Fairy tales rarely depict sisters and sisterhood in a positive light. Fairy tale sisters generally end up at best envious or useless or both, when not turning into active and deadly rivals. This negative depiction stretches far back into ancient times: Psyche, for instance, ends up suffering almost as much from her sisters as from her unwelcoming mother-in-law, Aphrodite. A few shining counter-examples can be found here and there in some early French and Italian fairy tale collections, or in English folktales featuring sisters that save their siblings. But for the most part, these stories feature sisters saving brothers. Anyone reading fairy tales could easily come away with the impression that having sisters, especially older sisters, can be really dangerous for you.
Indeed, the trend was so ingrained in western culture that by the time Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their collection of fairy tales, the 1812 Children’s and Household Tales, they had difficulty finding any positive depictions of sisterhood. But by the 1833 edition, they were able to include a story of two sisters who aren’t out to kill each other—”Snow-White and Rose-Red.”
How did they manage this? By making quite a lot of it up.
Which probably explains why so much of it makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE.
As their notes discuss, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm based their tale on “The Ungrateful Dwarf,” a story written by Caroline Stahl (1776-1837). Very little seems to be known about Stahl’s life. We do know that she was born in what are now the Baltic countries, but later spent time living in Weimar, Nuremberg and Vienna, focusing on teaching and writing for literary journals. What seems to be her single collection, Fables, Tales and Stories for Children, which includes “The Ungrateful Dwarf,” was first printed in Nuremberg in 1816. A longer collection was released in 1821. At some point, she returned to what is now Estonia, where she died in 1837.
(As far as I can tell, neither version of her collection has been translated into English, but the 1821 edition in German is available on the internet and in multiple research libraries.)
Wilhelm Grimm discovered her collection around 1818, and realizing that it was a perfect fit for his own obsessions with fairy tales and German values, consulted it when editing and creating “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Hansel and Gretel.” He also decided that “The Ungrateful Dwarf” could be included in his own, ongoing massive fairy tale project—with some rewrites.
Stahl seems to have been inspired by the French salon fairy tale writers, writing a combination of tales adapted from French originals (including many by Madame d’Aulnoy) as well as creating original tales that used some elements from folklore—including magical dwarfs. She was not against using some of the more common tropes of fairy tales, such as rival sisters, in her story “The Wicked Sisters and the Good One.” But unlike most of the French salon fairy tale writers—and the Grimms, for that matter—her stories tended to deemphasize romance, and focus on morals instead. Her versions of Madame d’Aulnoy’s tales, for instance, often remove the romance element entirely, or, if one of the lovers couldn’t be removed for plot reasons, transforms the lovers into siblings. Very platonic siblings, everyone. These are very moral stories, not Game of Thrones. She also, for the most part, described her protagonists as young or very young: her stories, as the title indicates, were for children.
But like the French salon fairy tale writers, Stahl was interested in using fairy tales to promote social and ethical messages. She apparently assumed her readership would be largely upper class (a not improbable assumption in the early 19th century) and therefore, took the opportunity to urge her young readers against certain undesirable traits—jealousy and pride—and towards certain social behaviors, notably tolerance for inferiors, no matter how those inferiors might act. Those lessons are central to “The Ungrateful Dwarf,” an original story with apparently no antecedents.
In Stahl’s story, Snow-White and Rose-Red are two of many young children in a poverty stricken household with two parents. Snow-White, and later both sisters, encounter an ungrateful dwarf, helping him despite his ongoing ingratitude and verbal abuse. Suddenly, a bear jumps out. The dwarf is killed; the girls find his treasure, and use it to make their family wealthy and lead happy and—apparently—single lives.
Stahl never married.
Wilhelm Grimm decided that what this story really needed was more emphasis on Christian themes, some additional symbolism, and a romance with a bear.
Grimm’s marriage was, by all accounts, very happy.
His version begins, not in dire poverty, but in a relatively well off, cozy home, where Snow-White and Rose-Red live with their widowed mother. The children seem to be slightly magical, able to make friends with various wild animals, and at one point, protected by an angel, in a lovely image that never really comes up again, but moving on. Suddenly, a bear knocks on the door. This is mildly terrifying, as you might imagine, but fortunately enough, this is a talking bear, willing to let the children play with him. To a point:
“Snow-White and Rose-Red,
Don’t beat your lover dead!”
DID I MENTION HE’S A BEAR?
Anyway, when spring arrives, the bear goes to protect his treasure from the wicked dwarfs, not offering any of it, I must note, to the three people who have been sheltering him and feeding him all winter, like, THANKS BEAR. However, this is positively kindly compared to what’s coming up next: an unfriendly dwarf, whose beard is stuck in a stump. Snow-White cuts his beard, freeing him, at which point the dwarf takes off with a bag of gold, like, I’M GETTING A CERTAIN IMPRESSION ABOUT THE MEN OF THIS STORY AND THEIR FAILURE TO PAY WOMEN FOR BASIC SERVICES LIKE, I DUNNO, BED, BREAKFAST, AND BEARD TRIMMING.
It’s the first of three such encounters, where the girls free the dwarf who then runs off with treasure without giving them any. Finally, in encounter four, the bear rather belatedly shows up again and kills the dwarf. At this point, the bear suddenly transforms into a prince and marries Snow-White. Rose-Red marries his brother, who has never been mentioned in the story before, only appearing in the final sentence.
I feel impelled to note that most illustrations follow the language of the text, which seems to suggest that the girls are fairly young—and definitely innocent. Possibly six. Maybe seven. Let’s say ten. Twelve at most. Young enough to roll around the floor with a talking bear claiming to be their love and OK MAYBE THEIR AGES ARE NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM HERE.
As a kid, mostly I felt sorry for the dwarf, who kept getting stuck in things, and then got killed by a bear. Probably not the message I was supposed to take from this, but honestly, it all did seem quite mean to the dwarf, even if the dwarf was apparently running around stealing treasure from princes and turning said princes into bears. After all, the bear seemed happy enough as a bear—he got to roll around and around and play and roll around and around again, which seemed like a lot of fun. Possibly if we’d heard more about the evil enchantment and the connection with the dwarf earlier, rather than in a tag at the end of the tale, I might have felt otherwise. Since we didn’t, put me down as Team Dwarf.
Meanwhile, I have questions. Many questions. Starting with, bear, if you had any thoughts of marrying either girl, and clearly, you did, why not, say, warn them that an evil dwarf capable of transforming people into bears was roaming around the woods? Sure, the girls were once lucky enough to be guarded by an angel, but how often would that happen? And if all you needed to do to transform back into a prince was kill the dwarf, why not go after the dwarf—who isn’t exactly hiding, after all—instead of going after your treasure? Also, seriously, your brother? What brother, and why was he never mentioned before, and what has he been doing all this time? Transforming into a wolf? A squirrel? Guarding the kingdom in his brother’s absence? Gambling and exploring brothels? Conspiring with dwarfs? We’re missing something here, tale.
Also, dwarf, I get that you are really, seriously proud of your beard, and that it took you forever to grow, but given that it keeps getting stuck in things maybe—just maybe—a trip to the barber might not be a bad thing?
The dwarf is odd for another reason: in most of the Grimm tales, protagonists who stop to help a creature stuck or in danger for one reason or another find themselves receiving magical assistance or treasure from those creatures as a result. Sometimes the creatures even put themselves into deliberate or seeming danger as tests for the protagonists, who are rewarded for their kindness and politeness—and sympathy for the helpless and those seemingly inferior to them.
In this tale, the girls are rewarded (from the point of view of the Grimms) with a marriage to the bear prince and his brother—but notably, their first reaction to the bear is not kindness, but terror. It is their mother who speaks to the bear and welcomes him into the house, as both girls cower and hide. In other words, the rewards (assuming they are awards) received by the girls has nothing to do with their behavior, but their mother’s. Their own kindly behavior towards the dwarf earns them nothing: indeed, given that the prince could not regain his human form until the death of the dwarf, their actions probably helped keep the prince in his bear form—thus delaying their marriages.
Thus, in some ways, this reads less as a rewards tale, and more as a tale of arranged marriage between a girl and a beast—even if the subject of marriage is not mentioned until the very end of the tale, after the bear’s transformation. But in most fairy tale marriages between a beast and a girl, the girl leaves her home to live with the beast, in a wedding arranged by, or the fault of, her father. In this tale, her mother welcomes the beast in.
Nor, as in the Stahl tale, do the girls find the treasure and use it to save their family. Instead, their marriages take them from their home, although their mother manages to save the rosebushes.
Which is not to say that the story has no value. Having two friendly sisters and a supporting, living mother in a fairy tale is unusual enough to be a delight, and the story has several delightful touches. I rather like that Snow-White and Rose-Red continue to help the dwarf despite his attitude—and the story’s recognition that not everyone is or will be grateful to be saved. I love the way the story counters some of the common fairy tale tropes—a recognition, perhaps, that after so many years of collecting and retelling fairy tales, Wilhelm Grimm had started to revolt against some of their messages. And in some ways, the sheer weirdness of the story and the way everyone keeps jumping in and out of the plot helps make it memorable. Still, it can’t be denied that the story has, to put it mildly, several big gaps in logic and sense—even by fairy tale standards—and that for all of its comforting moments, it lacks the emotional power of other Grimm tales.
This was hardly the first time, or the last, that Wilhelm Grimm changed or enhanced a story: his version of “The Frog King,” for instance, transformed an originally much shorter, straightforward tale into a richer, more poetic story—one where the princess kisses the frog, instead of throwing him against the wall. (Look. Frog. Let’s not judge.) But it was the first time where he had changed enough of the original to make it less a retelling, or even a literary version of an oral tale, and more of an original work. The end result suggests that just possibly, scholarship, not originality, was his thing—but also that, after so many years immersed in fairy tales, he could not repress their magic.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.