- Amy MacKinnon
How Are Fairy Tales Christian?
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
In the classic fairy tales, you’ll find a lot of Christian themes and messages—if you know how to recognize them.
Fairy tale authors like the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault (also known as “Mother Goose”), and Hans Christian Andersen all used references to the Bible in their stories. The Brothers Grimm include images in their stories that are practically direct quotes from the bible.
Charles Perrault uses biblical images, too, but he’s a little more subtle in the way he works them into his stories—not much more subtle, but just a little bit more than the Grimms.
Good storytellers always change the way they tell stories for different audiences, because they want to make sure that the themes, images, and ideas are presented in a way that makes sense to their audience. This is why both the Grimms and Perrault took folk tales that were common in their cultures, and wrote them down but made their own adaptations to the stories.
Hans Christian Andersen definitely used a lot of biblical references, but differently than the Grimms and Perrault. He wrote stories that he made up instead of retelling existing stories. He still used the bible and virtue as the foundation for his stories, but they were his original stories.
and Christian stories in general,
are always about salvation,
that’s why fairy tales end
“happily ever after”
What About the Rest of the Story?
What about the violence that’s in many fairy tales?
Or the way that some of the heroes and heroines seem to be weak and suffer so much?
Does just having things work out all right in the end justify that?
There is a reason for the violence, and for the suffering, and for the reaction of the characters to that violence and suffering, and that reason is deeply Christian.
The versions of the fairy tales that were published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm do have more blood and violence than many other collections, especially compared to those written by Hans Christian Andersen.
Sometimes the Grimms are criticized for changing the stories and either taking parts of the story out or adding their own, tamer, versions.
Yes, tamer! Even though many of their stories have violence in them!
And yes, the Brothers Grimm did make changes to some of the stories they published for children, but it wasn’t to subvert or destroy the previous versions.
They were studying language itself, and how language changes. They started by collecting stories that had been passed down within communities and families as part of the oral story-telling tradition. They wrote them down, to help them study the changes in the stories from one area to the next. They wanted to see:
Which areas of the country the changes were made in
What influenced those changes
They published scholarly works about what they found, but they also published a version of the stories for children.
When they published that version for children, they did make some changes to the stories.
How Could They Not Make Some Changes?
They collected over 50 versions of Cinderella alone!
A good storyteller will modify a story so that the audience will be able to understand the story and so that the meaning of the story will be understood by that audience.
We all do this naturally. If we’re talking to adults about an event, and then a child asks a question about it, we change our explanation.
And that’s a good thing!
We want to make sure that both the adults and the child can understand the point of the story, and we know that an explanation for adults would usually be too complex for a child, so we change it. We all know that a 5 year old can’t understand the same things that a 30 year old can.
So when the Grimms published their collection of “Wonder Tales” for young children, they made changes to make the stories understandable and appropriate for young children.
What Changes Did They Make?
The Grimm brothers were devout Christians. Their grandfather was a Lutheran minister and they attended his church, so they were very familiar with the Bible and Christianity.
They also received a classical education, which is why they were able to see a lot of elements in the fairy tales that were either blatantly Christian, or were compatible with Christianity. Even if the stories they were originally stories from pagan mythology or folk tales from non-Christian cultures (which all of them pretty much are), they were able to recognize the elements that were compatible with Christianity.
Some of the stories had a lot of violence in them, but they also dealt with ideas that can be difficult to talk about.
It’s harder to understand today, when so many in our culture see stories as mere entertainment (it’s just a movie!), but stories are also the way that cultures preserve themselves and protect the young and vulnerable by warning them of dangers. Those warnings might be told in a way that would be too graphic for very young children, but those children can still be taught caution and to persevere in virtue.
That’s why the Grimms either selected the versions of stories that took those factors into account, or modified the adult versions so they would be suitable for children.
What did the Brothers Grimm See in Those Original Stories that was Christian?
They saw characters and story arcs that had images or references to:
The Final Judgment
One example of the Fall in a story is the beginning of Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella. That story begins in a garden setting, where Cinderella and her father are happy—until he marries again. His new wife—who represents the serpent—enters the garden, causing the Fall of both Cinderella and her father.
Hansel and Gretel encounter a witch (personifying evil) who tries to kill them because they ate the forbidden fruit.
Snow White is an image of perfect innocence—she’s not guilty of any sin, until she eats the apple and that causes her fall. The dwarves and the Prince love her, and she also ends up in Heaven.
In each of these stories, the characters are tested and they suffer, but they choose good over evil so that they end up in heaven.
Each of the stories that are published by the Grimms, Perrault, and Andersen are deliberately Christian stories.
What about the Suffering and Violence in Fairy Tales?
That serves a purpose, too, and that purpose is why I said that it is deeply Christian.
Jesus said that if we want to follow Him, we must take up our own cross (Matthew 10:38, 16:4; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
Suffering and Christianity
It was on the cross that Jesus suffered and died, but that is also where He acted as the Lamb of God (John 1:29; Revelation 5:5-7). It’s through His sacrifice that we can be saved. Paul said to always preach Christ, crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23) because that is when Jesus suffered for all of our sins, back to Adam (compare the suffering of Jesus with the curses of Adam in Genesis 3:17-19).
Suffering and Fairy Tales
So in fairy tales, the characters that suffer but either persevere in virtue or change so that they pursue virtue, are the ones who end up in heaven. Their suffering isn’t necessarily because of their own sins, but it is always because they live after the Fall.
At the end of the world is the Final Judgment, and those who don’t repent of their sins and ask for God’s mercy spend their eternity separated from Him (Revelation 22:15).
We know that God is perfectly just in His judgment, and this is why the characters in some of the fairy tales suffer terrible fates at the end of the story, the way the wicked stepsisters do in Cinderella by the Grimms.
In the version of Cinderella by Perrault, the stepsisters are sorry and don’t come to an evil end.
In the end of both versions of the story, it was their choice.
Next week I’ll begin posting summaries of the Christianity in specific fairy tales, beginning with Cinderella.
If you have any questions about fairy tales or stories, or want to read summaries about any additional fairy tales—or other stories—let me know: Click here and tell me!
List of Posts in the "Fairy Tale Fridays" Series
Women in Fairy Tales: Good or Bad?
Fairy Tales, Cautionary Tales, and Myths
How Are Fairy Tales Christian? (this post)
Cinderella: A Christian Fairy Tale
Snow White: A Christian Fairy Tale
Hansel and Gretel: A Christian Fairy Tale
Sleeping Beauty: A Christian Fairy Tale
Beauty and the Beast: A Christian Fairy Tale
Little Mermaid: A Christian Fairy Tale
Velveteen Rabbit: A Christian Fairy Tale
Why Are There So Few Fairies in Fairy Tales?
Fairy Tales and Multiculturalism