From Wild Beasts to a Barrel of Nails: Recreating Grimms’ Fairytales Through Violence

Traditionally, fairytales have been thought to have originated from oral tales passed down by women from generation to generation. One popular theory is that these oral stories were not meant only to entertain children with too much time on their hands, but also to socialize or teach important lessons of survival in an often unforgiving world (Davies 119). Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm claim to have written many of their earliest stories exactly as the narrators recounted them to the brothers. Therefore, the first tales, as written in the Grimms’ first edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen or Children’s and Household Tales, are considered to be the most authentic versions of the tales and, by extension, one of the best examples of medieval socialization. These morals are usually seen in the extra narrative, literary description, and use of violence that are found in the later Grimm editions.

Many people, previously including myself, generally assume that the older the fairytale, the more violent it’s going to be; however, further research has led me to believe this is not the case. Maria Warner explains in her book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, “[t]he brothers claimed that they were reproducing the voice of immemorial tradition, but Wilhelm shaped and polished, cadenced and ornamented many of the best-known tales over the course of nearly fifty years; above all, he censored the stories’ frankness about sex, but let the violent reprisals stand” (60). In fact, the Grimm Brothers didn’t simply “let the violent reprisals stand,” but escalated the acts of violence within the tales, which seems contradictory for the children’s stories that we know and love today.

Jack Zipes presents evidence that the first edition was not meant for the teaching of children; it was strictly about the poetic style of the tales themselves. Jacob Grimm, himself, backs this idea up when he said in a letter, “[h]ave children’s tales really been conceived and invented for children? I don’t believe this at all just as I don’t affirm the general question, whether we must set up something specific at all for them” (Brothers Grimm First Edition xxix). He believes that children will learn the lessons by reading between the lines when they have grown mentally to the point of recognizing the morals that are not blatantly stated. Jacob then goes on in another letter to explain how parents should not let their children read or hear the tales if they do not believe their children should hear about such violence or subjects as the devil.

It is only in later editions that the Grimms listened to their critics and transitioned from writing primarily for educated readers to embellishing the tales to teach and entertain the middle-class. According to Zipes, Wilhelm did the majority of the editing, adding Christian morals and taming down many of the overtly cruel elements in the tales (Brothers Grimm First Edition xxxi). Basically, the brothers compromised by creating an edition for children and publishing a separate edition with all of their scholarly footnotes. Thus why many people would be inclined to think of the first edition tales as more violent than those editions that had been through heavy edits. Many books featuring the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales often have two categories: the “classic” or heavily edited children’s tales and another labeled for adults.

Therefore, through my research, I have come to the conclusion that the first edition tales are not more violent in comparison to the seventh edition tales, and the opposite is actually the case, at least in the instance of the tales I studied. However, this common misconception could be due to the fact that many oral versions that predated or derived from the Grimms’ original edition were incredibly violent. As they were retold and passed down and retold again today, they continue to change and origins are forgotten, sources mixed up until people begin to forget where one tale ends and another begins, especially considering how similar many tales are.

My first example of the Grimms’ use of graphic violence is mostly unchanged from the first volume to the seventh with only a few literary embellishments in the seventh and not the first. Since the first edition there have always been two variations of “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” or “How Children Played Butcher with Each Other.” While the two variations of the story vary greatly from one another, each respective variation is almost the same between the first edition and the seventh.

In the first iteration of the tale, a group of children observe their father slaughtering a pig and decide to do the same as a game. One boy is the butcher, one is the pig, one is the cook, a girl is chosen as a cook, and another girl to be the cook’s assistant who must drain the pig of blood. The butcher child then slits the throat of the boy playing the pig and the cook’s assistant captures the victim’s blood in her little bowl. Now, it just so happens that a councilman is walking by and sees the boy murder the other, so he takes the boy to the council, which decides that he should be put to the test. An apple and a coin are to be placed in front of the boy, and if he chooses the apple, he would be deemed innocent, but if he chooses the coin, he would be killed for his crime. The boy chose the apple and remained unpunished.

In the second iteration of the tale, the beginning is the same in that some children observe their father slaughtering a pig and then decide to play the game, resulting in one brother slitting another’s throat. However, instead of a councilman observing the crime, the children’s mother sees them from the bathroom window, where she is bathing another child. She immediately comes down and takes matters into her own hands. “Upon seeing what had happened, she took the knife out of her son’s throat and was so enraged that she stabbed the heart of the other boy, who had been playing the butcher” (Brothers Grimm First Edition 79). The mother then returns to find the child she was bathing has drowned and she eventually hangs herself. The story ends with the father returning from the fields and dying shortly after the tragic end of his family.

The first example of complete recreation of story elements in favor of more violence is found in one of the more famous Grimm fairytales, and one most people know to be violent in its literary form, Cinderella. In the original tale Cinderella goes to the ball three nights in a row before losing her shoe and ultimately gaining a prince. While both the first and seventh editions are similar in the gore of the sisters mutilating their feet to fit the shoe, the ending fates of the sisters is very different depending on the edition. In the first edition, the story ends with, “[t]he stepmother and the two haughty sisters were horrified and became pale, but the prince led Cinderella away” (Brothers Grimm First Edition 77). Essentially, the stepfamily receives a social punishment: to live regular lives as opposed to the rich life Cinderella will now enjoy.

The punishment for the sisters becomes physical by the seventh edition. Two doves, in connection with her dead mother, act as the fairy godmother for Cinderella, helping her in magical ways throughout the story and exacting revenge in the end. “The doves pecked one eye from each sister. Later, when they left the church, the elder sister was on the left, the younger on the right. The doves pecked the other eye from each sister. And so they were punished for their wickedness and malice with blindness for the rest of their lives” (The Grimm Reader 85). There is no need to read between the lines here or to know any background on social hierarchies to know that disregarding morals will not end well for the guilty parties.

Why then do most people assume the oldest version of Cinderella to be the most violent? Perhaps it is due to the fact that most people receive their first exposure to fairytales in the form of Disney movies. It would be a logical assumption that Disney would have taken the most recent version of the story to use for the movies and the stories as seen in the movies then become books, to the point where oftentimes the original Grimm fairytales are only read by scholars or those interested in their academic study.

The Three Men in the Woods is one of the most drastic and startling cases of evolution from the first edition to the seventh. Much like Cinderella, the story is about the justice given to a greedy widower and her daughter who attempt to steal the wealth of and murder the natural daughter. The first edition is a brief three pages that give the bare facts of the story without giving much explanation as to why or how certain events occur. The seventh edition, on the other hand, is by that point, greatly embellished.

The end that befalls the stepmother and her daughter is the most shockingly violent part of the tale. In the first edition, the last of the little men wishes the widow’s daughter to “die a miserable death” (Brothers Grimm First Edition 40). This “miserable death” is not further elaborated upon except in the very last sentence of the tale when it’s stated that she and her mother “were cast into the forest to be devoured by wild animals” (Brothers Grimm First Edition 42). It’s up to the reader to imagine how painful and miserable that death might have been.

The seventh edition takes this much further, as the king asks the stepmother what punishment would fit the crime of drowning someone.

The old woman replied: “The scoundrel should be put into a barrel studded with nails and rolled down a hill into the water.”

The king said: “You have pronounced your own sentence,” and he sent for a barrel like the one she had described and put the woman with her daughter into it. The lid was hammered tight, and the barrel went rolling down the hill and fell into the river. (The Grimm Reader 45)

This explicitly lays out the fate of the stepmother and her daughter, and it is in a much more violent manner than that of the early edition. Although a more obscure story than the Grimms’ classics that almost everyone is aware of, the seventh edition of The Three Men in the Woods with the barrel of nails is still more widely recognized than the first edition and death by wild animals.

Again, how could such violence be an acceptable form of teaching and socialization for children?  According to Tatar,

“Vulnerability and powerlessness were familiar feelings to those who told such tales during the era in which they were recorded. It was probably precisely the tough struggle for survival, with its accompanying sense of defenselessness when it came to poverty and disease, that bred a folklore authorizing its heroes to acquire power at any cost. (170)

These tales often originated from people with a history of suffering from poverty, disease, and authoritative oppression, both during the time of the Grimm Brothers and before. Therefore, children born into this culture were used to the levels of violence associated with oppression, poverty, and violence. The underdog rising up against the privileged would have been very inviting to these people who identified with that underdog, and the addition of a harsh, violent sense of justice or revenge would have made it all the better. Essentially, children were taught that they should do whatever it took to improve their lives.

As the Grimms developed the stories they recreated, turning what was once an attempt at the preservation of authentic Germanic culture to a vehicle of moral based teaching for children. The evildoers are often punished in a way similar to that which they subjected their victim, giving children an example of justice. In the case of the barrel of nails, the barrel sealed shut ensuring that the two villains would not escape this justice. Moreover, as the description of the death confirms, this extremely cruel punishment carries with it a great shock value that is not soon forgotten by readers. It is both repulsive and alluring, like a train wreck that no one wants to see, but can’t look away from. This may also be why this version of the tale has been read, remembered, and passed on more so than the first rendition. Its harshness leaves the reader with a greater sense of resolution and a lasting impression.

Works Cited

Davies, Máire Messenger. Children, Media And Culture. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Frank, Manfred. The Philosophical Foundations Of Early German Romanticism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 10 May 2016.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. & Ed. Jack Zipes. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

—. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam Books, 2002. Print.

—. The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. & Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

Tatar, Maria. Off With Their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

Warner, Marina. Once upon a time: a short history of fairy tale. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

—. Fairy Tale as Myth Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994. Print.

—. Why Fairy Tales Stick: the Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.


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