The Dark Side of Romantic Fairytales – Abuse in Grimm’s Narratives
Some of the most popular fairytales to this day were written down in Germany during the Romantic era by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, who published their first edited collection in 1812. Traditional approaches to fairytale studies neglect the suffering and unequal distribution of power which extends beyond gender and class into an imbalance between children and adults. Overlooking these “generational conflicts” (Tatar, Off with their Heads xxiv) means overlooking the macabre and violent aspects of fairytale narratives. I investigate abuse in fairytales, specifically those surrounding generational conflicts. My definition of abuse includes emotional and physical patterns and aligns with criteria set out by from the independent agency for sexual abuse (Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Missbrauchs). For this I propose a different reading of the tales, as I illustrate on König Drosselbart (King Thrushbeard, KHM 52).
- Child abuse in King Thrushbeard
In KD the protagonist is abused by her father as well as her husband. While the former forces his daughter into a marriage with a beggar as a questionable parenting technique during the first third of the tale, the latter establishes a manipulative relationship in his efforts to re-educate his wife.
Suprisingly, the fairytale offers justifications for the males’ abusive behavior, blaming the female adolescent. Her disobedience when she is presented to her suitors is marked by direct speech, which contrasts to the description of King Thrushbeard as a good man and of a socially respectable status (KD par. 1). She proceeds to mock him because of his appearance, further violating rules of politeness. This suggests that the father’s enraged reaction promising his daughter to a beggar and going through with it, is not only reasonable, but also speaks to his noble character as a man who keeps his word. In the same vein, King Thrushbeard states that he treated his wife badly out of love for her, portraying the abuse as a necessary educational measure, which is ultimately in favor of the protagonist (KD par. 8). These justifications are not convincing when looking at the evidence for abuse.
The text signals that the heroine is not married voluntarily through passive, impersonal formulations, such as being lead through the rows of suitors or a priest being fetched (KD par. 1-2). Not only is forced marriage a crime, but it also has devastating psychological consequences. The protagonist is understandably shocked by being married off. Her state of shock becomes visible in her difficulty processing the situation – she still describes herself as a fair maiden despite being married (KD par. 3-5) and simultaneously describes her new home in poverty with pejorative adjectives and diminutives but expects her husbands estate to include servants (KD par. 6-7). The onomatopoetic interjection (KD par. 3-7), which is reminiscent of sighs, occurs seven times in direct speech and supports the expression of her agony. Furthermore, her suffering is expressed through her work resulting in bodily harm. Her delicate hands and fingers are destroyed and bloody from the use of hard branches and thread (KD par. 7). At the court she must do the hardest work (KD par. 8), the superlative and use of modal verbs already indicate that she is forced to perform the worst tasks.
Given that the beggar is in fact King Thrushbeard, he purposefully starves his wife and keeps her in a state of existential threat (KD par. 7). He demonstrates his power three times (as it is typical for fairytales) in direct speech when going on about how vast and beautiful King Thrushbeard’s forest, pastures and cities are (KD par. 3-5). This illustrates his narcissistic tendencies. He also tortures the protagonist unnecessarily after she shows remorse for how she treated her suitor the first time they talk about it. Paradoxically, when she acknowledges that King Thrushbeard would have been a better choice for a husband, he emotionally manipulates her by asking her if he is not good enough and says he does not like his wife thinking about other men (KD par. 6). In addition, he systematically belittles her by attributing her failures at earning her living to personal inability instead of lack of experience. King Thrushbeard purposefully destroys the work she did well (KD par. 7-8) and continuously blames her, cumulating in his realization that he is the aggrieved party in their marriage.
The destruction of the protagonists self-esteem and her suffering through humiliation at the hands of her husband are illustrated by the hyperbolic description of a pot shattered into thousand pieces and her wish to be thousand feet below the earth to escape the public mockery (KD par. 7-8). When she is finally allowed to return to the court and the King reveals himself as her husband, she shows intense feelings of guilt, and shame and tries to flee when her husband touches her (KD par. 8). She even goes as far as saying she is not worthy enough to be his wife, thereby negating her self-worth (KD par. 8), showing typical symptoms for a victim of abuse. In this light, the renewed marriage is not at all a happy ending, but a depiction of a heroine trapped in a repetitive pattern of abuse. The lack of direct speech or reaction from the protagonist to the marriage confirms my interpretation. She was portrayed as outspoken and confident before her wedding; her actions are now again described in passive voice (KD par. 8).
To sum it up, KD can be read as an example of verbal abuse, whose main conflict lies not in the rebelliousness of the princess, but is rather rooted in the abuse of the adolescent princess by her male, adult caregivers. Some interpretations might highlight the importance of hard labor, of forced marriage as a question of gender in patriarchic societies, or the significance of social mobility, but the unequal distribution of power can and should be transferred to the one between adolescents and adult caregivers. In fact, this is not the only fairytale in which similar patterns can be observed as the majority of Grimm’s tales showcases some kind of child abuse as an aspect that remains “remarkably stable” (Tatar, “Tests, Tasks, and Trials” 46). A forced marriage disguised through a father’s promise can be found in The Frog King. Latent incest (All-Kinds-of-Fur, The Girl without Hands) and child labor (Cinderella, Snow-White, Rumpelstiltskin, etc.), often paired with physical and verbal abuse, are not isolated incidents in the fairytale world. Boys (The brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel) or royal children fall subject to abusive patterns just as girls and children from poor families, which proves that gender and social status can be influential factors but that the biological defenselessness of children is far more important.
- Why is child abuse prevalent in fairytales?
Of course, what is perceived as abuse today, had been conceived as normality in the pre-romantic era because of the Napoleonic wars, famines, and the plague (Tatar, Off with their Heads 46). Fairytales are derived from orally circulating folk tales of premodern times and their imagination of childhood (Zipes, Breaking the magic spell xi). Until the late 18th century children were treated roughly the same as adults, so the concept of childhood differed significantly from our contemporary one. The conception of childhood changed in the Romantic period due to the upcoming capitalism, which transformed the family structures of the feudal system into the bourgeois nuclear family. This shift influenced the socio-cultural reality of children immensely as they did not participate in out-of-house work anymore (Baader 417). For the first time the concept of childhood was assigned a different value “[s]eparate from the adult world and from its own adult self” (Plotz 3). Romanticist developed a discourse surrounding childhood that sees children as independent, innocent entities (Baader 417). They broke with the doctrine of original sin and developed the genius tradition, so childhood became a place of longing (Baader 419). This mythical elevation of childhood lead to the image of the natural child – “the identification of childhood with Nature […] and the attribution to children of an autonomous, unitary consciousness” (Plotz 5; Tatar “From Rags to Riches” 32; The Hard Facts 77). As a result, pedagogy of the Romantic era focused on providing a safe space for children (Baader 419). Considering this, child abuse in fairytales seems to have little in common with the Romantic concept of childhood. The emerging bourgeoise could even consider some of the rebellious morals in fairytales dangerous and condemned them for their perceived lack of virtues (Zipes, Breaking the magic spell 12,25).
Nevertheless, new social fears about education and the transition of child- into adulthood arose from the Romantic image of childhood. As caregivers had to prepare children for their future role in the economy, they discovered innovative practices of socialization – amongst them narratives targeted to educate the children. Consequently, the violent folk tales had to be edited to suit the need of the new market for educational children’s literature. It has been proven that the Grimm brothers reworked their fairytales, e.g. by excluding pregnancies or incest (Tatar, The Hard Facts 8-10, 30), while explicitly referencing the civilizing, didactic qualities of the violence left in the tales (Tatar, The Hard Facts 17). The protagonists become figures of identification for children that often see themselves as being inferior to the caregivers that distribute resources, have knowledge, and are physically superior (Tatar, The Hard Facts 21), thereby reinforcing didactic effects.
One of the prime educational goals of Grimm’s fairytales, which becomes visible in KD, is obedience. Obedience is especially important in a capitalist society in which hard work, humility, modesty and politeness were deemed to be essential “for the many girls whose household apprenticeships formed the basis for their livelihoods” (Tatar, Off with their Heads 56). Pride, vanity, stubbornness or being self-determined could contradict a marriage or the employment in another household and thus had to be eradicated. KD is a good example for this as the protagonist is described as very beautiful (KD, par. 1), but lacking in the “bourgeoise” virtues mentioned above. Her diminished sense of self but clear obedience can be seen as a successful re-education process.
Moreover, child abuse is not just a didactic variable, it is crucial for the narrative itself. The abusive incident often triggers the events in fairytales. Unbearable traumatic events, in many cases abuse, are what inspire or unwillingly take heroes on their journeys, as described in the narrative patterns of fairytales in “Tests, Tasks, and Trials” by Tatar. The adults are the ones that trigger transformation processes, which are typical for fairytale narratives. The experience of abuse justifies that the children leave the safety and stability of the nuclear family behind. Tatar sums this up as follows: “The child-hero is always a victim: he has been neglected, punished, or abandoned by his parents. Escape from home becomes his sole source of consolation” (“From Rags to Riches” 31). In KD, it becomes evident that without leaving her home the protagonist might never have her journey so that she could develop the qualities desired by parents in the Romantic era. Abuse is essential to the plot as the element that propels the action forward, so this aspect of fairytales can never fully be removed from fairytales, even in our times in which making children obedient is not the primary goal of education anymore.
Does this mean that we should accept the violence in fairytales? In my opinion the answer to this is yes. By embracing the macabre aspects of fairytales, how they are presented to us, and investigating them, we can learn about the realities of children then and even today. The victim-blaming and legitimization of questionable parenting, gaslighting and trivialization of abuse and its consequences in fairytales is a mirror image of how society treats abuse. It is telling that the most recipients of Disney adaptations of fairytales do not even recognize the violence involved in them. Looking at these macabre circumstances in the fictional tales can also help to deal with experiences of abuse – Röhr, for example, uses fairytales in his work as a psychotherapist and elaborates on the benefits of this practice in his book “Ich traue meiner Wahrnehmung”. I propose that readings centered around forms of abuse offers valuable insights into how our society views childhood and generational conflicts.
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Grimm, Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm. König Drosselbart. Otto Hendel Verlag, 1812. eBook Edition (Projekt Gutenberg). https://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/kinder-und-hausmarchen-7018/55.
Plotz, Judith Ann. Romanticism and the vocation of childhood. New York, Palgrave, 2001.
Röhr, Heinz-Peter. Ich traue meiner Wahrnehmung. Sexueller und emotionaler Missbrauch. 5th ed., München, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011.
Tatar, Maria. “From Rags to Riches: Fairy Tales and the Family Romance.” Children’s Literature Association Quaterly vol.7, nr.2, 1982, pp. 31-34, https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.0.0644. Accessed 18 October 2019.
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—. “Tests, Tasks, and Trials in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” Children’s Literature vol.13, 1985, pp.31-48, https://doi.org/10.1353/chl.0.0658. Accessed 18 October 2019.
—. The hard facts of the Grimm’s fairy tales. 2nd ed., Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Unabhängiger Beauftragter für Fragen des sexuellen Missbrauchs. Geschäftsstelle des Unabhängigen Beauftragten für Fragen des sexuellen Kindesmissbrauchs, 2019, https://beauftragter-missbrauch.de/. Accessed 03 December 2019.
Zipes, Jack. Breaking the magic spell: radical theories of folk and fairy tales. 2nd ed., Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
 It is abbreviated with KD in the following.
 Signs of physical abuse can be found but elaborating on them exceeds the scope of this work.