How many German fairy tales have you read?
The number might be more than you think. Tons of the stories many of us have loved since childhood actually come from Germany.
From the comical to the twisted, German fairy tales are worth reading. These stories can help you build your German vocabulary and get a better understanding of the country’s history and culture. They can also be really compelling books to read.
Below, we present six fairy tales from Germany: three you probably know (unless you’ve been living under a rock) and three more you’ve likely never heard of.
- Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel)
- Snow White (Schneewittchen)
- The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig)
- Das Kalte Herz
3 famous classics: The Brothers Grimm fairy tales
The German stories collected by the Brothers Grimm are among the most famous in the world. These classic stories are an important part of German folklore. Reading them can be a fun way to improve your German. Take a look!
1. Hansel and Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel)
A brother and sister are abandoned in a forest during a famine because their father and stepmother can no longer afford to feed them.
In the forest, the poor siblings come across a witch whose house is made of cake, gingerbread and candy. The witch lures the children in and plans to fatten them up before eating them. The witch tries to push Gretel into the oven she’s prepared to cook the children, but Gretel outsmarts her, pushes her in and locks the door.
Before leaving the witch’s house, the children find the witch’s precious stones and fill their pockets. They arrive home to find their father, whose wife has died. He has missed Hansel and Gretel terribly. From then on, the three of them live out a rags-to-riches story, thanks to the witch’s treasure.
This story begins with a major parenting fail. To impress the king, a miller tells him his daughter can spin straw into gold (spoiler: she can’t).
The king wants the girl to produce gold for him. He locks her in a room with straw and a spinning wheel and tells her to spin the straw into gold by morning or she’ll be beheaded. The distraught girl ends up being helped by an impish creature who appears and produces the gold for her on three separate occasions.
Years later, when the imp tries to take the girl’s (now queen’s) first-born child as payment, they strike up a deal: She can keep her child if she guesses the imp’s name. Through a stroke of luck, the queen overhears the imp singing a song revealing his name: Rumpelstilzchen—from the word “Rumpelstiltz,” which is a kind of goblin from German mythology. The imp runs away, furious, and never returns.
3. Snow White (Schneewittchen)
This is a tale of jealousy, love, vengeance—and a happy ending. It’s similar to the Disney version you may be familiar with, but with a few more gory details.
A young girl named Snow White is driven away into the forest by her evil stepmother, the queen, who’s jealous of her beauty. The queen sends a huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her lungs and live to prove she’s dead. The huntsman ends up letting her get away.
Snow White eventually finds the home of the seven dwarfs, where she decides to stay. The evil queen repeatedly comes to the dwarfs’ cottage, attempting to trick and kill Snow White. The third attempt, thanks to a poisonous apple, seems to have worked. Her devastated housemates put her in a glass coffin on a mountaintop.
Eventually, a handsome prince finds Snow White and falls in love with her. When he lifts her coffin to take it home, she wakes up. The overjoyed prince proposes marriage.
On the day of the wedding celebration, the evil queen shows up. But don’t worry, she doesn’t get away with anything: She’s forced to wear iron slippers that have been heated over a fire until she drops dead.
3 German fairy tales you may never have heard of
In the world of German stories, there are lots of hidden gems. Here are three fairy tales we think you should know about.
1. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Nussknacker und Mausekönig)
First up is a children’s novel written by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816. You may actually be familiar with this one, as it was loosely adapted for the ballet “The Nutcracker.”
This is the tale of a young girl named Marie and her soldier-shaped nutcracker toy. One day, the Nutcracker comes alive to lead Marie’s toys in a battle against the story’s antagonist, the evil Mouse King. Subsequent battles against the Mouse King and his rodent army ensue.
Meanwhile, Marie finds out that the Nutcracker was once a young man who had been set to marry a princess. But when the young man was cursed by the malevolent Mouse Queen, who turned him into a nutcracker, he was then deemed too ugly to marry.
Marie eventually tells the Nutcracker that she would love him no matter what he looked like, which breaks the curse, and love wins!
Collected by Johann Gustav Gottlieb Büsching, “Puddocky” (Das Märchen von der Padde) is a German fairy tale about a young woman who’s nicknamed Parsley because she’s greedy for—that’s right—parsley.
Parsley was so beautiful that three princely brothers were fighting over who would marry her. That is until the young woman is turned into a toad by a witch from whom she stole some parsley.
Meanwhile, the king (the three princes’ father) gives the princess three challenges to determine who will inherit the throne. The youngest prince wins the first two challenges with the help of a toad who provides him with the things he needs in order to win.
For the final challenge, the princes need to bring back the most beautiful potential bride they can find. The youngest prince once again goes to the toad, who returns with him to the kingdom. On arrival, the toad turns into a beautiful woman—the one and only Parsley—and the youngest prince wins!
3. Das Kalte Herz
Das kalte Herz was written by Wilhelm Hauff. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because it was also adapted into a movie in 2016.
Peter Marmot works at a Black Forest coal mine he inherited from his father. Peter’s unhappy working with coal; he wants to be rich and successful.
One day, Peter meets Vers, a glass imp, who grants him three wishes. Peter asks to have as much money as the richest man in town and to own a glass factory. Things go smoothly for a while, but Peter eventually loses everything.
Peter goes into the forest and meets an evil ghost who offers to help him in exchange for Peter’s heart. Peter agrees, and his heart is replaced with a stone.
Sadly, although Peter is provided with money and travels around the world, he can no longer feel any joy—because, you know, he’s got a heart of stone—and things just get worse from there.
Explore the world of German fairy tales
The tales we’ve discussed in this post are just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless German stories—the Brothers Grimm collection alone has over 200.
If you want to improve your vocabulary or learn about German history and culture or whether you’re just fascinated by weird and wild stories, pick up a book of German fairy tales and discover why they’re known around the world.
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and son, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.