Adapting Literary Learning Methods with the Grimm Fairy Tales

Learners use Grimm's tales to explore theme, thesis statement, textual analysis, and historical context.

By Donna Iadipaolo

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the brother's Grimm

I remember being exposed to “Hansel and Gretel” as a child. I recall how I feared the cannibalistic old witch and vicariously learned the lesson to never leave my parents’ home. Using “Hansel and Gretel” and other Grimm fairy tales, we as educators, can teach our students how to analyze literature by creating a strong thesis statement and then proving the thesis statement with concrete evidence from the text. Nature, for instance, could be considered as a prominent theme throughout the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales.

Identify the Theme

I recently read Lucy Crane's translation of "Hansel and Gretel" from her book, Household Stories. Instead of focusing on the witch, I realized that the brothers Grimm develop the theme that we must capitalize upon nature and use our natural instincts to survive and thrive. A good example of this can be seen when the parents drive their children into the forest because of the “great dearth in the land.” Although the land (nature) cannot supply the family's needs, nature is able to give the children what they need to survive.  Here, nature is presented as both the provider and denier.  The moon provides the light which the children use on their first successful trip home. Still, the children have not entirely honed their naturalistic skills. They misidentify the natural sound of the wind in a tree and are misled to believe their father is with them. Yet, they are able to use nature to find berries for nourishment. Finally, when Gretel capitalizes upon one of the most powerful aspects of nature, fire, she rescues her brother. 

Analyze the Context

In addition to creating a quasi-ecocentric thesis in relation to the Grimm fairy tales, students might be interested in developing a Freudian, feminist, cultural, economic, or other literary analysis of these tales. To integrate more social science, and view the tales from various historical contexts, English Professor Eric S. Rabkin has put forth evidence that the Grimm brothers wrote these tales for a nationalistic, German-speaking unification purpose rather than to teach children certain morals. The preface of Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Brothers Grimm states, “For many Nazi commentators, the protagonists of the tales offered models of ‘folkish virtues,’ for these characters followed their racial instincts and demonstrated courage in the struggle to find a racially pure marriage partner.” Also, according to Tatar, those who opposed the Nazis warned against these stories. Also, in Lynn H. Nicholas’s Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web, Cinderella is described as the racially pure hero in a struggle against the alien stepmother and the prince is depicted as possessing the natural instinct to choose his racially pure partner. Learners can use this model and choose other contexts to analyze tales by the brothers Grimm. 

Reclaimed Fairy Tales

In more contemporary times, these stories have been reclaimed by certain writers. Jane Yolen's Holocaust novel, Briar Rose, alludes to the Grimm fairy tales. Poet Ann Sexton rewrote many of the popular Grimm tales, such as  Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Frog Prince, and Hansel and Gretel in her own personalized voice. When I helped coach forensics, teens enjoyed performing many of the renditions of these same stories from the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner. 

Lessons connected to the Grimm Fairy Tales:

Once Upon A Time in the 1800's New!

Examine the details in an 1821 painting by Jacques-Louis David depicting two sisters who are exiled princesses. Learners will then write and illustrate a fairy tale inspired by the painting.

Brothers Grimm

Read a fairy tale and create a fish collage based on the piece of fiction. Then, create a tissue paper fish collage to go with the story. Finally, answer a series of discussion questions. Extension activities are available for the topic.

Who is Little Red Riding Hood Anyway?

Learners compare and contrast "Little Red Riding Hood" by the brothers Grimm, to "Little Red Cowboy Hat" by Susan Lowell. They discuss the characters, setting, conflict, and resolution as a whole class while individual students fill in a worksheet about the two stories.