German Märchen: Struwwelpeter

Interviewer: Do you know any German fairy tales or lullabies that you were told when you were younger or when you’ve visited Germany over the years?


Informant: My grandfather used to read out of this story book when I was little and it was compiled of German folktales that centered around this one character, Struwwel Peter.  It is like really well known in Germany and it follows this guy who is like supposed to teach children life lessons in the form of tales. They are more like warnings, like if you do “this” then “something” will happen to you I guess.


Interviewer: Do you remember one of the stories or an example of the stories or lessons?


Informant: Well there was one that was told to me about Struwwelpeter when I was younger and it was that there were these children that were really young and still sucked on their thumbs.  And the parents or the group that was around them was trying to get them to stop or get them to grow up so basically Struwwelpeter turned into a “scissor man”.  I know it sounds really weird but that’s what it was about and it really freaked me out.  And the tale goes that if you were sucking your thumb then he would come and try to cut off your thumb as a punishment.  So he was basically like chasing kids who miss behaved or disobeyed their parents in some way.


Interviewer: Was it meant to be a scary story?


Informant: I don’t think so but German tales and stories really don’t mess around, like there is no beating around the bush with certain images or details. It’s all kind of very graphic and upfront.  But I didn’t really grasp how scary and graphic the stories were when I was little until I got older and thought about what they were actually saying and the concepts kind of started to freak me out.


Interviewer: Yeah just by you telling me the story I got freaked out and I can’t even imagine telling that to children but I guess different cultures and time frames use different folklore.


Informant: It was also really serious because my grandfather is really German and the rest of my cousins still live there so I knew he wasn’t messing around.


Interview: Well thanks for sharing!


Background: The informant is a sophomore in college student Linguistics with an emphasis in German.  Her extended family lives in Germany and she visits them every two to three years.  She has also spent time teaching English and learning German over the summer at a children’s day school in rural Germany.  To her, this piece is very characteristics of things she has learned and experienced through this particular culture.  Even upon this interview she asked first if I knew who the Grimms were and the stories they collected.  Tales for her are a signifying point.


Context: This interview took place while on visit to see the informant.  The informant first heard or experienced this piece from her grandfather who not only knew the tales by heart but had gotten her a book compiled of a collection of these stories that her family still has.


Analysis: This interview was extremely special because it was the first time I had asked someone for cultural products or folklore and they knew exactly what I meant.  It was also cool to see examples of things we had discussed in class and to meet someone who knew exactly what märchen were and the history of their culture, including the Grimms.  In hearing the piece I was also struck by the reality of it and the exclusion of filters for different audiences depending on age, but given the course, it makes sense that these tales would not be edited for children of the time if childhood was not an established concept.  The coming together of these different examples and theories is a really interesting process that has brought tangibility to the study of folklore.


Annotation: Documented versions of this piece can be found in Heinrich Hoffman’s book, Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures.

Hoffman, Heinrich. Struwwelpeter. G. Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1909.