Grimms' Children's and Household Tales
Why I Taught the Source
Folktales and fairy tales are excellent resources for dealing with historical topics related to children and youth. In the first place, the genres themselves are often associated with children and childhood, especially since editors, writers, and pedagogues in 19th-century Europe began presenting folktales and fairy tales as tools to be utilized in the moral and cultural education of children. Secondly, the child characters in these traditional narratives also reveal how children and childhood were perceived by the societies that produced or adapted the tales.
In my course, Understanding the Fairy Tale, I use Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's canonical collection to demonstrate the development of the fairy tale as children's literature and to examine the construction of childhood and the experiences of children from a sociohistorical perspective. Two of the texts that I use appeared under the provocative title "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" ("Wie Kinder Schlachtens miteinander gespielt haben") in the first edition of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (commonly translated as Children's and Household Tales) published in 1812. Because the two violent and disturbing stories were omitted from later editions, however, they are not well known to students. The first of the two stories tells of a childhood game that results in one boy being butchered by another who is then tried before the adult authorities. The second story involves the destruction of an entire family through a chain of tragic deaths that begins after one child kills another after witnessing his father slaughter a pig.
How I Introduce the Source
The students are given these stories on a handout at the end of the first class session and asked to read them before the next class meeting. This first, "cold" encounter with the texts is meant to stimulate the students' critical thinking about the Grimms' collection. Inevitably, in their first confrontation with these two stories, the students ask themselves the questions I will eventually ask in class: Why would these gruesome and disturbing tales be included in Grimms' collection? Are they really fairy tales? What are they about?
I identify the stories only as having been published in Grimms' collection of fairy tales, but I do not provide any further contextualization when making this initial assignment. Context is ultimately important in a sociohistorical approach; and during our subsequent discussion, I provide further historical background by pointing out that the Grimms' own sources allow us to trace the tales back to at least the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. 1
Reading the Source
While students have come to expect that unexpurgated versions of Grimms' 19th-century tales can be more violent than the sanitized versions they remember from childhood, they are not prepared for the senseless violence involving children in these brief stories. Unlike other tales, where violent acts are justified as a form of moral punishment, "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" depicts gruesome events that have no convincing justification.
The students' own question about the appropriateness of such tales within the Children's and Household Tales was one that contemporary readers also asked. Grimms' German contemporaries had deemed the two tales inappropriate for children as notions of childhood underwent a profound shift. Changing childhood ideals influenced the emergence of a new literature for children that imparted moral training. The Grimms responded to the historical changes they also furthered by reshaping the content of their canonical work.
After the publication of "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" in the first edition of Grimms' collection in 1812, it was omitted from all subsequent editions. Students are able to discern from this example how canonical texts, which are often assumed to be universal and transcendent, develop in a historical context and are shaped by historically constituted conceptions of childhood.
The most compelling issue for students, however, comes from questions pertaining to the significance of the stories themselves. Since the tales have been disqualified as children's literature, the question arises why adults would compose such troubling stories about children in the first place. I attempt to demonstrate how traditional narratives about children give expression to adult anxieties about childhood and parenting.
I begin this discussion by pointing out that the second of these two stories is related to the legend known as "The Inept Mother." The legend that is still circulated by female friends, relatives, and others is familiar to women and students. "The Inept Mother" can be read as a story whose horrific chain of catastrophes expresses the anxiety of women who feel overwhelmed by the responsibility they bear for the lives of their children. 2 In summarizing this interpretation for students, I attempt to demonstrate how traditional narratives about children give expression to adult attitudes towards childhood and parenting.
Adults' efforts to define childhood and to demarcate it from adulthood finds expression in the first of the two stories, which begins with a fatal game of butchering among children and concludes with the town council's judgment that the boy who played the butcher is innocent of murder. My primary strategy in elucidating adults' understandings about children is to ask my students to explain the test of innocence devised by a member of the town council and to identify the assumptions and ambiguities in the test that requires the boy to choose between an apple and a coin.
Choosing the apple would suggest an innate affinity for the concrete and the natural, and thus signify the child's natural purity and inability to commit a crime with conscious intent. Selecting the coin would suggest that the boy has the ability to reason and to comprehend the value of the abstract, thus signifying a "higher" adult state of mind and the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Students recognize that the boy's choice of the apple is the cause for his being "set free without any punishment." Yet, pressed to search for ambiguities, they also conclude that the boy's laughter might express his witting pleasure in outfoxing the judge instead of his innocent delight in gaining the apple. Indeed, his choice of the all-too-obvious apple might suggest his criminal (sinful) nature instead of his natural purity.
At this point, the stage is set for a discussion of the problems that societies encounter in defining the difference between children and adults. In this context, the Grimms' text can be easily related to those widely covered news stories in contemporary America involving children who commit crimes and the decision that authorities must make whether to try them as juveniles or adults—stories that tell us about our own struggle to define childhood in the 21st century.
The effectiveness of this assignment and the discussion it provokes stems in part from the surprises that await students in their encounter with these two texts. Because the Grimms removed "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" from the editions of their collection that they published from 1819 onwards, the two tales have not been associated with the Grimms and have not become part of the classical fairy-tale canon. Students are excited to learn that two such unusual and, for some, disturbing stories were once published alongside nursery-friendly tales.
Once juxtaposed with these familiar tales of childhood, "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" prompts students to reflect not only on the generic and moral issues that influenced Grimms' construction of the fairy-tale genre; it also gives them reason to question and examine more closely the tales that have taken up permanent residence in the nursery and become a part of nearly every child's literary experience. The violence depicted in these two tales now becomes a touchstone for reconsidering the otherwise clichéd questions about violence in fairy tales.
For example, how different is the violence in these two tales from the kind of violence inflicted on children in "Hansel and Gretel" or "The Juniper Tree"? Such questions and comparisons require students to think about the ways in which adults depict children and childhood, and how these depictions can be interpreted. They also demand that students be sensitive to context and ambiguity. Indeed, to make sense of "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" and its literary reception, students must develop interpretive skills that take into account the editorial history of Grimms' tales, the history of childhood, and the moral ambiguities at play in the two stories.
These are big topics, of course, and teachers will find it necessary to adjust the assignment not only for the level of students in their classrooms but also for the focus of their particular course. A course on the image of children in literature and culture, for example, need not undertake a full-fledged review of Grimms' work as editors of fairy tales. Basic information of the kind offered above (and available in the introduction to Jack Zipes's translation of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm 3) can be easily presented by the instructor.
While I use lecture and discussion to pursue the questions and issues described in this case study, some instructors might consider other strategies for engaging students. For example, students might be asked to identify and collect news stories and editorials in the media that reflect the ongoing debate about the proper age at which a child becomes—or can be tried in the judicial systems as—an adult. Similarly, the tale of the childhood game of butcher could provide the basis for a mock trial in the classroom, in which students could prosecute, defend, and judge the actions of the accused boy butcher. This could serve as an effective exercise to get to the heart of the questions about childhood and about guilt and innocence at work in this intriguing tale.
1The basic details for English-language readers can be found in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, trans. Jack Zipes, expanded 3rd ed. [New York: Bantam, 2003], p. 744.
2See Langlois, Janet. "Mother's Double Talk." In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture, edited by Joan Newlon Radner, 80-97. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
How to Cite This Source
"Grimms' Children's and Household Tales," in Children and Youth in History, Item #109, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/109 (accessed September 2, 2014).
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- "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" [Children's Literature]