Long-lost fairy tales unearthed after 150 years

Once upon a time, 500 fairy stories were lost in a dusty German archive. Now, von Schönwerth’s collection has been discovered – but why are we attracted to these fantastical tales?

Hundreds of children follow a mysterious piper into the hills and disappear forever. A menacing wolf tempts a girl into his jaws by dressing as her grandmother. Two sisters, desperate to marry a prince, cut off their own toes to cram their feet into a magic slipper.

The world of fairy tales is a dark, strange place. But now, one of its mysteries has been revealed. Five hundred stories – locked away, like Sleeping Beauty, for over 150 years – have been newly discovered in Bavaria, Germany.

The collection is the life’s work of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a 19th Century historian who devoted his life to recording folklore and traditions. Some of his stories – like the princess who turns herself into a pond, only to be drunk by a wicked witch – are unfamiliar tales. Others follow famous plots that reappear all over the world.

Like the Brothers Grimm, who brought the world Snow White and Rapunzel, von Schönwerth was not a storyteller but an academic. Just as biologists might study plants and animals, he spent his life travelling Germany, painstakingly recording folk tales hidden in the memory of communities.

His efforts weren’t just for entertainment, but to preserve a historical German identity for generations to come. Some of von Schönwerth’s stories have already been published under the title Prinz Rosszwifl – the local name for a beetle that hides its eggs in a ball of dung. Though unpleasant-sounding, the creature is symbolic of precious wisdom, hidden in stories and passed on through the years.

Folklorists’ tales, however, are not the innocent classics of Disney films. Take the much-loved Hansel and Gretel: the main characters are left to die by their parents, then locked up and fattened to create a tasty meal for a witch.

Some even say these centuries-old fairy tales are more than fiction. In 14th Century Germany, where many of the stories originate, some 60% of the population died of famine and plague – making poverty-stricken princesses, starving waifs and even crazed cannibals a sinister reality. In Hameln, there is even a memorial to 130 children who followed a ‘Pied Piper’ into the hills and were never seen again.

A Grimm reality?

Why do we read these strange tales? The answer, say many enthusiasts, is that they show us something of ourselves. Witches and wolves embody subconscious fears, and everyone longs for the magical love of a princess. The characters may be fantastical, but they illuminate the reality of our everyday lives.

Other theorists, like J.R.R. Tolkien, claim it is fantasy, not familiarity, that intoxicates. In a world where normal rules do not apply, the reader can find excitement and escape – a break from reality, where they can rediscover feelings of wonder, away from the drabness of the everyday.

You Decide

  1. Do fairy tales teach any lessons for real life?
  2. Why are so many fairy tales so dark and grim?

Activities

  1. Play fairy story charades as a class. Act out the title of a famous fairy story without saying any words and see if anyone can guess it correctly.
  2. Write your own fairy tale, set in the modern world.

Some People Say...

“Fairy stories are just for kids.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do fairy stories exist today?
Some say the genre of ‘magical realism’, which weaves subtle fantasy into stories about the real world, should be defined as fairy tale writing. And many children’s writers have come up with their own strange stories in the fairy tale tradition, fromAlice in Wonderland to Lemony Snicket.
Did the fairy stories of Germany have a big impact on culture?
When people like the brothers Grimm and von Schönwerth were writing down their stories, English poets likeSamuel Taylor Coleridge were writing Romantic poetry, which glorified fantastical tales and traditional lifestyles. The trend had a huge impact on national culture, influencing people to value simple, rural lifestyles over a rapidly-growing urban world.

Word Watch

Bavaria
A state in southern Germany, where von Schönwerth collected many of his stories and recordings. Bavaria is famous for its unique culture, including folk music, Alpine traditions and beer brewing, and was once independent from the rest of Germany.
Brothers Grimm
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who were born in the 1780s in Germany, spent their lives recording folk stories, traditions and customs from all over Germany. They are best known for their collections of fairy stories, but the brothers also excelled at academic fields like law and language: together, they compiled the first German dictionary.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge was a poet, critic and philosopher, who founded the Romantic movement with his friend William Wordsworth. The pair’s work revolved around praise for folk art and mediaeval traditions against the spread of industrialisation, and much of Coleridge’s poetry – including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – is about mystical happenings, and superstitious beliefs.
J.R.R. Tolkien
Famed as the author of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was also an expert on language and folklore, who invented entire languages to use in his fantasy books.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.