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Dwarfs in German fairy tales and legends.

Dwarfs play a very important role in German sagas and many of these elements can be found in the fairy tales collected by the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Much, if not all, of our understanding of the role dwarfs play comes from the scholarly work of Jakob Grimm. In his handbook, Deutsche Mythologie, he collected various references to dwarfs from German and Norse sources. Simon J. Gilmour also provides a useful framework for viewing the role of dwarfs in German fairy tales.

The first of the German dwarf-stories is Ruodlieb, composed during the 11th century (Zeydel 23). It is a story of how Ruodlieb captures a dwarf, who attempts to negotiate his release by offering to show the locations of two treasures. Ruodlieb does not trust the dwarf, and, unfortunately, the poem ends without a result. This story is very similar to the Nibelungenlied. This epic is probably the most famous of the German Middle Ages, due to the amount of scholarly attention paid to it and its rebirth as Richard Wagner's opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried encounters the Nibelungen, a race of dwarfs. The story begins when Siegfried comes across two brothers who have removed a treasure from a hollowed-out mountain, these brothers ask for Siegfried's help in dividing it between the two in exchange for "the Nibelung's Sword" (Das Niebelungen Lied). Siegfried is incapable of arbitrating the dispute to the brother's satisfaction and a fight ensues. Siegfried, using the sword, kills the brothers, their twelve friends, and seven hundred knights from Nibelungen Land. He becomes the lord of the kingdom, and, in addition to the sword, also receives a magical cloak of invisibility. In this story, the dwarfs play a very traditional role; "they are associated with mountains, treasure, fabulous weapons; [...]; they can turn invisible, [...]; the hero must fight them, [...]; and, once subdued, the dwarfs become staunch (if sometimes treacherous) allies" (Shippey 53). In Deutsche Mythologie, Jakob Grimm attempts to categorize the roles of dwarfs and their characteristics. One theme is that of reciprocity; like in Ruodlieb, the hero tries to form a beneficial relationship with the dwarf. Another is the wisdom and future-telling ability of the dwarfs; Siegfried learns of his future death from a dwarf in the Lied vom Harnen Seyfrid (King 160-161). Dwarfs were also often presented as abductors, normally of women, such as in the works attributed to Dietrich von Bern (Shippey 79). These motives, among others, are also presented in the Grimm's Kinder-und Hausmarchen; in fact they played a role in the edits that the Grimms made. "The gradual convergence of the dwarfs' occupation in Snow White with their depiction in various medieval sources suggest that Wilhelm Grimm wanted to establish a more vivid connection between this folk tale and Germanic myth" (53).

In his article, Die Figure des Zwerges in den Kinder- und Hausmarchen der Bruder Grimm, Simon J. Gilmour illustrates the role of the dwarfs in the Grimms fairy tales, organizing them into five categories. The first category is "the unexpected helper who doesn't ask anything in return" (Gilmour 10). This type of dwarf appears in the first tale of Die Wichtelmanner, where a poor shoemaker is helped by two dwarfs. In this story, they help make shoes, and the man eventually becomes rich. When he discovers the identities of his benefactors, he makes them clothes, for they are naked, as a thank you. While the dwarfs then leave, the shoemaker is prosperous for the rest of his life. This theme is also present in Sneewittchen, the heroine is helped by seven dwarfs. They are presented as miners, taking from the traditional association of dwarfs with the earth, who help the heroin to mature, and give her shelter. They also warn her of her step-mother's evil intent, again applying a traditional view, in this case, as being wise and able to predict the future.

The second category is the "obedient dwarf" (10). In Das Blaue Licht a dwarf comes to the aid of a soldier who has become trapped in a well by a witch. In the well, he takes possession of a blue light, and therefore gains control of a dwarf who helps the soldier enact his revenge against those who have wronged him. This is very similar to the Nibelungenlied, in which the dwarfs become servants of Siegfried after they are subdued.

The third category is the "volunteer giver who expects the same value in return" (11). Die drei Mannlein im Walde is a story how a man and a woman, each with a daughter, marry. The woman had promised to be very kind to the man's daughter, but after merely a couple of days this ended and the stepdaughter was treated very poorly. Eventually, the girl is sent to die with little food and no clothing except a thin dress, but is very obedient and does as she is told. On her trip, she encounters three dwarfs. The dwarfs ask to share her breakfast and for her to help clean their home. Despite the difficulty of her situation, she helps them. In return, each of the dwarfs uses their supernatural powers to help her, including gold whenever she speaks. Upon her return, her step-sister is jealous. The sister leaves with plenty of food and warm clothing, yet when she encounters the same dwarfs she is very rude. In return, the dwarfs again use their powers, instead of gold when she speaks, toads come out and she is cursed to a miserable death.

The fourth category is the "demonic dwarf, who steals children" (11). Traditionally dwarfs were presented as abductors of women and children. In the third tale of Die Wichtelmanner, a woman's child is exchanged with an imp who would only eat and drink. At the advice of her neighbor, she tries to boil water in two eggshells. This ridiculous attempt makes the creature laugh, and the dwarfs bring the woman's child back. A similar theme appears in Der starke Hans, where the hero finds and rescues a beautiful princess from a greedy and cruel dwarf. Rumpelstilzchen presents something of a combination of the third and fourth categories, with the dwarf as negative figure who is willing to help the heroine, but only in exchange for her first daughter. Given the choice between this and death, she accepts and her child is only saved when she discovers the dwarf's name.

The last category is "the ungrateful, evil dwarf, allied with the Devil" (11). Schneeweisschen und Rosenrot is an excellent example of this. The dwarf turns a prince into a bear and then goes about stealing the prince's gold. The two girls, who have become friends of the bear, occasionally meet the dwarf, who is often in trouble. Being kind, and not knowing the true nature of the dwarf, they help him. The dwarf is not appreciative of their help and complains that their help isn't good enough. Despite this, the sisters help him time and again. Once, after the girls have just helped him, a bear comes along. The dwarf offers the bear the girls to eat if he spares him. However, the bear is the girl's friend and he kills the dwarf. The bear then turns back into a prince and marries Snow White, Rose Red marries his brother.

Both Jakob Grimm's handbook and Gilmour's categorization provide decent framework for understanding dwarfs. However, the primary sources are either few, in the cases of the sagas and legends, or are no longer entirely accurate, the Grimms' revisions of the German fairy tales were influenced by their own scholarship. With such a prominent role given to dwarfs in German literature, one is curious to learn more about this race of beings.

However, one of the important elements of dwarfs is the fact that very little is known, for if we could build a comprehensive picture, we would no long experience the same sense of enchantment.


Das Niebelungen Lied. (1996) Mannheim: F.A. Brockhaus.

Edwin H. Zeydel (ed. and trans.), (1959) Ruodlieb: The Earliest Courtly Novel (after 1050), Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gilmour, Simon J. (1993), "Die Figur des Zwerges in den Kinder-und Hausmarchen der Bruder Grimm. Fabula 34: 9-23.

Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. Gunter Jurgensmeier, ed. Kinder- und Hausmarchen (1819), Online,

King, K.C., ed. (1958) Lied vom Harnen Seyfrid um 1530. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Online Strophen 160-161, Chronologie/16Jh/Seyfried/sey_lid2.html

Shippey, Tom ed. (2005) Shadow-walkers Jacob Grimm's Mythology of the Monstrous. Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.


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Title Annotation:Proceedings of the 5th World Congress on the Advancement of Scholarly Research in Science, Economics, Law, and Culture: May 27-30, 2010 New York
Author:Stringham, Eniko
Publication:Economics, Management, and Financial Markets
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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