The gruesome origins of your favourite fairy tales.
Everyone knows the classic fairytale stories, especially as immortalised by Disney. But it may intrigue you to know that the original versions of today's fairy tales were much stranger, darker fare than Disney would have ever dared publish. Read on for the grim story of the older tales behind the sanitised 20th century adaptations.
Once upon a time, fairy tales were written for adults, not children, and were intended as morality stories. To make sure the message was memorable, the older versions combined sex and violence with a much bleaker worldview. The most famous recorders of fairy tales are the Grimm brothers who first published their collection in 1812, entitled Children's and Household Tales. The book was immediately criticised for one simple reason: the tales in it were not at all appropriate for children. Read some of the “real” fairytales below from both the original Grimms book and elsewhere to judge for yourself.
Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood was intended to teach (especially well bred young ladies) the danger of talking to strangers. The Grimms' version introduced a last minute rescuer for Little Red, but she had usually been eaten at the end of the tale, often after implied congress with the wolf (who was sometimes a werewolf or an ogre). In an Austrian version Little Red's granny is killed and eaten before Little Red arrives. Granny's entrails are used to replace the string on the door latch and her teeth, jaws and blood stored in her cupboard. When Little Red arrives, she is hungry and so is directed to eat her dead grandmother's teeth (rice) and jaw (chops) and drink her blood (wine). Fake granny then invites Little Red to get naked and climb into bed with her, whereas the story puts it, Little Red “noticed something hairy”. Shortly after the unfortunate girl is devoured in a single gulp, with no rescue.
In the Grimms' tale, Cinderella's fortunes are turned around not by a fairy godmother, but a macabre tree growing out of her mother's grave, which she waters with her tears. Like the Disney version, Cinderella is able to call on birds to perform the tasks set by her wicked stepmother and a bird provides her with suitable clothing for the ball. But when the king's son turns up on the familiar quest to find the foot that fits the shoe, these stepsisters are prepared to go above and beyond to get their man: one cuts off her toe and the other slices off her heel to make the shoe fit. Unsuprisingly each attempt is given away when one of Cinderella's bird friends helpfully points out the blood running out of the shoe. Vengeance on the stepsisters is completed at Cinderella's wedding to the prince. As the sisters go into the church, birds peck out an eye from each sister. After the wedding, the same birds peck out each woman's remaining eye, thus “punishing them with blindness all their days”.
In older variations it's Cinderella who kills her original mother or stepmother, only to get the wicked stepmother as a replacement. An interesting social aspect is the lost significance of the heroine having a small foot. One of the original versions of the Cinderella story comes from ancient China at a time where wives were often chosen by their foot size. Having a small foot suggested that you had agreed to it being bound and were therefore obedient and dependent, traits then seen as highly desirable in a wife.
The first Grimms' version of Snow White cast her mother rather than a stepmother as the queen jealous of Snow White's greater beauty. The wicked queen shows herself to be a cannibal by eating what she thinks is the lung and liver of her daughter/stepdaughter (although in reality they belong to a passing bear). When the first attempt at killing Snow White fails, the queen decides personal violence is the answer and attempts to strangle Snow White with lace. Eventually a poisoned apple does the trick and Snow White is dead. When a travelling king's son sees her corpse in the forest he insists on having this dead body at his side forever. He won't even eat unless the corpse is lying next to his food. His servants soon get frustrated with carting a heavy coffin from room to room and one of them picks up the body of Snow White to give it a beating. This dislodges the apple and brings Snow White back to life. At the conclusion of the tale, a pair of iron shoes are heated in the fire until red hot and then brought to the wicked queen. She is forced to put them on and dance in agony until she dies. In some tellings, the seven dwarves are not industrious mining folk, but robbers preying on travellers in the forest.
Sleeping Beauty now ends with a chaste kiss which wakes the sleeping princess after her hundred year sleep. However there was once more to the story than that. The prince marries Sleeping Beauty the same day and that night, the story makes a point of telling us, the royal couple get no sleep. Unsurprisingly, this leads in due course to two children. But the prince cannot live with Sleeping Beauty as he dare not tell his family about her. Why? Because his mother is an ogress whom his father has married only for her riches and the whole court knows that she cannot resist eating any small children that cross her path (perhaps worth noting that this makes the handsome prince a half ogre). After the prince becomes king he feels confident enough to bring Sleeping Beauty and their two children to the court. However his earlier fears prove well founded. As soon as he goes off to war his mother sends Sleeping Beauty to the country in order to eat her children without interference. When the palace cook objects, the ogress implies that he will be on the menu if he doesn't change his mind. After she thinks she's eaten the two children (although the cook has fooled her), the ogress decides to eat Sleeping Beauty as well. The cook manages to trick her again, hiding Sleeping Beauty and the children in his house. Unfortunately one of the children makes too much noise whilst Sleeping Beauty is whipping him for misbehaviour and the game is given away. The ogress arranges for a large tub to be filled with horrible creatures into which she will throw Sleeping Beauty, her children, the cook, his wife and her maid to be devoured. Fortunately the Prince (now the king of course) arrives back from his war early. This final thwarting of her plan so enrages his mother that she throws herself head first into the tub of horrible creatures and is instantly eaten up.
In an older Italian version, a king discovers Sleeping Beauty (here called Talia) whilst she is still sleeping and rapes her. In due course she gives birth to twins, without waking up. Thankfully a pair of fairies are on hand to help the children suckle. Only when the babies mistakenly attempt to feed from her finger is the original splinter removed and Sleeping Beauty woken. In due course the the king comes back to see Sleeping Beauty again and is even more smitten now she's awake. They have a few days of companionship, after which the king promises to send for her. Unfortunately he neglects to mention that he already has a queen and thus cannot marry Sleeping Beauty. This time it's the king's wife who attempts to have the children eaten by serving them to their unsuspecting father, whilst taunting him with the ambiguous statement that what he eats is his own. The cannibalism is secretly foiled by the cook. The king learns of his wife's actions and thinking that she fooled him into eating his children he has her burned alive. After which he is free to marry Sleeping Beauty and does.
Once a more bawdy tale, the main change for children's consumption has been the disguising of the sexual relationship between Rapunzel and the prince who discovers her. One day after the Prince has been visiting for some time, the naïve Rapunzel asks the witch why her clothes have become so tight across her belly and no longer fit her, causing the outraged witch to throw her out of the tower. Whilst the blinded prince is wondering round and living on grass and leaves, Rapunzel gives birth to twins and has a miserable time trying to support them as a single mother.
No sanitising was ever going to rehabilitate this next fairytale which was nonetheless presented in the Grimms' book for children. Just to show that wicked mothers don't have it all their own way, this example involves a wicked father. A king promises his dying wife that he will not marry again when she dies unless his new bride is at least as pretty and has golden hair. After the queen is dead the king is persuaded that he must remarry so that the land will have a queen. Unfortunately he remains bound by his promise and no-one can find a replacement as good looking as the dead queen. Until that is his daughter grows up. One day the king realises that she fulfils the criteria, since she is as beautiful as her mother and has golden hair. He immediately insists on marrying his daughter, against the advice of his shocked advisers and her wishes. Since she can't dissuade him, the kings daughter disguises herself and runs away. Whilst disguised she's brought back to the king's castle and sent to live in a closet under the stairs (sound familiar?). After enduring a miserable existence as a kitchen slave for a while she makes sure that her father gets to know who she is. He hasn't lost any of his twisted desire to marry his daughter and this time she goes through with the marriage.