Classic Fairy Tales: Why Are They So Grimm?

Classic Fairy Tales: Why Are They So Grimm?


classic fairy talesYou may have heard people talking about fairy tale classics and their seemingly dark content or themes. This is quite contrary to the “happily-ever-after” stigma attached to them. In fact, many fairy tale classics do not contain the words happily ever after. Some have an ending quite the opposite–a very bleak one–; or they leave the reader with a strong feeling of solemnity. But why should stories often adored by children be so “Grimm”? This post seeks to dispel some of the misconceptions about fairy tales while exploring the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

So where did these stories come from in the first place? Why were they written? What is their purpose? What were the circumstances behind their creation?

Fairy Tale Origins

The origins of fairy tales are quite obscure and date back hundreds–even thousands of years- for some of them. For many of them, they evolved over time through oral tradition, while some of the more recent ones can be pin-pointed more precisely and even possess declared authorship. The genre of fairy tales spans many cultures from Grimm’s fairy tales to Hans Christian Andersen’s (of Scandinavia) to the Greek and Roman legends and mythology–all popular in Western cultures–, to Chinese fairy tales of the East–Oh!–and don’t forget the Native American tales and legends of North and South America, etc. That brings us full circle–a global cornucopia of stories! Though not all of them are strictly fairy tales, I believe fairy tales can be found worldwide. For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus on the Brother’s Grimm, who were quite influential in the popularization and preservation of fairy tales, particularly in the West.

classic fairy tales
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm


Who Were the Grimm Brothers?

They are known as the collectors and preservers of folklore and fairy tales, but their purpose was much higher than that. They wanted to change the world. How, you might ask? To answer that I will need to share with you some of their story.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were brothers who came from a prosperous family. Their father was a lawyer and district magistrate; their mother a daughter of a councilman. Jacob and Wilhelm’s parents had 9 children, but only 6 of them survived. Jacob was 11 and Wilhelm 10 when their father died of pneumonia. It was, as you can imagine, a very hard thing, and life greatly changed for them after that.

From Riches to Rags

Though they were not considered part of elite society, the Grimm family was prosperous, influential, and certainly not in want; that is, not until their father died. After that, things drastically changed. They had to live much more frugally. Jacob took on great responsibility as head of the house. Must have been a great challenge, especially for a young boy. As Jacob grew, he got stronger and stronger, but his brother Wilhelm did not. Wilhelm suffered from scarlet fever and asthma, the results of which would affect him the rest of his life.

Study, Study, Study!

As they came of age they embarked on their journey to the university, and their life changes, many believe, would affect how they would later view the medieval manuscripts and folklore. They would come to view it as common folks as opposed to elitists with noses in the air. Both Jacob and Wilhelm made close friendships while at the university, and some of those friendships greatly influenced the Grimm Brothers in the area of folklore, folk songs, and folktales. Jacob even had the opportunity to research in Paris. While there, he discovered and explored German medieval manuscripts. Suddenly, their mother died and both Jacob and Wilhelm, with very little money and saddened hearts, had to return home to look after their younger siblings.

Three years later things looked brighter when Jacob received a job as director of Westphalian king’s private library. What a treasure for studying even more about fairy tales and folklore! Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s health declined, and he was not able to take a paying job. Therefore, he began studying Norse literature. This ironically gave him a scholarly reputation. So here they were–both studying ancient literature and folklore! They taught themselves several languages including Old English, Old Norse, Old Danish, Old High German, and Sanskrit. They could now study stories in the original languages.

Setting the Stage for Fairy Tale Writing and Collecting

The Grimm Brothers did not simply travel about Germany collecting stories among peasants. One goal was to glorify Germany as a people by “moralizing” the tales in order to impact German society–and the world–towards virtue and goodness. Wilhelm worked on a book of Danish folk and fairy tales. He also edited and translated Old Danish Heroic Songs, Ballads, and Fairy Tales. Jacob wrote an essay about old German troubadour tradition. Together their first success was the publication of The Boy’s Wonder Horn. Then something happened to influence these Grimm Brothers deeply: Philipp Otto Runge had published two German tales, “The Fisherman and His Wife” and “The Juniper Tree.” The story about the fisherman is well-known and teaches the harsh reality of the consequences of greed. “The Juniper Tree” is a story containing horrifying family antics. Within the publication of these stories was a letter urging readers to collect more stories. These words really impacted the Brothers Grimm and resounded in their minds long afterwards.

So How Did They Collect Their Stories?

The Grimm brothers did write down the stories, recording the tales as they were told and retold audibly; but that is not nearly where the bulk of the stories came. They were not merely recording on paper the folklore from peasant town storytellers. Actually, many of them were aristocratic tellers of high birth. And some of the tellers were not German at all: they were French Huguenots who had escaped France where they’d experienced much persecution. So you could say that a good many of the stories were French tales–not German! Others of the stories came from old manuscripts. So in actuality, the German peasant storytellers represented only a small bit of the stories these brothers recorded and preserved.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm invited storytellers to their home to tell their tales. Most of them were women who came and told their stories aloud. In fact, later on, Wilhelm married one of these storytellers. Her name was Dortchen Wild. The Grimm Brothers made notes that contained hundreds of stories, but many of them were without endings and included numerous versions of the tales. These brothers polished up the tales, revising them and rewriting some for their publication. This made the stories more literary. They also edited stories with elements that might offend.

dark fairy tales

But Why Were the Stories So “Grimm”?


Yes, why do so many of the original fairy tale classics have such heavy solemn details or themes? Were they simply wanting to terrify children? Of course not. Initially, they were not intended for children. The Grimm Brothers softened them for children in the editions from 1819 and onward. The originals evolved over time and were created, many of them, in the midst of much turmoil and hardship. Stories are not created out of thin air. No one creates a story from a blank slate. Stories are created–whether wittingly or unwittingly–from the context of our life experiences or the experiences of others. We as human beings are constantly influenced by our experiences, and we as social creatures, in turn, influence others. There is always an element of truth or realism within a story no matter how bizarre or far-fetched it may seem to be. And so, the fairy tales of long ago have passed down through the ages and evolved from some starting point of purpose.

The storytellers of long ago lived in a day when there were no televisions, computers, or smartphones; hence, these stories were not merely entertainment for children. The fantasy and intrigue appealed to all ages (children included), but the deeper and sometimes hidden elements, as well as the dark themes of life, have been placed there particularly for the adults to ponder. Fairy tales are actually quite realistic in a sense. They teach us the harsh reality of life and working through the conflict or difficulty woven into the story. Life is not simply a bed of roses. The roses contain thorns, and somewhere close by is a beast, wolf, or stepmother lurking in the dark world ready to teach us of that harsh yet sobering and often needed reality.

The fact is– life is hard, and stories help us to see the dark reality of life and press on. Songs do that too. The slave song “Go Down, Moses” comes to mind…”Down, down, down to Egypt land.” So with songs, folklore, and fairy tales man has been able to cope with those harsh realities of life and glean from them those gemstones of morality and truth sprinkled throughout them–even though the ominous clouds of darkness overshadow the landscape most of the time. This is what makes a good story. The dark themes and suspense move it along, and that sense of hope looks upward, longing for those clouds to roll away so that we can see the prince emerging from the rolling hills on his white horse. Someday, that prince will come.

Fairy-Tale-Inspired Dolls

gnome doll
Gome/Dwarf Doll Available at Storybook Crafts Shop

After reading some of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I was inspired to create dolls of these classic tales. Here is one example. This could be a gnome or even dwarf–a creature described in several of the Grimm’s Fairy Tale stories. I had some leftover fake fur fabric, so I decided to make the beard of the doll from some almost discarded left-over plush fabric. I embroidered the face. I made the clothes from cotton blended fabrics, using felt for the suspenders. I had some red velvety fabric I used for the trousers and a medieval-looking hat!

Well, Reader, what do you think of the Grimm Brothers? Do you have a favorite fairy tale? What do you think about some of the darker themes of fairy tales? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.





Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
New York, NY: Barne’s and Noble, 2009

14 thoughts on “Classic Fairy Tales: Why Are They So Grimm?

  1. Hey Rob!

    Oh my God!…what a well researched article and write up on these 2 guys!

    I love the Grimms!…..they have given us so much.

    I like how you explained why the tales are dark and how they were collected. These 2 gave us a great gift!…not meant for kids at first.

    My favorite tale from the Grimm’s would be Twelve Dancing Princess…and Goose Girl.

    I love the Grimms…but Perrault is still my favorite…I blame it on his version of Cinderella and also on Puss In Boots!


    1. Thanks for your kind comment. Glad you seem to have enjoyed reading my article about the Grimm Brothers and why fairy tales are often dark. I love the tales too. Perhaps one day I will write a post about Perrault, who is quite deserving of it.

  2. Wow, this was very interesting. I would have never thought that this is how the stories came to be. And especially that a lot of them were based on truths. I did read that right? They were told stories by people from life, things that happened in their life. I am wondering why then, were they called fairy tales, and not “Grimm” tales.

    1. So glad you found this article interesting. One day I should write a post detailing what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale. When I said truths, I was referring to lessons of truth such as honesty, integrity, virtue; not that the stories really happened. So much is unknown about the origins, but there is an indication that there is an element of truth within them from which the fantasy stems. Long ago, perhaps there were children lost in the woods who met an elderly woman… It is very possible some of these things happened in their lives. Over time, though, many of the tales changed and got embellished–or for some of them, maybe not so much. The world may never know.

  3. Wow Rob, your research and input is incredible, I’ve often wondered WHY so many classic fairly tales are so morbid and ‘grimm’ as you say (ha!).

    These dolls are spectacular, you make them yourself?

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, I do make dolls of various storybook and fairy tale characters. I have a shop on Etsy where I sell some of them. One day, perhaps they will be for sale here too.

  4. Great post! Loved reading more about the Grimm and those stories. You sure gave a different perspective on them, really enjoyed reading the post.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post. It gives me great pleasure knowing that something I have written has been a help to people. Let me know if there is anything else related to dolls and/or stories you would like to hear about.

  5. Wow, I really enjoyed this article since I love fairy tales whether they are light or dark. But I do have to admit I do prefer the prince coming to the rescue 🙂 And yes I agree there is always a hidden meaning in the tales of old.

    1. Glad you enjoyed this article. Glad to read your thoughts. A happy ending is always nice, especially before bed, though the heavier ones do have there place for teaching lessons too.

  6. This is a great article! It’s very interesting to learn how these fairy tales originated. I believe I heard about the Grimm brothers, but that’s about it. It’s interesting how they were influenced by so many different things to come up with their fairy tales. Thanks for broadening my knowledge of fairy tales. I think your dolls are great!!

    1. So glad you enjoyed the article and that you were able to learn something. Studying the lives of authors and compilers does help us to appreciate the tales in a new way. Glad you like the dolls. Thank you for the kind words.

  7. This was such a great read! I never knew much about the Brothers Grimm except that they “wrote” alot of the familiar children’s stories that we hear today. This was so fun to read!

    1. So glad you liked it. The Grimm Brothers left us a lot–compilation as well as some of their own versions of stories. They contributed much to the preservation of many classic tales. Glad you could learn something. Please share it with others that they can also hear and learn something.

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