BOOKS

Lesser-Known Fairy Tales Worth Reading

08/19/2014 08:23 am ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014
Brothers Grimm

Disney has a reputation for borrowing age-old fables and coating them in a happy-go-lucky sheen. "Tangled," an adaptation (albeit a loose one) of The Brothers Grimm's "Rapunzel," conveniently excludes the scene in which the lovesick prince literally jumps out of a castle window and blinds himself with thorns. "Snow White," also based on a Grimm tale, leaves out the part where the evil queen chows down on a boar's heart, believing it to be her step daughter's.

Unlike their animated counterparts, in which endured hardships are always rewarded handsomely with the happiest endings, the original texts tell singular stories, often set in indifferent universes. This indifference can seem cruel; "good" characters are punished without explanation, whereas "evil" characters can be let off the hook. The resulting lack of catharsis can be unsettling. But, for every story that boldly chooses a tragic ending, there's a tale imbued with humor or a moralistic bit of advice. The original Grimm Brother stories aren't necessarily optimistic, but they certainly provide suggested coping mechanisms (laughing, praying) for the absurdity of their worlds, and, by extension, ours.

Below are three lesser-known Brothers Grimm fairy tales* that, while bizarre, are absolutely worth reading:

"The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage" from The Brothers Grimm
As its title suggests, this story is about a mouse, a bird and a sausage. The three are basically roommates, and they divide up their house duties in a way that makes sense for their respective skills -- the bird collects wood, the mouse gets water from the well and builds the fire, and the sausage, naturally, does the cooking. The bird begins to believe that the arrangement is unfair (rightfully so, IMHO), and demands that they try mixing up their responsibilities. But when the sausage goes out to collect wood, he gets eaten. When the mouse tries to cook, she falls in the pot of boiling water. And when the bird tries to collect water, he caught his foot on the well rope, "so he was drowned, and that was the end of them all."

The moral, I guess, is to be satisfied with what you have. The other moral is probably that if you are a sausage, you should not go on walks through the forest. While charming, this story would not translate well to the big screen unless Channing Tatum starred as the voice of the sausage, or perhaps of all three characters.

EXCERPT: "There was nothing the bird could do. In a fight between a bird and a dog, there's only one winner, and it isn't the bird. He turned back home and told the mouse what happened. 'Eaten?' she said. 'Oh, that's dreadful! I shall miss him terribly.' 'It's very sad. We'll just have to do the best we can without him,' said the bird."

"The Girl with No Hands" from The Brothers Grimm
The story is hinged on the classic deal-with-the-devil trope. A poor miller exchanges "whatever's standing behind his mill" for a ton of money, thinking it's no big because the only thing in his backyard is an apple tree. The only problem is, he somehow had forgotten for a sec that he had a daughter, who happened to be playing in his backyard at the time the deal was made! The devil returns three years later to snatch the miller's daughter, but she'd spent the night before crying, and her tears had the magical ability to protect her, but only her hands (obviously). So the devil orders her father to cut off her hands, and he swiftly obeys. But the devil ends up not being able to take her away after all, because he'd already attempted to three times, "and that was the limit." Everything is okay in the end, because the girl with no hands marries a king, AND her piousness is rewarded with new hands!

The moral of the story seems to be, do not under any circumstances make a deal with the devil, even if there's something you really want. However, if you do find that you've inadvertently made a deal with the devil, it is okay! Everything will be fine. Actually, it's a little unclear what the moral of this story is.

EXCERPT: "The Devil came back once more, but the poor girl had wept again and covered her stumps with tears, so that they were perfectly clean. He had to give up then, because he'd tried three times, and that was the limit."

"The Elves" from The Brothers Grimm
This story is actually three stories, all about elves, which, in this instance, are more like fairies à la "Midsummer." While each story features a different arbitrary act of mischief, none of them seem to provide much of a substantial outcome or message. Which is actually pretty great, because if elves existed in real life, it seems likely that they would just be somewhat cool to have around, or, conversely, minor inconveniences. In the first story, a struggling shoemaker is aided by the elves to craft perfect shoes, and quickly becomes wealthy. To repay their favor, he makes them tiny outfits and shoes. The elves are really happy about this, and they disappear forever, but the shoemaker remains wealthy. In the second story, the elves ask a girl to be a godmother to an elf-child. She reluctantly agrees, and visits the elf-mountain for what she thinks is three days, but what irritatingly turns out to be seven years. In the third story, the elves replace a woman's baby with a scary creature, but when she makes the creature laugh, they give her her baby back.

The moral of this story is that life is unpredictable. This moral makes a lot of sense, and might be the best moral from any Brothers Grimm story. Still, the complete lack of plausibility coupled with an absent narrative arc would make it a tough story to adapt.

EXCERPT: "A mother had her baby stolen from his cradle by the elves, and in his place they laid a changeling, a little monster with a great thick head and staring eyes who did nothing but eat or drink."

*All excerpts are taken from Phillip Pullman's translation.

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