Should We Still Teach Fairy Tales?

5 February 2022
By Kiley Kost

As I prepared to teach my course GERM 247 Mirror, Mirror: Reflecting on Fairy Tales and Folklore for the second time this past fall, I grappled with the question that titles this blog post: should I be teaching a course on fairy tales? And should fairy tales have a place in our German curriculum? My main hesitation about the topic is, on the surface, a rather straightforward one: many of the “European” fairy tales that we read in class contain harmful messages about marginalized groups including women, People of Color, and people with disabilities. Several tales in the German canon are overtly antisemitic. Many reinforce heteronormative relationships and contain unambiguous messages about the role of women. How can the harmful themes contained in the tales be contextualized? Can different ways of reading old tales provide new insights and subvert what might seem to be the familiar narrative? What stories can be included in class that depict and affirm diverse viewpoints? 

Fairy tales and folklore continue to be important objects of cultural and literary analysis, as evidenced by the exciting academic work published in scholarly journals like Marvels and Tales and Fabula. Within German Studies in particular, a 2021 combined issue of two major journals German Quarterly and Die Unterrichtspraxis focused on “German Fairy Tales and Folklore in a Global Context” (and included a contribution in Die Unterrichtspraxis by Carleton’s own Seth Peabody, “Decolonizing Folklore? Diversifying the Fairy Tale Curriculum“). Read over the table of contents for each issue and it becomes clear: scholarly research is in the process of reckoning with diversifying the texts and methods used in courses on fairy tales. 

With careful consideration of the class syllabus and the tales I include, I believe that fairy tales are an important topic and a productive approach to build skills in close reading and critical analysis. Fairy tales provide an opportunity to examine harmful content in a critical context, are indeed a diverse set of stories that can reflect students’ identities, and create a space for students to come together in textual analysis, cultural learning, and creative projects. 

Problematic Texts, Contextualization, and Expanding the Reading List

Although several of the tales we read include the types of harmful content mentioned above, it is important to me that students learn how biases are embedded in stories and rhetoric. In the class, I pair these tales with critical scholarship and we break down the messages and stereotypes present in the tales in class. To be able to teach the class through a critical lens, I combine specific texts with scholarship that is accessible to students including Ann Schmiesing’s Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (2014) and her article “Blackness in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales” (2016). Examining how prejudice and malice have shaped certain cultural beliefs is a key step in confronting similar damaging messages in media and discourse today. 

Historic contextualization provides additional scaffolding for critically reading problematic texts. In the first week of class, students learn how the tales published by the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were heavily edited to reflect what they deemed appropriate. For example, looking at multiple editions of “Snow White” reveals that the Grimms significantly changed the housework Snow White completes in exchange for shelter; in the manuscript, she is in charge of cooking, but in the version of the tale that the Grimms published in 1812, she instead must cook, clean, make the bed, and do the laundry! With this background knowledge addressed at the beginning of the term, students can approach the texts published in the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales, KHM) with their biases in mind. We examine the KHM tales closely to identify values that both instruct and appeal to the Grimms’ middle-class audience, including modesty, obedience, and hard work.

The close reading and analysis that students utilize in the class is meant to help them identify the ideological breadcrumbs left behind by the heavy-handed editors. The Grimms, however, were oblivious to some themes and ideas that they did not scrub from the text. Counternormative examples of kinship that remain in the tales leave open the possibility of queer readings. In the introduction to their edited collection Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms (2012), Kay Turner and Pauline Greenhill examine several instances of identity and biology that the Grimms overlooked, proving the lasting power of identities that can’t even be imagined by people in power. 

Similar to the historic contextualization, I pair readings of well-known tales from the KHM with tales of the same tale type from other cultures and languages, thereby decentering the Eurocentric corpus of the course and disproving the notion that certain tales “belong” to one group of people. The ubiquity of particular fairy tales plays a key role in my thinking here as well: many students are already familiar with fairy tales such as “Snow White,” “Little Red Cap,” and “Cinderella” that are included in the KHM. In class, students are asked to critically read these recognizable tales and their adaptations in new ways. 

I also build student autonomy and interests into the course. The realm of scholarship on folk tales is vast and in one course assignment students select a peer-reviewed scholarly article to analyze. Besides evaluating the author’s arguments and methodology, this assignment exposes students to far more texts and ideas than I could cover in a 10-week term and (hopefully) corrects some of the Eurocentrism in the course that results from my scholarly background in German Studies.  

Finally, I show how more contemporary approaches and theories can offer different interpretations of familiar stories. In one example, students focus on feminist analyses of a set of tales we read. In class, students engage directly in the topic of this blog post as they discuss whether these tales reinforce patriarchal norms in society or contain within them a liberating potential for women. Scholarly debates about the feminist potential of fairy tales have long been prominent and we recreate a similar debate in class. Students are first assigned a side for the in-class debate and then write a short paper outlining their own position on the subject, demonstrating their skills in textual analysis.

What encourages me to continue to teach a course on fairy tales is that the power of these simple folk tales can also be used in a positive and beneficial way in the classroom. The simple narratives of fairy tales are endlessly malleable and lend themselves to imaginative and transformative adaptations. In their final projects for class, students create their own fairy tale, often playing with the very topics and tropes that they find problematic and transforming them to reflect experiences that are important to them. 

One area where I fell short when teaching the course this fall is implementing equitable grading practices that I have been learning about in our department’s reading group and LTC sessions focused on Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity. Equitable grading practices, in part, acknowledge that students arrive in a class with diverse background knowledge, skills, and time constraints outside of the classroom. In future iterations of the class, I plan to build in more opportunities for revisions to students’ papers. Revisions on papers help students approach learning as an opportunity for growth. I also plan to continue including more tales and analysis from non-European sources to reflect the truly global nature of fairy tales. The course is listed in the German program and taught by me, a German faculty member, but as students learn in the class, and as scholar Donald Haase writes, no one entity “owns” fairy tales. Instead, we all do.