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Christianization of Fairy Tales: The Brothers Grimm's Role

The Brothers Grimm played a significant role in the Christianization of fairy tales, as can be witnessed by comparing the earlier editions of their works with the final 1856 edition of Ammerkungsband. In the later versions, they have clearly added many Christian elements. Moralities were altered to fall in line with more Christian morals. The fair folk were omitted in favor of Angels and other agents of God, and the actors themselves became more pious. Additionally, sexual imagery and connotations were downplayed to better fit the Christian ideals of chastity and innocence.

In the Frog Prince, the Brothers made many changes. In the 1823 version, the prince had been ensorcelled into a toad by a malicious fairy. However, by the 1856 version, they had changed the fairy into a witch, making it more appealing to Christian sensitivities. These very same sensitivities seem to have been offended by the overt sexuality of the 1823 version wherein the frog and the princess slept together three times before the prince reverted to his human form. The Grimms clearly felt this needed cleaning up, so they deleted the business of the two sleeping together, and instead have the princess, in a fit of anger (and in a symbolic attempt to protect her sacred virginity), hurl the frog up against the wall, where he falls to the floor and reverts to his human form. They further insert contemporary Christian morality of their time by extending the tale to include the ending wherein the servant’s heart that had been bound by three iron bands (in order to keep the heart from breaking), is released by the shattering of said bands upon his master’s return to human form.

Rumpelstiltskin sees changes to the main character in the Grimms’ effort to Christianize the tale. The older 1823 edition has Rumpel-stilt-skin as a dwarf, which they change to being just a little man for their 1856 version. Additionally, where in the earlier version, he blamed the protagonists’ knowledge of his name upon a witch, this was edited to change the witch into the devil in the later version. Finally, in the 1823 version, his punishment for his use of magic and desire to eat the Queen’s daughter was merely his failure (as he was able to walk away). By the 1856 version, this had been altered so that he took his own life (which itself, as it was written, can be seen as a sign of possession by the devil).

Some of the tales did have Christian elements in their earlier version, and yet the Grimms still saw fit to further Christianize them. The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs became The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs. The 1857 is quite similar to the 1823 version, with the only real difference being that the Grimms changed the giant in the cave into the devil in hell. Unaltered was the Christian element in both of the King paying for his sin of greed with a sentence of eternal servitude as the ferryman’s replacement.

In most cases, the tales still resembled their original forms. One, however, was changed in its entirety (and indeed was actually split into two tales, the second being Brother and Sister). The original Hansel and Gretel did not involve a witch, nor were the children expelled by their parents into the woods. The tales begin somewhat similarly, with Hansel and Gretel’s family in poverty and near starvation. This is where the similarities end. The 1823 version tells of Hansel and Gretel leaving of their own volition in order to ease their parents’ burden. They enter the woods, and come across, in succession, three streams. A thirsty Hans wants to drink from them, but their stepmother, who in this earlier version is an evil fairy, enchants the streams so they tell of dire polymorphing consequences should he slake his thirst. Gretel prevents Hans from drinking from the first two, but he partakes of the third, transforming into a fawn. From this their woes arise many years later when the king’s huntsmen find Hans, and of course do what hunters do. The lesson of the original tale seems to be more to concern being careful what one consumes. But this isn’t at all the Hansel and Gretel with which we are familiar, for the Grimms rewrote it in entirety for the 1856 edition. Here, the children are expelled from their home, come across the evil witch’s cottage, are imprisoned and enslaved, until eventually the quick-thinking Gretel saves the twain when she tricks the witch into the oven. The evil creature of the first tale has been changed from a fairy into a “godless” witch. Both are punished for their capriciousness, but the alteration of the tale is consistent with the Grimms’ Christianization of the fairy tales.

A pattern begins to emerge. The Grimms first desexualized their tales – references to the act of sex were removed or minimized, and inferences or descriptions of pregnancy were either removed or sanitized- and in some instances the woman is made “ill” instead of pregnant. Fairies become witches or angels, giants become the devil, and in many cases enchantment is changed to instances of possession by evil spirits (as in Tom Thumb, wherein the pastor changes from declaring the cow enchanted to possessed). Where tales might originally be lessons about common sense or survival, or how to deal with birth, death, and sexuality, they are changed to lessons of morality and sin. In all cases, the Grimms altered the fairy tales they had originally gathered in the interest of presenting a compilation that was more palatable to the Christian sensibilities of 19th Century Europe. And because of the immense success of the 1856 edition of their work, they had great influence upon the evolution of fairy tales in general. Their role in the Christianization of these tales, as we can see, was quite significant.

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