Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Brothers Grimm under the knife

Valerie Gribben
San Francisco, California, United States

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (1916)

Magic-infused fairytales and modern medicine are intertwined as closely as the curving double helix of DNA. Do you doubt this? Well, let us start by acknowledging that the word “magic” has to a large degree regrettably lost its luster. “Magic” these days conjures up images of clowns pulling quarters from children’s ears, street performers doing card tricks, or stage magicians lamely chanting “abra-kadabra” while smoke spews from dry ice machines.

But in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, magic once signified a marvelous salve that re-attached severed limbs, an apple that revived a princess, and a leaf that restored life itself. Progress in medicine has evolved exponentially since the publication of Children’s Stories and Household Tales in 1812, but the tales of the Brothers Grimm still have much to reveal about healing and hurt for this generation.

Let us begin to address the subject by placing the tales of the Brothers Grimm upon the dissecting table. Allow those famous and familiar Disney images to fall away like the petals from Beast’s iconic rose, lose those sparkling glass slippers, and shear off those long golden tresses.

As we examine these fairy tales for overlaps with medicine, let us linger for a moment at the superficial level: a level no deeper than that skin supposedly as white as snow. The figure of the physician in Brothers Grimm fairy tales is perhaps not so well known as the rest of the cast of characters. But unlike wood-cutters or huntsmen, this healing occupation survived and thrived beyond the industrial revolution.

Two of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales prominently feature physicians, though not in the best light. In “Doctor Knowall” a peasant called Crabb learns to be a doctor after reading a single textbook and styling himself with a new set of clothes. In the end, through a series of misunderstandings, he colludes with thieves but nevertheless ends up a wealthy and renowned man. In another tale, “The Three Army Surgeons,” a hubris-filled physician trio who are not exactly champions of the Hippocratic Oath are punished with a darkly comic fate. Even two centuries ago, the stories of the Brothers Grimm acknowledged that lauded healers are sometimes far too human.

Those tales are merely about putative physicians; we must delve deeper to see more meaningful connections between medicine and fairytales. Let’s take a breath and make that first clean incision. Separate the soft tissue of the stories. At this level are what can be termed “panacea tales.” For example, the court physician in “Hans the Hedge-Hog” uses magical ointments to heal the spiky Hans and transform him into a handsome young man. In “The Three Snake-Leaves” a dead princess is brought back to life by magical leaves laid on her mouth and eyes. “The Water of Life” revives a sickened king, and in “The Griffin” a princess returns to bloom with the aid of a charmed apple. In “The Two Brothers” a healing root is used to re-attach a man’s head – twice. That sounds like the stuff of fantasy, but here in the twenty-first century, even the most routine acts of medicine exceed earlier definitions of “super-natural.” Intubation means an electrical machine can pump life-granting oxygen in lieu of failed lungs. The field of regenerative medicine is transforming laboratories into organ gardens. Even antibiotics, dispensed with all the significance of Tic-Tacs, have become mundane miracles, vanquishing plagues that would have leveled whole villages in the past. In truth, the supernatural magic of yesteryear has turned into the very real medicine of today. Who needs a wand when we are already editing the human genome? This magic occurs on the muscular level, but we must go even deeper in the dissection.

We now reach the skeleton of the stories, glistening on our imaginary stainless-steel table. Truly study these bones, and they will tell a tale as old as time: the precarious line between life and death.

Fairy tales are the metaphorical made literal. I have been practicing medicine for ten years. I remember every single one of my patients who has died. An unsupervised swim in the family swimming pool, a gun that fired when the safety was supposed to be on, a full bottle of Tylenol when the bullying became too much. Handprints left on a one-month-old baby’s skin. I find myself viewing this world as a dense and dark woods, through which an unlit path leads forward into the unknown. A tumor crushing the brainstem, virulent sepsis invading the bloodstream, the body treating itself as the enemy. What would anyone give to save them? The king’s golden palace, heaps of jewels, even a very kingdom seems small. Monsters still flourish on a cellular level, even if it is easier to conceptualize evil as lurking in a house of candy deep within a forest.

When the Code Blue is over, when all the noise of effort has subsided – in the eerie quiet that follows – there is an invisible shadow at the foot of the bed. And I find myself ruminating on one more story. In the Brothers Grimm tale “Godfather Death” a desperate peasant searches for someone to stand with his thirteenth child at his christening. The peasant turns down God Himself as well as the Devil because of their unfairness to humankind. But Death … Death is the great equalizer, and so he is chosen. When the boy is nearly grown, Death takes his godson to the woods and as a christening present shows him an herb, telling him: “I’m going to see to it that you become a famous physician. If you are called to the bedside of someone who is ill, I’m going to be right there. If I’m standing by the patient’s head, you can speak right up and declare that you are able to cure him. And if you give him some of this herb, he will recover. But, if I’m standing by the feet of the person who is ill, then the patient belongs to me, and you will have to declare that all efforts are in vain and that there is no doctor in the world who can save him. Just be careful that you never use this herb against my will, or you might find yourself in deep trouble.” Soon, the young man becomes the most famous physician in the world. But in his quest for a prosperous happily-ever-after, the physician disobeys his godfather and gives the special herb to both a king and later a beautiful princess to win her hand in marriage.

Cheated of two souls, Death grips his godson in an icy grasp and leads him to an underground cavern where candles of all different heights are burning – “the lights of human lives.” The physician asks to see his candle, and Death points to a tiny wick about ready to go out. The frightened physician begs his godfather to prolong his life, and though Death pretends to be lighting him a new candle, he actually snuffs out the tiny wick: “The physician fell to the ground, and then, at last, he was in the hands of Death.”1

It is a startling and sobering story. But it demonstrates how, because a great many fairy tales deal with matters of mortality, they are inextricably bound together with the world of medicine.

So this metaphoric dissection is now complete. Medicine may be progressing by leaps and bounds, but as in the past our feet are sometimes clay, our mortal future ashes. Despite all the gains of medicine, some patients will nonetheless slip away into the night and leave me shaken.

What is the cure for that inevitability? Where is the magic flower, the enchanted ointment that can enable me to weather this grief? Over time, searching for some sort of a reliable antidote, I became my own apothecary. To heal, I write. Storytelling can be its own medicine, using words to shape the unfathomable and nebulous. I resolve to keep writing about my journeys through the thorny labyrinths of medicine. Only in filtering my own recollections, trying to make sense of them on the page, can I process these traumas. For me, writing is hemodialysis for the soul.

At the core, that same blood-red heart of afflicted humanity beats within both medicine and fairy tales. I read fairy tales to bring me comfort. I write to gain perspective on my own story. Even as the candles of our lives burn, they have the power to light each others’ paths.


  1. Tatar, Maria. The Grimm Reader: The Classic Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Norton, 2010.

VALERIE GRIBBEN, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. She was a pediatric resident and Chief Resident at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. Her three-volume novel The Fairytale Trilogy was published in 2011. You can read more of her writings on her website, valeriegribben.com.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022

Winter 2018



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