Thursday, September 18, 2014

Schonwerth tales: Dwarves

I had mentioned that the first half of Franz Schonwerth's Folktales didn't really fit into the category of "fairy tales": they were more like legends and ghost stories. But towards the back there are definitely fairy tales; stories that echo the structure of fairy tales we know, and many that could be considered versions of well-known fairy tales.
For those who need a refresher, Schonwerth collected tales from Bavaria around the same time as the brothers Grimm, but the stories in this book are actually from people native to the region, and remained unaltered throughout the years, unlike the popular Grimm's tales. From my archives, you can read about the mermaid tales and witch tales in the collection.
Arthur Rackham

When we think of fairy tale dwarves, we are sure to remember "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", and some people may be familiar with "Snow White and Rose Red". From these two tales we see the dual nature of dwarfs in folklore; they can be helpful and kind, as they were to Snow White, yet rude and ungrateful in the latter story.

Rie Cramer

Dwarves in Bavaria could be secretive and helpful; much like the elves in The Elves and the Shoemaker. Many dwarves would inhabit farms and living spaces of humans, and come out at night to do hard work; yet they were so quick and nimble they would accomplish much more than humans could, and produce superior work. Yet the dwarves were incredibly sensitive-if their privacy was broken or any oaths humans made to them broken, they would leave and never come back. They also wouldn't accept gifts of money or clothing-they would interpret anything more than food as a final payment.

Like the dwarves in "Lord of the Rings", dwarves often lived in mountains, creating a system of tunnels, and were known for their work with precious metals. In one story they made a necklace that would make anyone who saw it love the wearer-this was for a wife who was afraid she would lose her husband's love. Yet in payment for this treasure, she had to give herself to the Dwarves. When the woman's husband found out what she had done, he left her-ironically bringing about the fate the wife had tried to avoid. The husband did eventually reconcile himself to his wife, but it's a reminder that powerful magic often comes at a price...
Brian Froud

Some dwarves could be very helpful to kind humans-they helped Little Rose gain money to marry her true love in one tale, and assisted a maid named Eve with her chores, and even helped disguise her pregnancy from those around her with magic to avoid her being shamed. They took care of her baby when it was born, gave them gifts, and in both cases the dwarves remained lifelong friends with the women they helped in their time of need.

Yet not all dwarves were as friendly-one castle was known as haunted; the dwarves there would scatter the sheep at night, causing them to fall off the mountain, so the castle was avoided.

John Batten

Two stories in particular reminded me of traditional fairy tales. "Beautiful Bertha, the Red Shoe, and the Golden Needle" is essentially a Cinderella tale. A beautiful nobleman's daughter, Bertha, and a shepherd's daughter, Hylde, were switched at birth. Bertha became a maid for Hylde, and being jealous of Bertha's beauty, Hylde gave her the hardest chores, and humiliated her as often as possible. A prince came through looking for a bride, but passed by their castle. But Dwarves came, bringing with them a red shoe and golden needle, saying that the one who owned both things would be the prince's bride. When the shepherdess, Hylde's true mother, revealed the truth, Hylde threw herself from the tower, and Bertha became the prince's wife. So in this story we have the elements of persecuted heroine, aid from magical helpers, and recognition by a shoe. (I had recently done a post on red shoes in fairy tales, so we can add this to the list of significant red shoes!)
Anne Anderson

"Tale of the Forest Dwarf" is very similar to Rumpelstiltskin, yet the dwarf in this version seems kinder overall. A very poor man with many children to feed came across a dwarf clad in green, who led him to a cave of treasures. The treasure could all belong to the poor man, if he could guess the dwarf's name in three days. The dwarf was under a spell and had to guard the treasures until someone could guess his name and say it out loud. The man went home and told his wife.

She prayed and went to find the dwarf herself. She overheard him lamenting about how easy it would be for them to guess his name because of his little pointed beard. So she came in her husband's place and guessed, "Little Pointed Beard!", and the dwarf turned into a dove and flew away; the poor family was able to enjoy all the treasures.


  1. Y'know, when it comes to the dwarves in Snow White, I never considered the idea that they might be magical types. I always figured they were dwarves in the sense of being people with dwarfism. However, most of the dwarves in these other stories seem to be magical creatures.

    1. Most people are probably so used to the cutesy, Disney dwarves that they also don't realize what associations people would have had with Dwarves in the past. Christie of "Spinning Straw into Gold" has a great post called "The Domestication of Dwarves" that discusses how the fearsome and magical aspects of many fairy tale creatures have been lost in current movies:

    2. Well, which kind of dwarf it is can change the perception of the story completely. Now, in the case of Snow White, I figured they were dwarves in the sense of being little people (note: there are two kinds of little people in the world: midgets and dwarves. And there are probably more technical politically correct terms for both). I thought this because it seemed like it would make sense. With a villainess who is both gorgeous and really hung up on traditional physical beauty, it made sense that the heroes (and yes, I see the dwarves as the heroes) would be kind of . . . different-looking. Heck, maybe even outcasts because of their appearance. However, if they're dwarves in the Norse mythological/Tolkien sense, then it's a whole different ballgame.

    3. That's a good point, I hadn't really thought before about how the dwarves are a physical contrast to the Queen and her beauty ideals. Although, whether or not they are physically shorter than average, or mythical dwarves, they would still not fit into the standards for "ideal" manly beauty, and I think the irony works for either kind of dwarf.

  2. Good to see so many aspects of dwarves. I like Adam's point about their being dwarves and midgets - really would change the perspective of the story, plus fairy tales tend to generalise and make anyone small called a dwarf regardless of whether they're magical or not.

    I like how the dwarf in 'Tale of the Forest Dwarf' is cursed, as opposed to nasty like Rumpelstiltskin. It makes a happy ending for everyone - he gets freed, and the family get the treasure. Interesting how this tale has no villains present, apart from perhaps who cursed the dwarf but this isn't mentioned. Also, what did the dwarf do to become cursed, and why is his curse to guard the treasure? Lots for the writer in me to contemplate!

    1. It's funny, I think I had always assumed that fairy tale dwarves were the magical sort, but it would be interesting to do a survey and see who automatically thinks of them as being Little People instead.

      You're right, "Tale of the Forest Dwarf" is more pleasant all around because you end up rooting for everyone. And like in Beauty and the Beast, most versions don't explain the curse, the audience usually just accepts its existence and it becomes the villainous force of the story. But it would be fun to hear what you come up with! Or, what if Rumplestiltskin had once had the same curse, but over time became more bitter and manipulative when he seemed doomed to remain cursed?