Books Lifestyle Timeles Thursday

the theme of cruelty + abuse in Grimm tales

July 25, 2020

warning: this essay is very triggering, talking about neglect, physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

everyone knows them, tales of young maidens, brave children and evil stepmothers. the most famous of them were collected by the Grimm brothers, who were told these gruesome stories by middle class women.


it’s quite an obvious thing to say that these tales are full of abuse, patriarchal themes and violence but…why?
one might think it had to be this way since only through terror (is beauty lol) you could give the children the important lessons of life. however, this wasn’t the original thought. the purpose of these tales, first published in 1812, was to show the children the dangers of the world in order to keep them home, helping their parents once they grow old. which is kind of all lesson itself I suppose.
So all these Disney movies are wrong? has there never been the idea of the prince + princess and their happily ever after?
think about it. these tales were told over generations, often from aristocratic mother to child. these families didn’t have to worry wether their heirs would take care of them in old age. Even if, as implied by degh, they were first meant for scholars rather than spoiled children, the most important thing about them were not educational — after all these are stories to lull you to sleep.


what comes next are rather theories of mine than proven facts.

so we can’t neglect that child abuse is a major theme in Grimm stories … but how do we define abuse in this context? here’re some of the most obvious:


  • snow white — four attempts of murder by her stepmother, out of jealousy (which is also very patriarchal + antifeminist. imagine teaching young girls that ones beauty determines the others! oh wait! we’re already doing this!)
  • Rumpelstilzchen — the father actively risks his daughters life, literally selling her to a king, promising him that she could turn her golden girl into actual gold
  • The Juniper Tree — the stepmother (who’s only here because the father couldn’t take care of the children himself which is already fucked up itself) eats the duck the father brought home on her own (oh yeah she’s sooo greedy!! perhaps she was just hungry…) and panics when she realizes it (seems like she’s in an abusive relationship herself huh?). out of fear for her husband she kills her stepson + makes the stew with his flesh.
  • The Willful Child — a girl (which has in the original story no gender, using “das kind”) thinks on her own rather than following the mother’s wishes. as punishment by god she becomes very ill which eventually leads to her dead. this might be a bit a little more subtle but once you think about it you’ll see the cruelty behind this.


  • Hansel + Gretel — abandoned by their parents in the woods they have to survive on their own, which means in their case killing a witch (which was often used as a metaphor for unmarried women, who chose to live on their own and being outcasts of the society).


emotional child abuse is found in literally every Grimm fairytale. having suffered from emotional abuse myself I do not have the power explain this to you. I’m sorry.


nearly all sexual aspects have been removed by the brothers, however there still are some, more subtle, tones

  • All Fur — a king wants to marry his own daughter after his wife dies

so why did they do that? why did they use such horrible elements in bedtime stories?
to justify the parents’ abuse?
to tell the children it will be all right if they just pray to god + obey their parents?

(talking about praying: religion is a very interesting aspect talking about fairytales which have their origins in indogermanic culture. these tales have been told, in one way or another since a very long time, longer than the christians taught the Bible. still, whenever the children were in serious trouble they talked to god, begging him for help. it probably came over the time, as the main religion became Christianity)

perhaps. perhaps it was some sort of justification. but maybe it was also a warning.
perhaps the mother, as she told her children about the terrible parents of Hansel and Gretel she realized how she mistreated them. perhaps the father stopped by, listening at the door, thinking about how he should believe his child when they tell him about how odd that boy behaves around them.
when I was first told these tales of knights and ladies I didn’t thought about them as bad.
they were an inspiration to me, telling me that however bad something might seem at the moment, there will be a happily ever after, just waiting for me around the corner.
for me, that’s the way I want to remember the Grimm brother’s books while looking into a future and present of amazing (and political correct) bedtime stories, written by people of color, women, lgbtquia+ folks and other beautiful souls.

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