Research Essay on Fairy Tales

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Fairy tales are a magnificent way to teach children life lessons. However, some lessons may be obvious while others are completely hidden. Through analyzing the fairy tale “The Brave Little Tailor,” the obvious and hidden lessons from the story will be brought out and explored. “The Brave Little Tailor” is a reflection on underdogs and their low probability of winning. I want to indicate that fairy tales like “The Brave Little Tailor” show how an underdog may appear to be the weakest character in all fairy tales. The truth is that they are some of the most powerful because they embody the spirit of the trickster, the ancient figure who uses humor and cunning to transform themselves into whatever they need to overcome their odds.

The tailor who seems to be one of the weakest characters in fairy tales turns out to be one of the most powerful. The tale “The Brave Little Tailor” was written by the Grimm Brothers and was published in 1812 but was republished in 1857. The story begins on a summer day with a small tailor being pestered by flies while he works, so he uses a rag to kill seven at once. The tailor is so proud that he makes himself a belt embroidered with the words “Seven at one stroke!' (Grimm). The tailor believes that more people should know what he has done, so he leaves the town to show the world. Sooner or later on his journey, he finds a giant enjoying the view from a high cliff. The giant sees the embroidered belt and assumes the tailor has killed seven men with one blow. The giant then challenges the tailor to a contest of strength, but the tailor, who is not nearly as strong, uses his cunning and craftiness to trick him into thinking he is stronger. The king hears of the tailor’s strength and fears for his kingdom. He challenges the tailor by assigning him three seemingly impossible tasks. If the tailor succeeds, he will marry the king’s daughter and receive half the kingdom. The tailor completes each task with ease and receives the king’s gifts. However, one night, the king’s daughter finds out the real social status of her new husband. The king then decides to have his loyal servants take the tailor far away, never to be heard from again. The tailor knows of the plan and pretends to be asleep when the servants approach the room. The tailor then says: “I have struck down seven with one blow, killed two giants, led away a unicorn, and captured a wild boar, and I am supposed to be afraid of those who are standing just outside the bedroom!' (Grimm). The servants then become terrified and flee, never to bother the tailor again. This story is a way of telling people that even if they have limited abilities, it doesn’t mean they cannot accomplish many great things.

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Facing overwhelming odds can be a difficult struggle, but it can lead to greatness and inspiration. Malcolm Gladwell states that “the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise seem, unthinkable” (6). The argument Gladwell is making here is that no matter what the odds are against someone, people still have a chance at beating them. For example, reflecting on the tailor when he sets out for his adventure, and he finds a small bird in the bushes. He catches it and puts it in his pocket. Later, the giant challenges the tailor to a rock-throwing competition. The giant goes first and throws a rock so high that it can scarcely be seen, but in the end, it falls back to the earth. The tailor then “reached into his pocket, pulled out the bird, and threw it into the air. Happy to be free, the bird flew up and away, and did not come back down”. Through the lens of Gladwell’s argument, the tailor is facing the overwhelming odds of outthrowing a giant, so he uses his opportunity to use the bird to defeat the odds. Without, hesitation the tailor seizes the moment and throws the bird, which leads him to win the challenge, despite his underdog status.

People often misunderstand the conflicts that the underdog goes through. I agree with Gladwell’s statement that “Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness” (6). This looks at the giants from a different point of view instead of seeing them as brutish creatures that rip the reader apart. Instead, the reader looks at the underdog and understands how they can use the giant’s own strength to defeat them. Reflecting on an example of this is when the tailor is given a task by the king; he is sent to the forest where he will fight and kill two giants. The tailor finds both giants sleeping under a tall tree, so he fills his pockets with stones and climbs up. He then starts to drop the stones on the giants, awakening them and watching as they get angry with each other. Then one of them 'jumped up like a madman and pushed his companion against the tree, until it shook. The other one paid him back in kind, and they became so angry that they pulled up trees and struck at each other until finally, at the same time, they both fell to the ground dead” (Grimms). The tailor thinks that he does not have the strength to fight a giant, let alone two. He then decides to get both giants furious with one another, so they will use their strength against each other. This is an example of how the underdog uses his opponent’s strengths against them.

In fairy tales, the main protagonist usually has an unusual personality trait. These traits can indicate whether the hero will be triumphant or not. Maria Tatar points out that “If naiveté and courage are virtually synonyms in the folkloric lexicon, naiveté and cunning are also not far apart in meaning. Indeed, the more hopelessly naive and obtuse the hero of a tale, the more likely it is that he will triumph over his adversaries and that his adventures will be crowned with success” (105). What Tatar means is that some of the heroes in fairy tales are seen to be innocent and foolish, but because of these traits, they have a better chance of overcoming whatever their obstacle is. An example that reflects the tailor begins with him buying some jam from a woman. He then uses the jam on a piece of bread and goes back to work to finish a jacket. However, flies start to land on the piece of bread. The tailor shoos them away, but they keep coming right back. Finally, “The little tailor at last lost all patience and got a bit of cloth from the hole under his work table, and saying, ‘Wait, and I will give it to you,’ struck it mercilessly on them. When he drew it away and counted, there lay before him no fewer than seven, dead and with legs stretched out” (Grimms). The tailor is so proud of his achievement that he makes a girdle and stitches on it, 'Seven at one stroke!' so the entire world can know of his accomplishment (Grimm’s). The tailor is just a character who buys some jam and becomes naïve in thinking that killing several flies is an outstanding triumph. This naivety is shown when he thinks the entire world should know that he can kill seven flies with one stroke. This tells us he is a hopeless kind of character in thinking that something so small deserves to be honored and praised. However, as Tatar shares, it is due to this hopelessness that he will succeed in whatever comes at him.

In fairy tales, underdogs overcome great obstacles and transitions, from simpletons to tricksters, or another type of hero. Tatar states that “In the world of fairy tales, a simpleton can easily slip into the role of the cunning trickster; a humble miller's son can become a king; and a cowardly fool can emerge as a stout-hearted hero. Character traits display an astonishing lack of stability, shifting almost imperceptibly into their opposites as the tale unfolds” (97). This means that within a fairytale, heroes are introduced with a certain attribute, but as the story progresses, this attribute will change. For example, the town’s fool who doesn’t know how to use a sword can become the kingdom’s hero who slays the dragon. He transitions from a simpleton to a dragon-slayer. Another example that refers to the tailor is when he falls asleep in the courtyard of the royal palace. In doing so, someone sees his girdle with its message of seven with one stroke. They tell the king, who decides that his kingdom could use such a man. They come to offer the tailor a proposal to join the king’s service. The tailor accepts, but the other guards begin to fear him. What could they do against a man who can kill seven with one blow? “They came therefore to a decision, betook themselves in a body to the King, and begged for their dismissal. ‘We are not prepared,’ said they, ‘to stay with a man who kills seven at one stroke.’ The King was sorry that for the sake of one, he should lose all his faithful servants, wished that he had never set eyes on the tailor, and would willingly have been rid of him again” (Grimms). The king, who is also afraid of the tailor, begins to think of what the tailor might do if he becomes angry. He decides to make a proposal just to get rid of him. The tailor is a simpleton at the beginning of his story, but because of the girdle that he makes, he slips into the role of a trickster. The tailor also makes not only some guards fear him, but the king himself. This makes the king want to get rid of him but is afraid of what he might do.

The heroes of fairy tales have a strange power over children, it makes the children listen so intensely. The simple reason is that fantasy feels good, there is a deep comfort in these tales that make people feel better after something disappointing has happened. According to Bruno Bettelheim:

When all the child's wishful thinking gets embodied in a good fairy; all his destructive wishes in an evil witch; all his fears in a voracious wolf; all the demands of his conscience in a wise man encountered on an adventure; all his jealous anger in some animal that pecks out the eyes of his archrivals? then the child can finally begin to sort out his contradictory tendencies. Once this starts, the child will be less and less engulfed by unmanageable chaos. (66)

Bettelheim is a noted psychoanalyst who uses fairy tales to study the human psyche. He argues that children need fairy tales because they let them enter a world of fantasy and imagination where they can explore their own tendencies. For example, children may have a tendency to knock over another child’s block tower; on the other hand, they might have an impulse to help build the tower. Children sometimes have trouble reconciling this conflicting tendency. Children can use fairy tales to reconcile these tendencies, projecting these impulses onto the fairy tales’ characters. For example, the children see the wicked stepmother as a figure that they can relate their bad tendencies to, the child can then live out these bad tendencies through the wicked stepmother as the fairy tale progresses. When a child unconsciously relates themselves to a fairy tale character and live their tendencies through that character, they no longer have the need to emit their bad tendencies in the real world because they have instead lived their impulses in the other world of fantasy and imagination. Fairy tales offer figures so the child can externalize their tendencies inside their mind. Fairy tales will “show the child how he can embody his destructive wishes in one figure, gain desired satisfactions from another, identify with a third, have ideal attachments with a fourth, and so on” (65-66). These figures in fairy tales are therapeutic for the children as they contribute to their emotional and mental development. Taking “The Brave Little Tailor” for example, the children will identify the tailor as an underdog and will connect their impulses to the tailor’s tendencies. In doing so the children will gain the ability to use the tailor’s resourcefulness to overcome any obstacles they have in the real world.

These fairy tales that we tell our children have more of a complex message than what we realize. “The Brave Little Tailor” is a story of how an underdog character who had no chance of winning anything somehow does. The tailor has little to no physical strength, but he has a sharp intellect that helps him solve problems or find solutions that no one else would think of. As a result, this story can impact a child’s mind in a positive way, teaching them that they can grow up to be anything they want no matter their limitations, if they put their mind to it. This is a lesson that I implore people to teach their children, that we are only limited by limitations that we place on ourselves.


After Concluding this essay, I learned a little more about comma placement. That a comma can be used before any coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) that can link two independent clauses together. Also, I have become fully aware that I like to use comma splices, which is terrible, but I have started to catch myself and fix it before I continue writing. Lastly, I am trying to learn how to make my sentences stronger through the use of verbs, and in doing so I am learning not to overcomplicate my structure of sentences. I think overall, I struggled with this essay more than any other, but that might be because I have never done anything like this before. However, it was a hard but interesting experience, and now I know what to do if I ever have another assignment like this.

Work Cited

    1. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Vintage Books, 2010. Pg.64-66
    2. Brother, Grimm's. “The Brave Little Tailor.” Copyrighted by Heidi Anne Heiner. Translated by Margaret Hunt, SurLaLune Fairy Tales: The Annotated Brave Little Tailor, London: George Bell, July 7, 2007,
    3. Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. 1 Oct. 2013, Little, Brown and Company.
    4. Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 3rd Edition. Illustrated by John Gruelle. Translated by Jack Zipes, Gramercy Books, 1 Jan. 2003, Bantam, Random House Publishing Group.
    5. Guthrie, John T. “Fantasy as Purpose.”, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 32, 1 Oct. 1978, pp.106-108. JSTOR, URL: Pg.106
    6. [bookmark: _Hlk25508713]Kramer, Roderick M., Tenbrunsel, Ann E., Bazerman, Max H., Messick, David M., Social Decision Making: Social Dilemmas, Social Values, and Ethical Judgments. Psychology Press, 2013.
    7. [bookmark: _Hlk25509598]Napier, Georgia; Ali, Munir, “An Analysis of the Need Fulfillment Imagery in Children's Folk Tales.” 13 November 1992, URL:
    8. TATAR, MARIA M. “Born Yesterday: Heroes in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.” Fairy Tales and Society: Illusion, Allusion, and Paradigm, edited by RUTH B. BOTTIGHEIMER, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986, pp. 95–114. JSTOR,
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    10. Zipes, Jack. “Speaking the Truth with Folk and Fairy Tales: The Power of the Powerless.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 132, 2019, pp. 243–259., JSTOR, URL:
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