What is a märchen?


Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the märchen genre with help from scholars Christine A. Jones, Jennifer Schacker, Jack Zipes, and others, helping you analyze a märchen, and discussing ways to bring märchen to your story craft.

Folkloric Definition of Märchen

The German word "märchen" and the phrases "fairy tale" and "wonder tale" all refer to the same genre of short prose narratives, in which supernatural beings and other storytelling elements intervene in the everyday lives of people and in which the good are rewarded while the wicked are punished. Folklore scholars sometimes prefer the word "märchen" to its alternatives for the sake of precision; after all, fairy tales don't always contain fairies, and there are many natural wonders worthy of tales. Märchen have also been called "folktales," but this phrase is used in reference to a wide variety of traditional narratives, so it's even less precise than the others.

As with the Child ballads, there are many variations of each märchen type because they evolved in oral traditions "...through the processes of imitation, memorization, replication, and recreation" (Zipes 2006, x). Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are perhaps the most well-known collectors of these tales, though it is important to note that the Brothers Grimm sanitized what they collected for literary and ideological reasons and that they "...could not resist the temptation to combine elements from different versions of the same tale, thereby creating a synthetic, conflated text that had never been told in precisely that form by any informant" (Dundes 1999, chap. 1). We are more fortunate in the recently-discovered efforts of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, whose documentarian instincts were stronger and who preserved the visceral energy of the märchen he collected (von Schönwerth 2015, xiii).

Because reward and punishment are important features of the märchen, it's worth discussing the morality of the tales a bit, and that requires us to engage with them in various contexts. Christine A. Jones and Jennifer Schacker write that these consist of "...the social context in which a particular tale text is created or performed, the political or ideological context in which it is received, and the broader generic or discursive context in which the text circulates" (Jones and Schacker 2013, 25). Simply put, Jones and Schacker advocate that we ask ourselves several questions about each variation of a märchen:

  1. In what social context was the tale created?
  2. In what social context was it performed?
  3. In what political or ideological context was it received?
  4. How does it relate to other, similar tales in circulation at the time of its creation, performance, and reception?

These questions help us understand why the tale brands some behaviours good and others wicked, how morality shifts between tale variations over time, what national, religious and other ideological trends influence the tale's audiences, and where the tale fits among other stories of the period. If you've read many märchen, you already know the moral lessons of these tales can be problematic from a modern perspective, but this nuanced approach allows us to do more than frown at their old-fashioned sensibilities. It gives us insight into the relationship between the tale and the culture around it, and that's a useful thing to folklorists and writers alike.

Extra Credit: Compare and contrast your answers to the above questions as they relate to the 1959 animated film The Sleeping Beautyand as they relate to the 2014 live action film Maleficent. Both films are derived from the same tale type - ATU 410: The Sleeping Beauty - but their various contexts are quite different.

With this information on board, we can build a checklist of märchen characteristics. They are:

  • Short Prose Narratives: Short stories which may be told or written as prose.
  • Both Magical and Mundane: Containing supernatural beings, objects, and other story elements that intervene in the everyday lives of people.
  • Infused with Moral Lessons: Imparting social values relevant to the contexts in which they were created, told, and received.
  • Resolved by Rewarding the Good and Punishing the Wicked: Often called "happy endings," it might be more helpful to think of these resolutions as logical outcomes of moral lessons the tales impart.
  • Passed Down from Oral Traditions: Collected in cultures where people learned these stories from other people.

Example of a Märchen

Ready to work? Great! Give the short piece that follows a good read, and using the information above, see what elements of the märchen you find in it.

The Three Brothers (ATU 654: The Three Brothers)

There was once a man who had three sons, and nothing else in the world but the house in which he lived. Now each of the sons wished to have the house after his father's death; but the father loved them all alike, and did not know what to do; he did not wish to sell the house, because it had belonged to his forefathers, else he might have divided the money amongst them. At last a plan came into his head, and he said to his sons, "Go into the world, and try each of you to learn a trade, and, when you all come back, he who makes the best masterpiece shall have the house."

The sons were well content with this, and the eldest determined to be a blacksmith, the second a barber, and the third a fencing-master. They fixed a time when they should all come home again, and then each went his way.

It chanced that they all found skilful masters, who taught them their trades well. The blacksmith had to shoe the King's horses, and he thought to himself, "The house is mine, without doubt." The barber only shaved great people, and he too already looked upon the house as his own. The fencing-master got many a blow, but he only bit his lip, and let nothing vex him; "for," said he to himself, "If you are afraid of a blow, you'll never win the house."

When the appointed time had gone by, the three brothers came back home to their father; but they did not know how to find the best opportunity for showing their skill, so they sat down and consulted together. As they were sitting thus, all at once a hare came running across the field. "Ah, ha, just in time!" said the barber. So he took his basin and soap, and lathered away until the hare came up; then he soaped and shaved off the hare's whiskers whilst he was running at the top of his speed, and did not even cut his skin or injure a hair on his body. "Well done!" said the old man. "Your brothers will have to exert themselves wonderfully, or the house will be yours."

Soon after, up came a nobleman in his coach, dashing along at full speed. "Now you shall see what I can do, father," said the blacksmith; so away he ran after the coach, took all four shoes off the feet of one of the horses whilst he was galloping, and put him on four new shoes without stopping him. "You are a fine fellow, and as clever as your brother," said his father; "I do not know to which I ought to give the house."

Then the third son said, "Father, let me have my turn, if you please;" and, as it was beginning to rain, he drew his sword, and flourished it backwards and forwards above his head so fast that not a drop fell upon him. It rained still harder and harder, till at last it came down in torrents; but he only flourished his sword faster and faster, and remained as dry as if he were sitting in a house. When his father saw this he was amazed, and said, "This is the master-piece, the house is yours!"

His brothers were satisfied with this, as was agreed beforehand; and, as they loved one another very much, they all three stayed together in the house, followed their trades, and, as they had learnt them so well and were so clever, they earned a great deal of money. Thus they lived together happily until they grew old; and at last, when one of them fell sick and died, the two others grieved so sorely about it that they also fell ill, and soon after died. And because they had been so clever, and had loved one another so much, they were all laid in the same grave (‘The Three Brothers’ n.d.).


How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this is a short prose narrative in which three brothers acquire both magical and mundane knowledge of the crafts they set out to learn. After all, it isn't possible to shave the whiskers from a hare running at top speed, shoe a horse at full gallop, or swing a sword so swiftly it blocks a torrential rain. The tale is also infused with moral lessons; namely, that young men should master a trade and that brothers should endeavour to cooperate with one another, and it is resolved by rewarding the good in their efforts to do so. Finally, this variation of the tale was collected by the Brothers Grimm, so it was ostensibly passed down from oral tradition, with the obvious caveat that the Grimms sanitized and combined elements of the märchen they published.

How a Märchen Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Märchen

I've mentioned tale types a few times in reference to märchen and twice referred to them by a prefix, number, and name. If you aren't familiar with that indexing system and what it means, I have a treat for you. "ATU" stands for Aarne-Thompson-Uther, the surnames of three scholars who have worked on folktale categorization over the last hundred years or so. Hans-Jörg Uther's three-volume work The Types of International Folktales is the most recent of these, published in 2004, so you might see the prefix "AT" in older folklore literature. Uther's catalog contains over 2000 folktale plots and motifs, and it's an invaluable resource for writers interested in working with märchen, which are numbered from 300-749. Unfortunately, Uther's books are prohibitively expensive for most people, but your local library might have copies in the reference section. Meanwhile, I recommend you visit the Multilingual Folk Tale Database, which offers an abbreviated description of each tale type along with a selection of folktales associated with many of them. The database is incomplete, but it's free and accessible with a computer and Internet connection.

It's been my understanding that straightforward märchen retellings receive a mixed reception among magazine and book editors, so you'll need to innovate with this material. As mentioned before, Disney did this in Maleficent, and I've extolled the virtues of Naomi Novik's novel Spinning Silver in a previous newsletter. More recently, Theodora Goss has released a collection of märchen-themed poems and tales entitled Snow White Learns Witchcraft. I've dipped into it a bit and like what I've read so far. In all of these examples, traditional plots, motifs, and morals are subverted in some way, and I think this is where an understanding of contexts may be helpful. If you see that that a particular tale type contains a moral lesson that might be viewed as problematic from modern perspectives, change it to suit your audience. As I write this paragraph, I wonder what "Sleeping Beauty" would look like if the princess were a gender-fluid person rejected by their parents when they reached puberty and left to sleep where they fell on their sixteenth birthday, next to a sewing machine on an abandoned warehouse floor. A tragic plot twist, to be sure, but it opens the tale type to fresh interpretations and new moral lessons.

Creation of New Märchen

Marina Warner writes that "The authors of newly invented stories, such as Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley, George Eliot, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, do not write fairy tales as such, but they adopt and transform recognizable elements - flying carpets, magic rings, animals that talk - from fairytale conventions, adding to readers' enjoyment by the direct appeal to shared knowledge of the fantasy code" (Warner 2016, xix). Warner is right to point out the narrative power of märchen elements; they draw readers in because they're both fantastical and familiar. So whether or not you choose to retell an existing tale, you can certainly make use of their constituent parts.

However, my primary interest in writing this series is to help expand your storytelling toolkit so that you can take your readers to unfamiliar places. With this in mind, it might be useful to think of märchen structure (and indeed the structure of all folklore genres) as scaffolding. For example, a spacefaring civilization might open a tale with a phrase that reminds your readers of "once upon a time" but promises something far different from standard-issue märchen fare. And if "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" as Sir Arthur C. Clarke opined, what is the nature of magic in this tale? What moral lesson lies at its heart, and why? For that matter, what gave rise to the oral transmission of tales in this civilization, and what is the influence of technology on tale transmission and variation? I offer these writing prompts because I believe folklore scaffolding can endure even under the strain of a writer's most creative ideas, and I want to read the tales you build on these old bones.

A Closing Passage on Märchen

Fairy tales are not unreal; they tell us metaphorically that "life is hard," or that "life is a dream," and their symbolical narrative patterns that assume the form of quests indicate possible alternative choices that we can make to fulfill our utopian disposition to transform ourselves and the world. The metaphors used in the composition of fairy tales are very much in touch with empirical reality. Fairy tales test the correlation between real social practices and imaginative possibilities that can be realized but are thwarted in our everyday interactions. Fairy tales interrogate the lack of correlation between real world practices and ethical idealistic options. Therefore, even the sentimental and contradictory happy endings in standard fairy-tale style romances and Hollywood films are somewhat subversive in that they compel us to consider what is lacking in our lives that prevent us from fulfilling our dreams and utopian longings. Certainly, the contrived happy endings of standardized fairy tales are delusional and misleading. Yet, we must always ask that if the protagonists succeed in finding love, wealth, and contentment in fairy-tale melodramas, what is preventing us in reality from having the same success? (Zipes 2006, xiii)

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of the fable.


  • Dundes, Alan. 1999. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Geronimi, Clyde. 1959. Sleeping Beauty. Walt Disney Productions.
  • Jones, Christine A., and Jennifer Schacker. 2013. Marvelous Transformations: An Anthology of Fairy Tales and Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
  • Schönwerth, Franz Xaver von. 2015. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. Edited by Erika Eichenseer. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Stromberg, Robert. 2014. Maleficent. Walt Disney Pictures.
  • ‘The Three Brothers’. n.d. Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Accessed 18 April 2019. http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=story&act=select&id=1177.
  • Warner, Marina. 2016. Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Zipes, Jack. 2006. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. New York: Routledge.
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