Christianity and European Fairy Tales

European fairy tales were not originally intended for a child audience only. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault are probably the most well-known fairy tale authors, and they all addressed major themes like abandonment, loneliness, abuse, life after death, sacrifice, and forgiveness. F. Schiller talked about the significant messages transferred via fairy-tales to the reader: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life” (F. Schiller qtd. in Bettelheim, 1976).

The Brothers Grimm’s tales enforced morals and ethics into the reader’s mind while also serving as a means of entertainment. Christianity had a special role in German folk literature, as it did in Germanic countries’ history. That is why Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s infused of Biblical themes into their tales; this affected readers, whether we see it from a religious, psychological, aesthetical, or other points of view. More about the Christian themes and elements in Grimm fairy tales was written by G. Ronald Murphy, author of the book “The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales” (2000), and by Jack Zipes (2012), Bruno Bettelheim (1976), and more.

Religion is also represented in fairy tales, although rarely overtly. While some tales present religious ideas or motifs candidly (eg. “Mary’s Child” by Brothers Grimm or “The Old Church Bell” by H. C. Andersen), others introduce them more subtly to the reader (eg. “The Little Mermaid”, “Sleeping Beauty”, or “Cinderella”). Although many fairy-tales transcend age and nationality, most of them are collected folk tales and they represent a reflection of the time and place where they were collected. Fairy tales have always been a powerful discourse, used to shape attitudes and behaviour, to educate children, and to serve the bigger purpose of preserving the national traditions and customs. Some relevant examples would be “Sleeping Beauty” (French: “La Belle au bois dormant”, German: “Dornröschen”) and “Hansel and Gretel” (German: “Hänsel und Gretel”) which were born out of the convergence of pagan mythology and Christian ideology and reflect the changing form of religious belief while conserving the tales’ national form. Most fairy tales originated in periods when religion was a fundamental part of life; thus, they addressed, more or less directly, religious themes.

Hans Christian Andersen’s tales also abound with religious motifs and present Christian values reverently. Among his contemporaries, the author’s religious ideas were well noted and the readers found his tales totally appropriate in the 19th century Danish cultural context when Christianity played a significant role. Andersen’s fairy tales reveal death as a moment of enlightenment, connected with the idea of the immortal soul and eternal life (“The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen” are, possibly, the best examples here), an idea that is central to Christian doctrine: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “The Old Church Bell” is centered on Christian symbols like the Bible, the church bell, the church tower, faith, prayer, and baptism. “The Wild Swans” foregrounds the archbishop as the wise advisor of the prince, while many other stories are connected to the Christian dogma in different particular ways, exploring themes such as the redemptive nature of suffering and the mystical ascent. More examples can be found in the database compiled by The Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, which counted religious elements in 166 of Andersen’s tales (out of 212).

To conclude, fairy tales serve as pedagogical tools for children and protectors of the cultural patrimony. In European fair tales, Christianity is an essential component of them, especially when we analyse the Brothers Grimm’ and Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.

About the author: Marta Vartolomei is a first year PhD student at QMUL. Her research explores Hans Christian Andersen’s religious views, and considers his tales in adaptation.

References and Further Reading:

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Murphy, G. R. The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy tales and the Art of Subversion. New York: Routledge, 1983.


Approaches to Death in Books for Young Readers

Picture books on difficult topics face a unique challenge: how do they balance explaining the subject clearly while keeping language simple, but not patronising or overly-explicit?

Consumer demand for this category of book means there is a growing list of nuanced titles, ranging from topics such as homosexuality, civil rights, mental health and death. These books serve as milestones in educating young readers about the difficult realities of everyday life. One of the exciting things about this is that no two books deal with a same topic in the same way; while one may gently broach the topic using similes and veiled language, another will be terse and matter of fact.

Two examples of such approaches areThe Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown and The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr. Both are picture books discussing death for a similarly aged audience, but tackle the topic in very different ways.

The Dead Bird gives a concise, unemotional account of the funereal practices of burying a dead bird, happened upon by a group of friends. Wise Brown doesn’t shy away from being explicit: the word “dead” is used 17 times in the book. The anatomy of death is portrayed by Wise Brown in a pragmatic tone: “that was the way animals got when they had been dead for some time – cold dead and stone still with no heart beating”. The children are then “glad” they can perform funeral rites for the bird, and bury it among flowers and sing to it “the way grown-up people did when someone died”. They continue to perform these actions on subsequent visits to the park “until they forgot”.

The Dead Bird leaves little room for emotional responses to the dead bird – one could argue that, having had no prior relationship to the bird, there was no sense of grief that could be attributed to the children. Yet, in a book that deals explicitly with death and burials, it is interesting that the only real portrayal of something akin to grief is when the children cry “because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead”.

The cover of The Goodbye Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr (2015)

The Goodbye Book, on the other hand, is a book which deals only with the emotional side of grief. The basis of the goodbye is ambiguous, but through illustration is implied that the goldfish’s friend has died. Through anthropomorphic techniques, the book explores different emotional reactions the reader may have after saying goodbye to someone and not seeing them again; scenarios of low mood, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, sadness and anger take up a page each. Through the goldfish, the reader sees that while grief may feel emotionally overwhelming, they are loved and there is hope for happiness again. While the language is still simple, it focuses entirely on the emotional – the practicalities of death are not discussed.

These are two very different responses to the challenge of portraying death in children’s terms: Todd Parr attempts to help the child navigate their feelings and offer a sense of hopefulness for emotional healing, while Wise Brown presents the practicalities of death perhaps in a move to demystify it and show the child a step-by-step guide to what the mourners do when burying someone. This prompts question: What are the purposes of these books? Are they here to educate the child reader on aspects their guardian aren’t sure how to convey, or do they exist as books which facilitate the difficult conversation between reader and child?

About the Author: Rosie Gailor will begin her PhD study at QMUL this autumn. Her research interests include the novels of Roald Dahl and gendered portrayals of abuse in his works.

The Evolution of the Grimms’ Tales: Considerations for Children’s Literature Authors

In his introduction to The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2014), Jack Zipes, the book’s translator and editor, talks about the birth of the first-edition Grimms’ tales. According to Zipes, the initial intention of the brothers to preserve the oral tales was met by misunderstanding and criticism, which in part contributed to the change of their editing principles in the following editions. We all know the rest of the story: over forty-odd years, the ‘young and inexperienced’ brothers stepped into their later years, and the originally ‘pungent’, ‘naïve’, ‘blunt’, and ‘unpretentious’ tales were injected with a new and longer life. The tales were now largely free of their more horrific elements and were infused with religious and moral teachings, thus making them more suitable and interesting for families and children to read.

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First  Edition: Grimm, Jacob, Grimm, Wilhelm, Dezsö, Andrea, Zipes,  Jack: 9780691160597: Books
Cover of Jack Zipes’ translation of the first edition of The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brother’s Grimm (2014)

Instead of focusing on the philological and historical significance of the first-edition Grimm’s tales, Zipes’ introduction sparks my curiosity on the careers of those authors, editors, and publishers who choose to create literature for the young: What makes them decide to write/produce books for children? What are the difficulties they have encountered during the writing and publication of a children’s book? How different would it be if we compare their early works with their later works in terms of style and content? What influences him/her to make such changes? Needless to say, the answers vary from person to person, from culture to culture, and from time to time, but knowing more about the stories behind the scenes may help us to better understand how individual practitioners balance their creative ideas with considerations of the market and censorship in the production of children’s literature.

The first-edition Grimm’s tales, as described by Zipes, have ‘a beguiling honesty’. They have not only been honest in reflecting human nature and, potentially, Germanic folk culture, but have also honestly captured the ‘young and inexperienced’ brothers at the beginning of their career as editors of the tales. Moreover, they also draw our attention to the practitioners of children’s literature and their first works. What brings them to the field and how do they grow in their careers?

About the Author: Huiyun Mo will begin her PhD study at QMUL this September. She has broad research interests in Children’s Literature, with a particular focus on the imagination of future childhood in Science Fiction for the young. Her study will explore within a cross-cultural context the biopolitics of posthuman childhood in YA Speculative Fiction.