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The City Journals

Fairy tales in the modern world

May 18, 2017 02:19PM ● By Keyra Kristoffersen

Dr. Karin Baumgartner holds up her father’s copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in German from the 1930s. (Keyra Kristoffersen/City Journals)

By Keyra Kristoffersen | [email protected]

Fairy tales are very much a part of human history, and on March 29 at the Taylorsville Library, Dr. Karin Baumgartner, associate professor of German at the University of Utah, showed how they continue to influence people’s everyday lives. 

"We all have memories of our parents telling us fairy tales, or grandmother, or kindergarten teacher," Baumgartner said. "They need to have a happy ending; there has to be magic, and magic is taken seriously. When you enter a fairy tale, you have to suspend your 21st-century self. You have to believe with the character that the magic is real.”

Baumgartner took the audience on a journey of the classic stories—from the Brothers Grimm to 17th century Venice, Italy, and the inclusion of the term "Fairy" into stories—to the modern take on the fairy tale—beginning with Disney's “Snow White” to the television monster-slayer “Grimm”—highlighting differences in language and emphasis in the story of Rapunzel.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in the area of Kassel, Germany, in the late 18th century. Both received scholarships to high school in Kassel where they excelled despite being exceedingly poor before heading for Marburg, Germany, to study law in 1802 and 1803. Studying under Carl Friedrich von Savigny, who introduced them to his brother-in-law Clemens Brentano, a novelist, poet and important figure to Romanticism, a movement lasting from the 1790s until the 1820s.

Brentano, who was working on a collection of German folk songs, charged the Grimm Brothers to go out and collect folk tales from the surrounding countryside to be placed in a volume meant to bolster German pride and individuality. The Grimms began collecting stories in 1808, and in 1810, they sent Brentano the manuscript. Though Brentano had lost interest in the project, the Brothers Grimm self-published in 1812 with a compilation of 86 stories that would eventually grow to 211 local tales, collected, edited and published in subsequent printings by 1857. The Kassel University Library still owns their original manuscript.

"The [Grimms] didn't believe in the forest being haunted because where is true horror situated? It's in our minds; it's not outside, “Baumgartner said. "True horrors are inside our heads and in our interactions with each other. Nothing is more horrible than what we can imagine."

Moving on to the prevalence of the princess story in Disney movies, Baumgartner said, "The reason why our corpus is a princess corpus has very pragmatic reasons. Disney and his artists couldn't draw men. They tried, but they just couldn't get the man manly enough. That excluded all tales with a male hero for Disney movies."

The stories, according to Baumgartner, and how they're crafted and even what lesson is emphasized were heavily influenced from as far away as Turkey which was bringing the Arabian Nights tales through trade, as well as the French Huguenots sheltered in Germany whose very Frenchness was repellent to many, including the Grimms, given the still recent Reign of Terror and rise of Napoleon.

"And they are not specifically written for children, until the 19th century, when they started to be tailored for children, to show that even the littlest person can win out in the end," said Baumgartner.

Attendees were fascinated by the subject of the shortened class "From Grimm to Disney" that Baumgartner teaches at the University of Utah for non-humanities students.

"I found it interesting to find out more about the Grimm brothers and how people transform legend and how they themselves transformed legend,” Jessica Wollschleger said. “It's interesting to see the different versions of the tales.”

Baumgartner insists that her students read a tale that they are not familiar with in order to broaden their knowledge and experience with the different versions and languages.

"It is a story about people. It's not a story about gods or angels," said Baumgartner, "Fairy tales talk about humans. It is very formulaic which gives us the sense that the world can be managed. It's predictable. You leave home, you go through a crisis or adventure, but in the end you get rewarded."

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