We all grew up with fairy tales, no matter what generation you may belong to. For many of us they were cautionary tales that taught us life lessons through the medium of anecdotes filled with magic and wonder but they weren’t always so. The bulk of the fairy tales we are told as children trace their origins back to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a collection of stories complied by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812, and these were a far cry from the stories that lulled us off to sleep as children.
Since the advent of Disney in this century, we have been provided with child friendly versions of the brothers Grimm’s stories and for that reason their original versions have become lost to the public at large. In the 1800s, the stories told to children reflected a different attitude to what is seen today, tales that warned of the dangers of the ‘dark forests’ came from a time when lone travellers were regularly eaten by wolves and other natural predators though nowadays they can be seen as allegorical warnings against wandering too far from one’s home but the best way to show this is to offer a few examples.
The tale of The Little Mermaid is one that every child is familiar with and one that Disney has capitalised upon with the titular animated film and all the merchandising that goes along with that but the original story by Hans Christian Andersen is no happily ever after. Rather than losing her voice and gaining legs, the sea witch’s potion grants the mermaid legs but causes her new feet to bleed constantly and feel as though she is forever walking on knives. At the end of this tale, the prince chooses to marry another woman, thus leaving the mermaid with the choice of killing him or turning into sea foam, the mermaid chooses to stay true to her love and throwing herself into the sea, promptly dissolves.
Cinderella is another old story that has undergone the Disney beautification process, though the modern telling of the tale teaches young girls to simply put up with all of life’s injustices until a handsome prince comes along to whisk you away to a life of leisure and love, the oldest versions of the story paints Cinderella in a decidedly unflattering light. The original story tells of how Cinderella murdered her first step mother so her father would be forced to marry the house maid instead, this is where the Disney version picks up the tale with Cinderella forced into servitude to her new step mother and spoilt step sisters. A particularly gruesome part of the story that was overlooked in Disney’s rendition is that the step sisters actually cut off their toes and heels so their feet would fit the iconic Glass Slipper, the prince failed to notice this until two of Cinderella’s bird companions point the blood out to the prince and proceed to peck the step sister’s eyes out as punishment for their deception.
The tale of Snow White carries on the Brothers Grimm’s tradition of mixing moral lessons with extreme violence as in the original tale; Snow White is actually killed three times by the Evil Queen. At the beginning of the story, the Queen demands that the Huntsman she sends to kill Snow White bring back her lungs and liver as proof of her death. The Huntsman returns with the liver and lungs of a pig and once convinced that they belong to Snow White, the Queen devours both organs raw.
Upon learning that Snow White still lives, the Queen disguises herself as an old woman in order to get close enough to kill Snow White herself. First by placing a corset on Snow White and drawing the strings so tight that she suffocates but revives once the corset is loosened, second by brushing her hair with a poisoned comb which causes Snow White to fall into a death like sleep, she is awakens when the Dwarves return and remove the comb. The last attempt by the Queen to kill her is the most well-known, The Red Apple, but rather than poisoning her; apple gets stuck in her throat, causing her to suffocate and appear dead. Once placed in her glass coffin, she is away carried by the Dwarves and the Prince for burial. On route however, the Prince trips on a root, shaking the coffin and dislodging the apple stuck in Snow White’s throat returns her to life. The Evil Queen is then punished for her numerous attempts on Snow White’s life by being forced to dance with red hot irons strapped to her feet until she falls over dead.
One more story worth mentioning and another Disney classic is Sleeping Beauty; the animated film follows the story rather closely but leaves out one detail from the original story that allows it to remain child friendly. In the Grimm’s telling, Sleeping Beauty (Aurora for those Disney purists among you) is awakened by the kicking of the twins in her womb rather than the kiss of the Prince as she was impregnated by the Prince (or the King in the Grimm version) while she slept. Surprisingly, the King brings Sleeping Beauty and her children to his kingdom which deeply upsets his wife the Queen. The Queen attempts to have Sleeping Beauty and her children killed but is stopped by the King and banished from the kingdom, who then marries Sleeping Beauty and we all know how that particular song and dance ends.
What is the point of this dive into the shockingly mature origins of some of the most revered childhood tales in the world today? It was to show us that almost every story we are ever told has its roots in times when the world was a much darker and scarier place, times when the wolves were literally at your doors at night and people feared the darkest corners of the land where all manner of ghouls, trolls and ogres dwelt. These old tales also held messages for children that instilled the values of their parents in them, remarrying for whatever reason would bring woe to the children of the previous marriage; chasing true love was doomed to failure and heart ache.
Today’s world may not hold the eldritch, monster infested shadows of the 1800s but now we know that most of today’s monsters wear a human form and so it isn’t too harder to understand why we would want our children to still believe in Happily Ever After.