When they set out to gather together German folk tales, the brothers Grimm were pretty thorough: through a series of volumes, they published over 200 different fairy tales and legends. Some of them have remained popular, being told and retold over the centuries; others have faded into obscurity. While you probably already know Little Red Riding Hood, The Frog King, and Snow White, you probably don’t know any of these…
The story: A poor man with a big family had already asked everyone he knew to be godfather to his previous kids, so when his wife has another baby, he asks the first stranger he sees to do him the honour. The stranger agrees, and gives him a bottle of water as a gift. This miracle water can heal the sick, but there’s a catch – it grants the man the power to see Death. If Death is standing by the sick person’s head, they can be healed, but if Death is standing at the person’s feet, they’re too far gone, and will definitely die.
As catches go, the man decides it’s not terrible, so he takes the water, and soon becomes famous for his ability to cure anyone of any illness. He even cures some of the king’s children, though in one case Death was standing at the child’s feet, and he couldn’t cure them.
After a while, the man decides he ought to thank the godfather for his kind gift, so he travels to the godfather’s house. It has many floors, and as the man climbs the stairs, he sees all kinds of weird goings-on: on one floor, a dustpan and broom are fighting with one another; on another, there’s a pile of severed fingers; on the next, live fish are cooking themselves; and on another there’s a stack of severed heads. Finally, on the top floor, the man peers through a keyhole and finds the godfather, but the man looks different: he has a long pair of horns sprouting from his head.
Still determined to say thanks, the man approaches the godfather and tells him about all the weird things he saw, but the godfather tells him he’s imagining it and everything’s fine. So the man runs away.
Why you don’t know it: It’s not a very well structured story, is it? The bit with Death standing at the person’s head or feet doesn’t really add anything to the story, and is in fact borrowed from another tale about trying to cheat death. And that conclusion – the man just runs away! – is pretty weak.
The Blue Light
The story: A wounded soldier gets dismissed by a heartless king, and has to go to work for a witch. One day, the witch asks him to climb down her well to fetch a blue light she’s dropped in, but when the soldier gets the light, the witch tries to trap him in the well. Luckily for him, it turns out the blue light summons a dwarf, and the soldier tells the dwarf to get him out of the well and kill the witch.
Taking the witch’s treasure, the soldier buys himself a posh house, but the power of having a dwarf servant has gone to his head, so he decides to get revenge on the king. He sends the dwarf to kidnap the king’s daughter and bring her to him to be his maid. The dwarf warns him that although it’s no problem for him to grab the girl, the king will probably find out, and that won’t end well for the soldier. The soldier doesn’t care, but sure enough, thanks to some trickery involving a shoe, the king finds out about it, and has the soldier arrested. But the soldier just calls on his magic dwarf and gets him to terrorise the king until he not only releases the soldier, but also hands over both his kingdom and his daughter.
Why you don’t know it: Although it’s easy to sympathise with the soldier at the beginning of the story, when he gets screwed over by the king, he takes his revenge way too far. The dwarf warns him he’s getting greedy, he doesn’t listen, and yet things still end well for him. The poor old king’s daughter ends up having to marry the git, with no say in the matter. There’s not really a decent moral to be drawn there.
The Fox and the Horse
The story: An elderly horse is turfed out of his farm by a farmer who decides he can’t afford to feed an animal that can’t work any more – but in the interests of fairness, the farmer gives the horse one chance to come home. If he can catch a lion, the farmer will take him back. Obviously, the horse can’t do it, and is wandering the woods in despair when he meets a fox who promises to help.
The fox tells the horse to lie down and play dead. Then he finds a lion (roaming the woods in Germany?) and tells him there’s a dead horse nearby he can eat. The lion eagerly follows the fox, who somehow persuades him not to eat the horse then and there, but to allow the fox to tie the horse to the lion’s tail so he can drag it home for dinner. But it’s a trap, and the fox ties the lion’s legs together so the horse can take it back to the farmer.
Why you don’t know it: It feels like a fable, but it’s not really clear what it’s supposed to mean. Obviously it’s got the same basic moral as The Blue Light, i.e. screwing over someone who’s worked hard for you for a long time isn’t fair, but what did the lion do to deserve that? And why was the fox so eager to help? Baffling.
The Three Spinning Women
The story: A woman has a very lazy daughter, who never does any work. One day, the queen passes by the woman’s house while she’s berating her daughter, and asks what’s going on. The woman says that her daughter loves to spin all day, and she can’t get enough flax for her, so the Queen agrees to take her back to the castle, because she loves the sound of spinning wheels.
The Queen promises that the girl can marry her son, the prince, if she spins all the flax in a room – but obviously the girl can’t do it, never having done a day’s work in her life. Instead, she convinces three ugly women to do the spinning for her, in exchange for an invitation to her wedding. They do, and on her wedding day, the women tell the prince that their various deformities – a flat foot, a broad thumb, and a gaping lip – were caused by spinning. Horrified, the prince declares that his wife will never have to spin ever again.
Why you don’t know it: Probably because it advocates cheating and lying.
Choosing a Bride
The story: A young man wants to get married, and knows of three single women who’d agree to marry him, but since they’re all beautiful and he fancies them equally, he can’t decide which one to pick. His mother tells him to invite each of them to dinner, and give them a piece of cheese: the way they ate the cheese would reveal which one he should marry. So he does. The first one eats the cheese with the rind on; the second cuts off too much rind, throwing away perfectly edible cheese; and the third trims off the rind perfectly. The mother tells the man he should marry the third girl, so he does, and they live happily ever after.
Why you don’t know it: Who knows? That sounds like a perfectly good way to pick a wife, to me. Cheese parties for all!
Grimm season 3 starts on Wednesday the 5th of February at 9pm on WATCH in the UK (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124).
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