Grimm’s Tales, Stealing, and Becoming a Billionaire

Connecting Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Complexity

I approached this connection by considering which of the Grimm’s tales has the most complexity.  This lead me to the tale of “The Two Brothers” and from there to reassurance that creativity is available to all.

At eighteen pages in my edition, “The Two Brothers” defies brief summarization. I could summarize The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace more easily!  You can find the story online here “The Two Brothers” if you wish to read it for yourself.


Instead of summarizing, I decided to list elements of the story:

  • Magic bird
  • Abandoned children
  • Mistaken identity
  • Greed and jealousy
  • Witch
  • Damsel in distress
  • Talking animals
  • And on and on and on covering a sheet of paper!

The Grimm brothers didn’t “invent” their stories.  They collected old ones in a project to preserve the oral folk tales of the German peasants.  As my list grew I started to see elements I recognized from stories and myths far older than the German peasantry – elements from Greek mythology, from Celtic Arthurian legends, and from medieval chivalric romance literature.

Take a look.

From “The Two Brothers” From Greek mythology
A wicked uncle who sends the brothers out into danger Jason sent off to danger to find Golden fleece by his wicked uncle
Witch turns animals and men to stone The witch Circe turns men and animals to stone in The Odyssey  of Homer
From “The Two Brothers” From Celtic Arthurian legend
A sword in the ground that could only be moved by one certain person The sword in the stone that only the future King Arthur could remove
A white deer/hart/doe that leads the brothers on a quest into a haunted forest The white hart/doe as a signal to King Arthur and his knights that it was time to embark on a quest
From “The Two Brothers” From medieval chivalric romance
One brother kills a dragon to save and win the princess In a medieval romance by Chretien de Troyes, Yvain slays a dragon to win his lady
A special root heals the brother after he is mortally wounded In another romance by Chretien, an herbal root remedy cures the wounded knight Erec

But then it got even more exciting for me!  Think about one of the most creative works of the 20th-21st centuries – Harry Potter, novels I love.  J.K. Rowling used every one of these elements (and more that I haven’t listed) in her Harry Potter stories.

  • The wicked Uncle Vernon who locks Harry in a closet
  • The Petrification curse that turns a cat and then Harry’s best friend Hermione to stone
  • The Sword of Gryffindor hidden in a frozen lake so only Harry could find it
  • A white doe leading Harry into a forest on a quest for the sword of Gryffindor
  • Harry having to battle a dragon – the Hungarian Horntail – to prove his worth and win a prize
  • The root of the Mandrake plant as the essential part of many antidotes, including against the Petrification curse


My exercise shows me a long tradition of stealing elements and reusing them to create something “utterly different from that which it was torn” (T.S. Elliot).

During the summer I read a little book called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative by Austin Kleon. The book has been sitting on my desk for a couple months, and this blog his made his concept “steal like an artist” real to me.  In both my efforts at writing and my efforts at being innovative in the workplace, I struggle with feeling that everything has already been thought of.

How discouraging, paralyzing even.

But it is coming home to me that all creative/innovative work builds on what came before.  J.K. Rowling became a billionaire by stealing and remixing old elements.  I could write another long blog on what she took from Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings!

How encouraging, energizing even.

In Austin Kleon’s words:

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”


When I return I’ll consider the connection between “cruelty” and “progress”.  Random selection of topics is challenging me!

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3 Responses to Grimm’s Tales, Stealing, and Becoming a Billionaire

  1. Ana L. says:

    I love your last quote!

  2. Monica says:

    My quote – “Life is a cut & paste” – after years of software development, where I was always taking pieces of code to create something new, I found that artists (in my design classes) do the same thing – they are always borrowing from their own past pieces and influenced by what they see.

  3. Monica says:

    Keep writing Peggy – It it wonderful!!

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