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German fairy tales

Many of the world's most famous fairy tales come from Germany. Enjoyable for children and adults alike, they are also an excellent way to learn German. Let us tell you about the types, the importance and examples of beautifully illustrated fairy tales in German and in English.

Dr. Paras Mehta
Dr. Paras Mehta

"Once upon a time there was…". We all know that phrase from childhood stories and probably also from Disney movies like Snow White, Cinderella, Kiss the Frog, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty or Tangled. These movies are very popular among both children and adults alike, and almost every girl dreams of being a Disney princess or dresses up as one for carnival.

However, it is still not commonly known where these stories come from. In fact, the originals of these Disney movies have one thing in common. They are all fairy tales, collected and written down by the German brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 18th and 19th century.

Fairy tales are very popular in Germany and especially those of the Brothers Grimm. You will hardly find any household without a big collection of these popular stories. The Brothers Grimm, who described themselves as linguists and folklorists started collecting different stories they knew from their social environment and stories they found in different literary works. The structure of the stories was quite different then and originally these fairy tales weren’t written for children. But with the rework of Wilhelm Grimm, who wrote them down in a new way of storytelling, they became the so called Kinder- und Hausmärchen (fairy tales for children and household). Still, there are many different versions of those narratives and there is a big discussion about their suitability for children. But let’s have a look at that later.

Types of fairy tales

All fairy tales have one thing in common. They are written in prose and they talk about miraculous things. So anything is possible in fairy tales. You have talking animals, talking furniture and of course, magic ☺.

In general you can distinguish between two types of fairy tales:

  • the Volksmärchen (folk tales), which spread by being told from person to person. The Grimm’s tales are an example of Volksmärchen, because it is uncertain who created them. They were passed on from generation to generation and the Brothers Grimm only collected them. They didn’t come up with them themselves.
  • the Kunstmärchen (art tales) could be described as "planned fairy tales", because they are written by a certain author, who has a certain idea for a story and the author is also known for writing the story. The most popular writer of those kinds of tales is probably Hans-Christian Andersen (e.g., Little Mermaid). But this genre is much older. It can be assumed, that art tales were already written in ancient times.

But let’s come back to the Volksmärchen.

Drastic and child-friendly versions

As I already mentioned briefly, there are many different versions of Grimm’s tales and I can already tell you, the ones you know from the Disney movies are not the originals ;)

Indeed the original versions of tales weren’t necessarily made for children, since there was a lot of cruel and scary content. Over time, educationalists and authors worked out much softer versions for children of certain ages, so it’s definitely possible to read a Grimm’s tale to your children. Before I tell you about the educational value of tales and give you advice which fairy tale is suitable for your child, let me give you a brief glimpse on how different fairy tales can be told and how fine the line is between a "horror" tale and a bedtime story.

Here are some differences in popular tales:

Little Red Riding Hood

Disney: The bad wolf locks the grandmother in a closet to grab Little Red Riding Hood.

Original: The wolfs kills the grandmother or eats the grandmother, depending on the lore. There is even a version, in which the wolf cooks the meat of the grandmother and serves it to Little Red Riding Hood for dinner… Simply scary.

Cinderella

Disney: At midnight, Cinderella loses her shoe, the prince finds it and finds Cinderella, who tries on the shoe. It fits and they live happily ever after.

Original: The story is much longer in the original form. Cinderella's step sisters want to marry the prince so badly that they even cut off their heels or their toes to fit into the shoe.

Snow White

Disney: Snow White is poisoned by her stepmother with an apple. The prince finds her and kisses her alive.

Original: Almost the same story as above. But the cruel part comes at last. The stepmother is punished for her deeds by dancing in burning shoes.

I think it's clear now, how different versions of fairy tales can be.

Nevertheless, almost every child in the last century in Germany and probably all over the world  grew up with fairy tales. So there has to be a sense in that.

So, let’s have a look ;)

Educational value of fairy tales

Children can learn a lot from fairy tales. One very important thing that happens when you read stories to your children is that they feel that you make time for them. It’s quality time between you and your child and he or she feels safe and warm. Reading hours have something cozy and strengthens the parent-child connection.

Besides that, children can learn about values and morals, especially from tales, since those components are often a big part of those. Children get ideas about finding solutions for problems, they learn about the difference between good and evil, they learn about justice, values and standards. Furthermore, fairy tales depict situations from human life in images and symbols. Children are very good at understanding those metaphors intuitively.

Also character traits play a huge parts in fairy tales. Children get to know many different characters with different tempers and get to know about the conflict between diligence and laziness, beauty und ugliness and strength and weakness. With the help of fairy tales they learn how to react on behalf of them and how to classify them.

On top of the moral benefit, reading fairy tales to children stimulates their own imagination, encourages them to do and try things because they can identify with the heroes of the stories and helps them to find an access to language and literature.

So, to summarize, reading fairy tales to children is not outdated and still very relevant and valuable.

Are fairy tales too cruel for my child?

We already mentioned how cruel and creepy some versions of Grimm’s tales can be, so it is understandable that some parents hesitate to read those narrations as bedtime stories. But actually different studies found out that children deal with the scary parts quite well. Children don’t know everything about the bad in the world yet and for them, the cruel parts are symbols for punishment or misbehavior. Small children live in a world that’s black and white to them and so they also need a clear division between good and bad. Children don’t take everything literally. They are able to understand symbolism and they also understand that those are made up stories. Sometimes children can take more than we think ;)

Nevertheless, you should of course have a look at the version of the tale you are reading. There are many good and non-cruel editions for children. We put together some recommendations further below.

Fairy tales for different ages

When your kids are really small (like 1-2 years old) you can start telling short stories with the help of finger games, puppets or in rhymes. Once children turn 3 years old, they can listen to short stories.

At the age of 4 years, you can start reading shorter fairy tales with few characters, so they don’t get confused and can follow the story (e.g. Die Sterntaler - The Star Child).

After that, you can start reading the classics. And remember there are always different lengths of tales, so you can choose whatever fits your child’s ability to concentrate and of course your own timeframe.

Grimm's fairy tales in German and English

You can find a lot of editions of Grimm’s fairy tales. They differ from each other in their way of storytelling and also in the way they are illustrated. And of course it’s up to you, if you prefer a complete collection of all fairy tales or if you are looking for a certain one.

Fairy tale collections

We found two really nice collections of Grimms Märchen in German language. You can find them here:

  1. Die schönsten Märchen der Gebrüder Grimm, illustriert von Svend Otto S. (German)

Die schönsten Märchen der Gebrüder Grimm, illustriert von Svend Otto S.

This book, which contains 10 fairy tales, has really nice drawings, also for smaller children. The illustrator paints clear and understandable images and he is not afraid to create atmospheres, such as really dark woods or a giant tree. But he never shows explicit cruel stuff, and leaves room for children's imagination.

2. Die 100 schönsten Märchen der Gebrüder Grimm, illustriert von Daniela Drescher (German)

Die 100 schönsten Märchen der Gebrüder Grimm, illustriert von Daniela Drescher

This book contains 100 stories that are supported by beautiful, almost romantic illustrations. The drawings contain symbols that leave a lot of room for interpretation. The pictures almost seem like paintings that stand for themselves. It may be something for older children and also for adults.

3. Here is one collection in English language: The Bernadette Watts Collection of Stories and Fairy Tales (English)

The Bernadette Watts Collection of Stories and Fairy Tales

Single fairy tales

And here are some single tales from the illustrator Bernadette Watts with nice drawings, if you want to fill your bookshelf with beautiful books :)

  1. Frau Holle (Mother Holly)

In German:

Frau Holle

In English:

Mother Holly

2. Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel)

In German:

Hänsel und Gretel

In English:

Hansel and Gretel

3. Schneewittchen (Snow White)

In German:

Schneewittchen

In English:

Snow White

4. Sterntaler (The Star Child)

In German:

Sterntaler

In English:

The Star Child

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Dr. Paras Mehta

Paras has spent 10 yrs in software, data science, research & entrepreneurship in Germany. PhD FU Berlin | MSc 1st position | Marie Curie, Erasmus Mundus fellow | BTech DTU | Visiting Scholar Cambridge


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