fish for favors for his wife—favors he does not wish for, and that he is terrified to request. In The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats, the wolf orders the miller to help disguise him. Despite the fact that the miller suspects the wolf, the miller “was afraid and did what he was told. And that just shows how men are.” The worst man, though, is the father in The Twelve Brothers. He’s willing to kill 12 of his boys to provide his newborn daughter with a larger inheritance!
These stories caricaturize the weaknesses of humans–both male and female. As the German-Swiss Nobel Laureate Hermann Hess said: “The literature of the tales and the legends refers us, often with frightening agreement, to something transcendent, to the very concept of the human race.”1These stories refer us to a deep-rooted fear of our own flaws, and they resonate throughout the ages because the most abhorred flaws of human nature have remained, in essence, the same throughout time.

1. Quoted on page 15 of: Bottigneimer, Ruth (1987). Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys. New Haven: Yale University.

It was really hard to get this down to the correct word length! I had to leave out so many fantastic examples of horrible snake-like men! As well as examples of brave women. After reading these tales, I’ve decided I don’t agree with the feminist analysis of these stories. Though I probably already had a skeptical bias.

One of the examples I really wanted to include was The Wonderful Musician. This guy had a marvelous power over fellow creatures…he played his music and creatures would come to praise him. These creatures would trust and revere him. However, he kept attracting animals that didn’t please him: a wolf, a fox, a hare. So he promised to tutor them, but deceived them and left them to die. When he finally found a man, he said: “At last! Here comes the right sort of companion. It was a man I wanted, not wild animals.” But the wild animals are more humane than the musician was. The wonderful musician is like a charismatic politician. One that can charm people during the election or important diplomatic meetings, and afterwards he does whatever he wants–essentially stabbing his supporters in the back. I could have written a whole second essay on this subject. 🙂

11 thoughts on “The Brothers Grimm Household Stories

  1. Hi Rachel

    I totally agree with you! In reading the original Grimm tales for the first time, I felt shocked by how female-centered the stories are. Yes, there are wispy girls and haggard old crones, but by and large the female characters are far more complex and well-rounded. The men, for the most part, seem to be there as minor supporting characters, whose roles are simply to play off the female protagonists.

    A quote from Joan Acocella's New Yorker article on the Grimms may help elucidate the reason for such female-centric narratives: “But scholars tend to associate fairy tales with women, at home, telling stories to one another to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks such as spinning (which often turns up in these narratives).”


  2. Rachel, what a great essay! You did such a good job of managing to fit in a whole list of stories with just a sentence for each story so that by the time I got to the end of your list of examples, of course I thought: YES, that really is the case. Plus, reading your list made me curious to go back and look at those stories again, with your perspective in mind. The quote about Hansel and Grethel's father was PERFECT – I didn't even remember that from my reading, but it is great, and so true about so many people.

    I also really liked that you included other stuff here that you would have liked to include if your essay were longer… but I think you made good choices about what to include.

    Reading Clever Eva's comment, I realized that I had the same reaction: the Brothers Grimm collected these stories, but so many of these stories were told by women storytellers and shaped by those storytellers over the years so that, even if the Brothers collected the story from a male storyteller (and they collected from both men and women), the male storyteller could be telling a story that had been shaped by many anonymous women storytellers previously.

    I study Classics, and for sure this is the case with Greek mythology. When you read a story about midwifery for example, like the story of the birth of Heracles in Ovid's Metamorphoses (where Hera gets furious and turns the midwife into a weasel, which is a very feminine creature in both Greek and Roman folklore), you know that the story was developed by women storytellers over the years; Ovid just happened to be the guy who wrote it down. 🙂


  3. Thanks Clever Eva and Laura!

    Eva: that is a good quote. I hadn't thought of it, though I read the article. I was going to include a little bit more about women not being as insipid as feminists claim, and then the quote would have fit perfectly…but I eventually decided to go with the Hermann Hess quote since it seemed to make a good point without adding too many words. 🙂

    Laura, I'm glad you liked my use of so many examples. I've read several essay examples now and I was starting to fret that most people only use one or two examples. I was wondering if my examples were flying about faster than a reader could make sense of them. But then, how would I make as general a statement as I did without several examples? We'll see what sort of grade I get, and decide whether to change strategy for the next assignment with multiple works.

    I'm off to check out your essays now! 🙂


  4. I agree with Laura and don't think you fly by examples at all. Your ability to give a wide range examples in a concise manner buttresses your thesis in a way that using only one story wouldn't.


  5. Fantastic essay. I chose to procrastinate and was planning to write tonight. I sound like my Community College Students! I thought the essay was due at midnight.
    Anyway, I love how you showed that the Grimm tales were not leaving out anyone in their human weakness revealings. As I have learned more about the project the Grimm brothers took on in gathering these stories, I am so impressed at the volume and diversity expressed in them. Still too, I find that compared with folk tales of other cultures, much is the same!


  6. Unknown: That's too bad that you missed the deadline…I think that happened to a LOT of people, based on the email the Prof sent us. :)Luckily this is a just-for-fun class. 😉

    I agree that many of the folktales are the same from location-to-location. It might partly be due to a commonality in human condition and psychology, but certainly a lot of it is due to exchange of story along trade routes of yore.


  7. I agree that in many cases men are portrayed as weak, and going along with the evil, but I still think that there are a lot of “evil” women. And they are often the active one.

    A lot of that is understandable, in a time where many women died in childbirth and widowers remarried step-mothers were common, and I'm sure a cause for concern.

    But yes, they are more about the weaknesses in people as a whole


  8. Well, if you look at it that way, Fence, we could say that women are often more powerful than men in the Grimm's tales.

    Let me rephrase that. NON-VIRGIN women are more powerful than men. Virgins are rather meek and submissive…and if they do take their fate into their own hands, their major goal is still to submit to a handsome man.

    But married women are often powerful. They order their men about, they abuse their step children, etc. Married men are often spineless, and allow themselves to be ordered about.

    That's an interesting way of looking at it that I hadn't considered–I mean, the virgin=meek; matron=evil. 🙂


  9. Yes, I'd agree with that. Women being more powerful than men. I suppose that ties in to what Rabkin says in one of the video lectures about the strict gender difference. So a woman is more powerful than a man in a female role, and as many of these tales are concerned with “female” duties & responsibilities, such as fertility, food etc., women are more powerful.

    Of course, you could also argue that the stories, by portraying females as powerful & evil (in some cases), suggest that women should not be allowed to become powerful? 😉


  10. Ah, this is true! But the women SHOULDN'T be allowed to have that much power, should they? The balance should be equal. It is just as much the fault of the men, who shouldn't be allowed to descend into spinelessness.


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