It’s been over 200 years since the first publication of Kinder – und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales), and to celebrate we’ve picked out our top 5 Brothers Grimm Stories from their Library.
The Brothers Grimm (Die Brüder Grimm) are unique within the literary world. Despite their work being some of the most well-known on the planet, Jacob and Wilhem were not, strictly speaking, writers. They were librarians.
1. The Frog Prince
The first story from their collection, The Frog Prince is un-surprisingly one of the most popular. A fantastic example of folklore at its finest, this tale about a bewitched frog, a princess that couldn’t keep her promise and a trusty servant with an iron-bound heart.
The story begins with a beautiful, young princess playing in a dark wood next to the Kings Castle. Amusing herself by throwing a golden ball in the air and catching it, she accidentally misses the ball, and it rolls into the fountain next to her and sinks. The princess is distraught at the thought of losing her favourite toy forever until a frog who lives in the fountain offers to retrieve it for her. He gives a condition for his act of heroism:
Dresses, jewels, or golden crowns are not for me; but if you will love me, and let me be your companion and playmate, and sit at your table, and eat from your little gold plate, and drink out of your cup, and sleep in your little bed—if you will promise me all these, then will I dive down and fetch up your golden ball.’
The princess agrees and is reunited with her golden ball, however, instantly forgets the promise she has made and runs home, leaving the poor frog behind in the fountain.
The next day, the frog ventures into the palace in search of his newly promised companion. The princess is not pleased to see him and runs away from the door when he knocks. However, the King makes her stand by her promise – much to her dismay, the two share food from the same plate and eventually go to bed. She desperately tries to avoid having the slimy frog in her ‘beautiful, clean bed’, and when the frog attempts to get into it, she angrily throws him against the bedroom wall. As he falls, he turns into a handsome prince, who then after some time becomes her companion and husband to be. He tells her how a wicked witch enchanted him and how she had broken the spell. The two leave for his kingdom to be married in a horse-drawn carriage, manned by the Prince’s trusty servant Henry.
This story is also known as Iron Henry after the Prince’s servant. As the story goes, when the prince was changed into a frog, his devoted servant – Henry, ‘bound three iron bands around his heart, for fear it should break with sorrow’. Upon returning the Prince to his kingdom, the iron bands all broke away from poor Henry’s heart. Leaving this story with a happy ending.
2. The Little Briar Rose
Despite their reputation in the literary world, this Brothers Grimm version of The Sleeping Beauty is one of the tamest. Made massively popular by the Disney version, this tale was published in 1812 and tells the story of a beautiful princess, a vengeful old woman, and a whole palace asleep for 100 years.
It begins with a king and queen longing for a child. Eventually, their wishes are fulfilled, and they have a beautiful baby girl. The king is so thrilled that he orders a great feast, inviting the Wise Women of the kingdom so that they can bestow magic gifts upon his child. There are 13 in the kingdom; however, the king only has room for 12 and leaves out the 13th. This enrages the 13th wise woman, who arrives at the party unannounced and curses the new child:
“The King’s daughter shall in her fifteenth year prick herself with a spindle, and fall down dead.”
Thankfully, another of the Wise Women softens this curse from death to a century’s worth of sleep upon the needle prick.
The child’s 15th birthday soon comes around, and she is alone in the castle. Exploring the top of the tallest tower, she arrives at a locked room. Inside, she finds an older woman busy with a spindle spinning flax. Ever the curious child, she takes the spindle to give it a try. Almost immediately, she pricks her finger and falls into the deepest sleep. As soon as she is asleep, the whole court and castle follow. The King and Queen, the horses in the stables, even the flies on the wall all fall asleep. For the next 100 years, the castle remains asleep, and huge thorny hedge grows so high around its walls that all who attempt to rescue the sleeping princess, perish in its branches. Until one day just after the 100 years has passed, a brave prince decides to tackle the thorns and rescue the princess. He arrives at the castle to find the once treacherous obstacle now made of beautiful flowers. He quickly enters the palace, locates the sleeping princess and is so spellbound by her beauty that he bends down and kisses her. She wakes with his action, along with the rest of the castle. The two then fall in love, marry and live happily ever after.
3. The Valiant Little Tailor
Known as the Brave Little Tailor, this wicked story is one of trickery and cunning in which the underdog comes out on top.
It begins with a little tailor purchasing some jams from a peasant woman. The jam is so sweet that it attracts a host of flies into his workshop where he is sewing. With one fell swoop, the tailor strikes the flies on the wall with a piece of rag and manages to kill 7 in one stroke. He is so pleased by his accomplishment that he fashions himself a girdle and stitches the letters ‘7 at one stroke’ across the front. He then sets out to tell the whole world about it, taking with him a lump of old cheese and a bird which he finds caught in a thicket. On his journey, he climbs a mountain where he finds a giant, and he invites to join him on his venture. Scathingly the giant refuses the little man until he reads his girdle:
The giant read, “Seven at one stroke,” and thought that they had been men whom the tailor had killed, and began to feel a little respect for the tiny fellow.’
After tricking the giant of his strength, (this includes squeezing the moisture out of the lump of cheese as if it was a stone, releasing the bird into the sky as if he’d thrown a stone so far that it would never return to earth, and hitching a ride on an oak tree after pretending to carry one end) the pair end up in a cavern full of giants. To prove his valiance, the giant challenges him to spend the night among the giants. The Giant tries to kill the little tailor by smashing the bed where he was sleeping in two. The tailor avoids death because the bed is so big, and the blow missed him. The giants are terrified when he appears the next morning, and they all run away, scared.
Continuing his journey, the tailor finds himself in the courtyard of a palace. Reading the words embroidered on his girdle, the people of the kingdom assume he is a great warrior that could kill seven people in one go. He is honourably entered into the king’s service. The rest of the knights dismiss themselves from duty as they can’t defend themselves against the little tailor. This enrages the king, so he sets him a series of tasks in an attempt to get rid of him. These include slaying two giants, capturing a unicorn, and catching a wild boar. If he succeeds in these tasks, the king promises the hand of his only daughter and half of his kingdom to the tailor. It’s no surprise that he tricks his way through the dangerous tasks, marries the princess and is crowned a king.
The princess soon finds out of the little tailor’s humble beginnings and wishes her father to get rid of him once and for all. The king plans for his servants to take the tailor while he sleeps, tie him up and put him on a ship into the ‘wide-world’. The cunning tailor catches wind of this plan, and on the night it is planned, manages to scare the servants away by talking in his sleep about all the men, giants and wild beasts that he has conquered. He then remains a king for the rest of his life.
This story has an extremely long history, with many variations across different cultures. In the Brothers Grimm narrative, the woman is portrayed as a beautiful young woman who is said to be able to ‘spin straw into Gold.’ When asked to give something in return for the help received, she trades all her worldly possessions until she has nothing left.
The story starts with a poor miller boasting to the King about his beautiful daughter that can spin straw into gold. The king requests the miller to bring his daughter to the castle. When she arrives, he takes her to a room of straw, gives her a spinning wheel and tells her to spin all the straw into gold or she will be killed in the morning. The miller’s daughter cries as she cannot do what is asked of her. Suddenly the door opens, and a little man enters. He offers to spin the straw into gold for her in reward of her necklace. She gives it to him, and he turns the straw all night until all the spools are full of gold. This is so well received by the king the next morning, that he orders her to do it again. He takes her to a larger room filled with straw and orders her to spin it all in one night if she values her life. Again, the little man appears with the same offering, in reward for the ring on her finger. The young girl gives it to him, and he spins all the straw into gold. The next day, the king leads the girl to a larger room full of straw with the promise that if she succeeds, she will become his wife. The little man returns for the third time, but as she has run out possesions to offer him. He makes her promise that after she is Queen, she will give him her first child as a reward. Not knowing what else to do, she agrees, and the little man spins all the straw into gold.
The miller’s daughter marries the king, and a year later has her first child. The little man appears in her room and demands what she has promised him. After refusing and crying so much, he takes pity on her and gives her three days before he returns, with the challenge of guessing his name. If she guesses correctly, she will keep the child. When the little man returns the next two days, she uses her three guesses to his name and gets them wrong. On the 3rd day, a messenger returns to the Queen with a story of a small, strange man he has seen on his travels. Hopping on one leg and singing:
Today I’ll bake; tomorrow I’ll brew,
Then I’ll fetch the queen’s new child,
It is good that no one knows,
Rumpelstiltskin is my name.
When the little man enters the castle, the Queen has two guesses at his name, and on the last, she guesses ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. The little man shouts at her in anger, takes hold of his left foot and rips himself up the middle in two.
Schneewittchen is the original Snow White tale. Everyone knows the famous story of Snow White, but the original German fairy tale has many darker twists and turns than the version we know and love today. Little Snow White tells the story of a powerless young beauty and the trials and tribulations she goes through after escaping from her evil stepmother.
The story begins in the middle of winter, with a queen working on her embroidery. She pricks her finger, and three drops of blood fall into the snow. When she sees them, she wishes to have a daughter as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood on her embroidery frame. Not long after her wish is granted, and she has a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony and she was named snow-white. Unfortunately, the queen dies when her child is born. The king takes another wife, who is jealous of snow-white’s beauty.
Looking into her magic looking glass, she asks:
Looking-glass upon the wall, Who is fairest of us all?”
“Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, But Snow-white fairer is than you.”
The queen grows mad with hatred towards the young girl and sets up various schemes to kill her. She first orders a huntsman to take Snow-White into the woods, kill her and bring back her heart. He agrees, but in the end, could not go through with it. He lets Snow-White go free into the wild-wood as she promises never to return. He then kills a wild boar, presents that heart to the queen, which satisfies her so much that she cooks and eats it, thinking it was the end of snow-white.
Snow-white is now lost and scared in the wood. She comes across a little house. Going inside to rest, she finds seven sets of everything, all very small. Despite this, she eats and drinks what she can find and then falls asleep on the biggest bed. She is awoken by seven dwarfs arriving home from their day’s work. They are thrilled to discover such a beautiful child in their house, that they agree to let her stay if she will cook and clean for them. After hearing her story, they warn her to let no one in the house as her evil stepmother will soon discover where she is hiding.
The Queen asks the mirror again, who is the fairest – expecting the answer to be herself. The mirror answers Snow-White and tells her that she is living in the glen with the seven dwarfs. Driven mad, she dresses up like an old woman and sets out to find Snow-White so she can kill her herself. She finds the house, pretends to be selling laces and silks, which Snow-White buys. She then offers to lace Snow-White up in her new lace and does it so quickly and tightly that Snow-White drops down dead. The seven dwarfs come home to find her dead on the ground. They cut the lace in two and Snow-White comes back to life.
When the evil Queen returns home, she asks the mirror again, but the answer is still: Snow-White — hatching a plan to finish her off once and for all. The Queen dressed up as a different old woman and goes to the house again to find Snow-White. When she arrives, she persuades Snow-White to let her comb her hair with a poisoned comb. The poison begins to work, and she falls dead again. Again, the dwarfs come home, locate the comb, remove it from her hair and Snow-White comes back to life.
Again, the Queen asks the mirror, who is the fairest, and it replies Snow-White. Enraged, she hatches a plan to poison an apple to get rid of her finally. She dresses as a peasant, journeys to the house and offers it to snow white. Un-willing to take anything from strangers, she is persuaded to take half the apple. Upon eating it, it kills her, and the magic is so powerful that even the dwarfs can’t bring her back to life again. The mirror tells the Queen she is the fairest, finally giving her envious heart final peace. The mourning dwarfs cannot bury the beautiful girl, and so build her a glass coffin and set it up on the mountain nearby. One day a prince rides through the wood and passes the coffin. He offers the dwarfs anything they want for it as is so smitten with the dead Snow-White. The dwarfs agree, and while carrying it to his kingdom, they stumble over a bush. This causes the bit of poisoned apple to fly out of snow whites throat. She sits up living and breathing as if nothing has happened. The prince falls more in love with her now she is alive, and they go to his kingdom to be married.
The wicked stepmother continues to ask her mirror who is the fairest, and one day it replied that a new young bride is the fairest. The queen goes to the wedding and sees that the bride is Snow-White. However, the Bride and Bridegroom are waiting for her with red-hot iron shoes. They make the evil Queen her dance in them until she falls dead.