Winter 2024 Course Review: GERMAN 386


Course Title: Fairy Tales

Rating: 3.5/5

Instructor (Laura Okkema)

I took her GERMAN 103 last semester, and wrote a review there.

I align with a lot of her opinions, including the appeal of physical books, the danger of generative AI, and how the culinary value of the rich. (Last semester when I asked her what the plural of "der Reiche" is, she replied "die Reichen. Essen Sie sie.")

This semester I needed a 300-level humanities course, so I looked up the catalog and bang, Laura's teaching this one. Instant yes.

None of this is proven (a rant on humanities)

Up front, I will state the problem I have with this course and most of humanities. The things we learn are very often factoids and theories, not laws and axioms. And it's impossible to get to the latter; otherwise it would not be humanities. So, for the majority of the course you'll see us:

  • Read fairy tales A, B, and C
  • Read some work some guy wrote in the year of our lord X
  • The guy argues that a common thing in A, B, and C is someone did Y, and they argue it's because of Z
  • We are now expected to know that Some Guy said Z causes Y on the test

Is it true that Z caues Y? No one cares! Except those who make the test, those who take the test, and both of those scholars who still study this topic.

(One of these people is Jack Zipes, who wrote our textbook. Less of a textbook than an English translation of KHM. The book is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 3rd edition, Bantam 2003.)

Of course, I take all ideas with a grain of salt, and mentally I always preface the knowledge with a "Some Guy said" tag, no matter how likely it is true. And when I tell it to a friend on a party, I'll always make sure to make it clear that it's a theory, not a known fact like someone dug the Grimms' graves and interviewed them.

One exception, though, is obvious differences in the multiple versions of the KHM. The changes are certainly intentional. But the reasons behind them are subject to speculation.

Sometimes we see contradicting takes on a certain topic, and that's cool because an unsettled debate means someone's out there in the depths of JSTOR looking for evidence and hopefully will keep their job for a while. (I sometimes wonder why we as a society set out a place for academia in the humanities, other than "cultural heritage" and other buzzwords. Then I remind myself that CEOs exist, and I find it pretty easy to justify.)

Course topics

When I told my family I wanted to take this course, they thought I was joking. A university? Teaching nursery rhymes?

This is not a "hey children sit down and I'll read you a bedtime story" type of course (although Laura did this type of thing on GERMAN 103). It's an academic approach to primary sources, including Grimm's fairy tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or KHM), and analytical articles, by a handful of people who study (studied) them. And it's certainly not for children.

We first discussed what everyone knew was coming.

  • Origin of the KHM (it's hard to pin down what the Grimms actually did)
  • Ownership of fairy tales (spoiler: no one owns them) and different versions of the same tale
  • Sex, violence, eroticism, and pedagogy of fear (yes we get to learn this sort of shit on the second lecture)

Then things got tense.

  • Antisemitism, racism and colonialism (wow 19th century Germany was racist? who knew)

Here are some guys' ideas that may or may not make sense just read it and remember what they said

  • Propps's morphology (the idea that all fairy tales are built on a subset of these 32 functions)
  • Freudian and Jungian psychology (to Freud, a pen is what he thinks a pen is)
  • Walter Benjamin's idea of fairy tales providing "good counsel"
  • And whatever Bruno Bettelheim has to say about "Hansel and Gretel". I made the best joke of the semester on the discussion session:

They had dinner. It's on the house.

And we're back on coherent theories I understand.

  • The "liminal stage", rites of passage, and the "hero's journey"
  • Overthrowing tyrants, and how one single tale hints socialism
  • Spinning and a "woman's job"
  • The "angel woman" and "monster woman"

And finally we extended beyond the corpus of Grimms' works.

  • Modern adaptations of "Bluebeard" and "Snow White" (where everything goes wrong)
  • Romanticism, e.g. "The Sandman" by ETA Hoffmann
  • Kunstmärchen, by e.g. HC Andersen
  • Animation by e.g. Lotte Reiniger, Tex Avery and Walt Disney's team

Let me expand on some of the more interesting ones.

(Disclaimer: what I write below is what I remember two weeks after the course is over, on a 15-hour flight and I don't wanna cite sources I don't know at the top of my head. If you're reading this as a student, please do NOT use it as an exam guide. Just imagine a huge [citation needed] hanging on the end of the page.)

Who wrote the KHM?


The Grimms, Jacob and Wilhelm, set out to collect German folktales to preserve German culture just as printing press was hitting the market. So they went ahead and collected tales from the Volk — before Hitler destroyed that word — to tap into that authentic Volkspoesie. Except it was not the Volk and some of it was not German.

Linda Dégh says the Grimms collected tales from middle-class women they knew, such as KD Viehmann, who had French ancestry. So the Grimms did not create the tales from scratch.

The 1812 edition is geared toward fellow scholars like themselves, and was intended to be an archive of some sort. But it was massively popular (by 19th century standards), unexpectedly among children, whose guardians had one criticism about the book: it was too profane. Not the violent type of profane (in fact, the Grimms added more of it), but the mentions of:

  • premarital pregnancy
  • incest
  • evil biological mothers (hence the abundance of evil stepmothers)
  • and anything that goes against the Catholic patriachy

So the Grimms did it faithfully — faithfully betraying their original intention to stay authentic. Now in their 1857 edition, they had these somewhat family-friendly, somewhat authentic tales, and they were criticized by both parties.

I would hate to be in their shoes. Partly cause it's hard to hit a compromise between the public and academia, and partly cause have you tried 1800's shoes?? They're not good.

So, to put it down, for the KHM we ought to credit the Grimms, the Germans, the French, the other European people who happened to live near the Grimms, and angry Karens.

Assorted racism

It was one of the more uneasy lectures, as you people get tense and Laura herself becomes visibly uncomfortable as we described what today we would call the Fucking Nazis.

KHM was banned in Germany in the years following Moustache Massacre Man's death, who used it for propaganda. The Grimms regained their reputation a few decades later, but these tales were… still racist.

Some publishers (not Bantam) received complaints about the depiction of Jews in the KHM, so what they did is s/Jew/miser/g. Familiar? The Grimms edited complaints into their 1857 edition. Now publishers are doing the same thing.

Of course, they did it out of good intentions, and honestly what's the alternative? Expose unsuspecting children to antisemitic stories and embarrass guardians who never knew there was racist stories in KHM? Delete these tales and deny racism? Both sound horrible. I believe we should quarantine these tales — don't let children read them unsupervised, but let scholars read them all they will.

The status quo in 1800s Germany was Christians hated Jews, because they're "obsessed with money" and stuff while Christians wrote themselves a Bible that forbade them from the banking industry. So they did shit like blood libel and wrote some horrible stories that stereotyped the Jews to the extreme. There was one tale ("The Clear Sun Will Bring It To Light") that wasn't actively antisemitic, but was "anti-antisemitic" at best.

I was cautious not to assume that every single soul was racist, so in a discussion post I defended the author of "The Clear Sun" — hey, what if they were innocent? We do not have enough evidence to get a small enough p value, so we cannot reject the hypothesis that they're racist. However, racist or not the author may be, the society was.

Apparently the German hated Black people as well. Except there were practically no Black people in Europe at that moment. So the Europeans were just clinging on to their own beauty standards: white == beautiful because they look like us, black == ugly because they don't.

There were tales where the hero tries to "save" some women who were "cursed" to be covered in black skin. He fails and the women are stuck with half-white, half-black skin, and they blame him for not completing their transformation. They shouted my favorite sentence of this course (to the best of my memory):

You cursed dog, our blood shall cry in vengeance!

The German for "you cursed dog", "du verfluchter Hund", will forever be stuck in my head.

This is kinda similar to how Christian missionaries went to Africa, tried to convert locals to the religion of the Fish And Bread Man, but were met with resistance.

Propp's "Morphology of the Folktale"

Vladimir Propp studied hundreds of Russian fairy tales, and extracted 31 "functions" (32 if you count 8 and 8a as different ones), which are surprisingly similar to a mathematical function in that they map characters to a plot.

An example: the 7th function is "The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly helps his enemy." It could be modeled as a function with four arguments, victim, villain, deception, help. You can fill in the blanks and make part of your own fairy tale!

What Propp argues, is that if you take a subset of these 32 functions, in the order they appear, and piece them together with your own characters, premises and events, you can reconstruct every fairy tale in existence!

Now, what's the problem?

The problem is I think it's bullshit. I mean, some fairy tales have a lot of in common, yes. And I respect Propp for bringing forth his reductionist theory. But it's like somebody left a mathematician in the literature department. And I can defeat his argument with math.

First, his argument implies that there is a finite amount of fairy tales that could exist before you run out of ideas. In this case, the upper bound would be 2^32, or around 4 billion. But keep in mind there's a substantial difference between infinite and 4 billion. We thought 4 billion was enough; now we have the 2038 problem.

Consider if someone found an unpublished book of fairy tales in their basement. Inside of the book is a fairy tale where something happens that doesn't easily fit in any of the 32 functions (which, if you look at today's bookstore, is pretty likely). What does Propp do?

Does he:

  1. disqualify the tale from being a "fairy tale"? (i.e. gatekeeping fairy tales)
  2. loosen one of the 32 functions?
  3. add a 33rd function?

If he does any of 2 and 3, then by induction, if you give him a 34th function, he'll have no choice but to do it again, and by induction, eventually the list will either be infinitely long, or just a vague list that applies to every story ever.

So, if I were to add one function and one function only, it would be "none of the above".

The Hero's Journey

Campbell wrote about how every great story goes the same way: someone goes on a quest in an unfamiliar realm, does something (e.g. defeats a dragon), gets something (e.g. chests of gold) , and brings it back where they came from, and everyone's happy, forming a cycle. The interesting part is the how the hero navigates the unknown, growing up in the process.

Sounds familiar? It's just like Propp's morphology idea, but better. But at least it makes sense to me. Instead of insisting that every tale is built upon these functions, what Campbell says is all good tales follow the hero's journey. That's why pretty much every Disney movie is like that.

Angel woman and monster woman

Gilbert and Gubar wrote that, in a patriarchy, woman fight against each other for men's attention. The angel woman is a beautiful virgin, sought for by all men. The monster woman is jealous and tries to sabotage the angel woman's ascension to power.

In "Snow White", the titular character is an angel woman and the queen is the monster woman. Contrary to popular opinion, G&G argue that the monster woman, namely the queen, was the more interesting of the two, precisely because her evilness propels the plot. It was not the passive doll as is Snow White. If you count the things Snow did, she:

  • was born beautiful af and made queen jealous af
  • was sentenced dead by the queen but spared by the hunter
  • did some housework for the dwarves
  • was deceived by the queen a few times, but saved by dwarves
  • finally ate an apple and went comatose
  • was laid in a coffin
  • was kissed by a prince
  • married the prince

Not many of these were in active voice. I think it is an interesting way to look at how 1800s Germany treated genders. Would make an awesome dating show, "Angel or Monster".

Modern adaptations

KHM has been in the public for a long time, and it's as well known as cheese. As such, it's an open door for parody writers and serious writers to reinterpret them.

What Coover did in "The Dead Queen" is to imagine that it was Snow White who ordered the queen to dance to death in hot iron shoes, and after the queen's death she becomes the monster woman, while being in an angel woman's body who will perpetually remain a virgin ("hymen intact"), despite a night with the prince and the seven dwarves (a… ninesome??)

Just… read it for yourself.


Laura reveals Romanticism to be one of her favorite topics, because of how much she relates to the idea of melancholy, alienation, and human emotion in general. The texts we read both involved people in disturbed mental states, or the Nachtseite, like depression and childhood trauma. The depressed guy got a girlfriend at the end and was healed; the PTSD guy leapt off a tower and killed himself.

On the discussion session, Laura shared her experience of being alienated at a gathering at her in-law's. "I wanted to talk about books and music, and I really don't care how Aunt Sue is doing." (paraphrased)

Would be awesome if a whole family was into RATM though.

What I did not expect though was to experience first-hand symptoms of the Nachtseite just that evening. For more, read 2024-04-05.


Lotte Reiniger was coerced to make a few paper cutout animations for the Nazis. If you look at that, it's completely understandable why Hitler didn't get into the art school. She set the bar so high.

Tex Avery made cartoon shorts like "Swing Shift Cinderella", who is actually a grown up Little Red Riding Hood and drives a Cinderella-mobile in that the magic disappears when the clock strikes twelve. It's about how the wolf (from "Little Red") flirts with Red but attracts her granny instead. So you see him wooing Red and getting hit by granny with a hammer conveniently stowed in her purse. Red rushes home by twelve and boards a shuttle bus to "Lockweed". The bus is full of wolves.

Help did Tex Avery invent furries?

Walt Disney was another one to tap into the oil rig. But Zipes argues he's pretty egoistic and refused to credit his team initially. It's just a giant "Walt Disney Presents", no one else. Like bruh. I credit all my teammates and instructors on my PCB. I enjoy giving people the credit they deserve. It's not like they'll take my cut or anything.


Lots of reading. Prepare for 50 pages per week, and most of them isn't even fairy tales, but secondary texts by Some Guy. You can skim them, but there's either a quiz or a discussion on Canvas for each of the lectures. They're pretty easy though. Some PDFs are scans of physical books and OCR may or may not work, so "I'll open the quiz and just Ctrl+F" is a bad idea.

Heaviest assignment is an essay, which requires you to choose a topic, make an argument, and find evidence in KHM that supports it. You cannot make speculations ("it seems to me that…"), because it's a closed reading, meaning deductions can only be based on the original text. You can also cite secondary sources to make it stronger. The requirements are

1400 words.

In my essay I defended violence in KHM. At one point, I mentioned how Red in "Little Red" was complicit in the wolf's death by carrying stones to the hunter. That's how closed the closed reading is.

If that's the kind of job a humanities student does, I'm glad I'm in engineering. At least we can look at an oscilloscope and go "yup, that's a sine".


Really extensive, but comes at the cost of superficiality. I knew everything and knew nothing. But at least I might be more fun at parties. Or less boring. Either way helps.

I like it when a course changes the way I look at the world. The lectures on racism and sexism made me better informed whenever I am involved in such discourse. However, in the face of fascists, try punching.

The last time I did humanities was in academic writing in 2021. this course brought back that memory of going through papers without graphs or tables in search of noteworthy sentences that's not there for the page limit.

The course probably adds two to three hours of workload per week, except the week the essay's due.

I grew up in a culture not dominated by KHM and managed the course, so you can take it regardless of how much you know about KHM.