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.