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Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Jew Among Thorns

“There was once a rich man who had a servant who served him diligently and honestly.”

The title of this fairy tale gave me an uneasy feeling when I first read it, and that uneasiness was justified in the tale itself. The first line I typed above does not mention the character from the title, so before I get into the anti-Semitic details I’ll share with you how the story progresses, in case you have not read (and/or do not plan to read) this fairy tale.

In a couple of other Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the way the focus on certain characters shifts makes the stories much more interesting. In this particular tale, we start off with the rich man and his servant. The rich man does not pay his servant for three years because he takes advantage of the fact that his servant does not ask for pay, is loyal, and does more work than anyone. Finally after the third year, the servant decides he wants to leave and asks to be paid. The rich man obliges and gives him three farthings (one for every year), taking advantage [again] of the servant’s lack of financial knowledge.

The servant moves on, and meets a dwarf in the forest who begs for any money the servant has, because he is poor and in need. The servant shows kindness and gives the dwarf all three of his farthings. The dwarf then reveals he is not really poor, but is a magical being who will grant three wishes to the servant as a reward for his generosity and kindness. Those wishes are for a gun that will hit anything it points at, a fiddle that makes any listener compelled to dance, and that any favor asked will be granted.

Not so bad, right? Well, unfortunately the rest of this fairy tale consists of a meeting of “a Jew,” the servant making him dance along to the fiddle in a thicket of brambles, the servant taking the Jewish man’s gold, the Jewish character running back to the town to report this swindler (the servant), the authorities apprehending the servant, the servant going to the gallows for stealing the gold, the servant asking the hangman if he can play his fiddle before being hung, the hangman having to grant the favor, the servant playing the fiddle and making everyone dance until the judge tells him to stop, then the servant confronting the Jewish character about the gold, and the fairy tale ending with the Jewish character confessing that he actually stole it himself.

The making-him-dance-in-the-brambles part is, as you can imagine, quite cringe-worthy to read. In fact, I re-read it a couple of times to make sure there wasn’t a better way for me to interpret it than the way I did initially. Nope; my first reaction was the correct one. Then to end with this humiliated character as the actual thief…

I think it’s [finally] time I do some deep research into the lives of Wilhelm and Jacob, and learn more about the politics of their time and their influences in relation to compiling these specific stories (if possible). I am now aware that the Nazi Party [during the Third Reich] used Grimm’s Fairy Tales as some sort of nationalist tool, which (along with other things I’m learning) I think may have significant influence on my future interpretations.

How strange it is to be presented with more evidence on the effect of narrative bubbles and literary cherry-picking through a project I thought would be lighthearted and simply fun. I feel less and less familiar with the Grimm’s Tales (and world history) as I move further along in this book (and not just because I haven’t read most of them). I suppose my surprise at these tales being not-so-much-for-children comes from the more watered down, friendlier versions I was told as a child. Instead of seeking out related texts to quickly mention, I think I may need to supplement my reading of this tome with more specific historical analysis. This will certainly make my fairy tale project more dense, but that just means it will expand my knowledge on these stories, and their place in literature and culture.

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  • Jeffery Muter

    I was confused about the “Nazi-Connection” bit. So they were hired, or influenced by Hitler? Or did Hitler simply approve of the book as a whole and sponsor it after it was independently published? That part wasn’t made clear. I obviously am going through the text myself, and most fairytales have a symbolic meaning, and I was trying to understand this, but unfortunately this wasn’t much of a dissection. Hope you come back to it sometime as there isn’t really anyone doing so.

    • Kelsey

      They weren’t hired or influenced by Hitler – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm died in 1863 and 1859, respectively. However, there are some reports of the Nazi regime using the fairy tales to reinforce their ideas about right and wrong, and because the stories were known by the populace, they were easy to use as a propaganda tool. I came across these [few] reports when doing some research on the time period during which this book was compiled. This is a very specifically detailed fairy tale, so I thought more about the political and social influences that made the Grimm Brothers want to include it in their collection – that was really the only point I was trying to make here. I specifically mentioned the Nazi connection because it is the piece of history mentioned in my research results that I am most familiar with, and I wanted to include an example of the impact these stories have throughout time (both good and bad).

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