The Disturbing Origins of 10 Famous Fairy Tales
If you know anything about us, you should know this: we’re suckers for a good story. Luckily, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version , edited by fabulist extraordinaire Philip Pullman and on shelves today, is packed with them, complete with smart commentary and playful prose. While reading, we were struck by how many of our most pervasive stories can be found in the Grimm tales, or even earlier, and also by how much some of the stories have changed along the way — all the blindings and sexual misconduct and death have been mostly scrubbed away. Then again, none of the stories with people getting nailed into barrels and thrown down hills or into ponds have really made it into the mainstream. Take a look at a few terrifying, gruesome, often bizarre early versions of ubiquitous fairy tales after the jump, and maybe you’ll think twice before reading “Little Red Riding Hood” before you go to bed.
In one of the very earliest versions of this classic story, published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile as Sun, Moon, and Talia, the princess does not prick her finger on a spindle, but rather gets a sliver of flax stuck under her fingernail. She falls down, apparently dead, but her father cannot face the idea of losing her, so he lays her body on a bed in one of his estates. Later, a king out hunting in the woods finds her, and since he can’t wake her up, rapes her while she’s unconscious, then heads home to his own country. Some time after that, still unconscious, she gives birth to two children, and one of them accidentally sucks the splinter out of her finger, so she wakes up. The king who raped her is already married, but he burns his wife alive so he and Talia can be together. Don’t worry, the wife tries to kill and eat the babies first, so it’s all morally sound.
Little Red Riding Hood
If you can believe it, the Brothers Grimm actually made this story a lot nicer than it was when they got their hands on it. In Charles Perrault’s version, included in his 1697 collection Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times: Tales of Mother Goose, there is no intrepid huntsman. Little Red simply strips naked, gets in bed, and then dies, eaten up by the big bad wolf, with no miraculous relief (in another version, she eats her own grandmother first, her flesh cooked up and her blood poured into a wine glass by our wolfish friend). Instead, Perrault gives us a little rhyming verse reminding us that not all wolves are wild beasts — some seduce with gentleness, sneak into our beds, and get us there. The sexual undertones are not lost on us — after all, the contemporary French idiom for a girl having lost her virginity was elle avoit vû le loup — she has seen the wolf.
This story is pretty simple: a miller’s daughter is trapped and forced to spin straw into gold, on pain of death. A little man appears to her, and spins it for her, but says that he will take her child in payment unless she can guess his name. In the Grimm version, as retold by Pullman, when the maiden finally figures out Rumpelstiltskin’s name, he reacts rather badly: ‘The Devil told you that! The Devil told you that!’ the little man yelled, and in his fury he stamped his right foot so hard that he drove it into the ground right up to his waist. Then he took hold of his left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.” Ick.
Here, Perrault is much nicer than Grimm — in his version, the two cruel stepsisters get married off to members of the royal court after Cinderella is properly married to the prince. In the Grimm story, not only do the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the glass slippers (surprise, surprise, the blood pooling in their shoes gives them away), but at the end, they have their eyes pecked out by doves. Just for good measure.
First of all, in the original 1812 Grimm version of this tale, the evil Queen is Snow White’s actual mother, not her stepmother. We don’t know, but that makes it a lot more terrifying to us. The Disney version also left out the fact that the Queen sends the huntsman out to bring back Snow White’s liver and lungs, which she then means to eat. And the fact that she’s actually not in a deep sleep when the prince finds her — she’s dead, and he’s carting off her dead body to play with when his servant trips, jostles the coffin, and dislodges the poison apple from SW’s throat. Most notable, however, is the punishment the Grimms thought up for her. When the queen shows up at Snow White’s wedding, she’s forced to step into iron shoes that had been cooking in the fire, and then dances until she falls down dead.
Hansel and Gretel
The version of the story we know is already pretty gruesome — the evil stepmother abandons the children to die in the forest, they happen upon a cannibalistic witch’s cottage, she fattens them up to eat, they outwit and kill her and escape. The Grimm version is basically the same, but in an early French version, called The Lost Children, the witch is the Devil, and the Devil wants to bleed the children on a sawhorse. Of course, they pretend not to know how to get on, so the Devil has his wife (who tried to help the poor kids earlier in the story) show them. They promptly slit her throat, steal all the Devil’s money, and run off.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair. Well, in the Grimm version, she does, a little too often, to a prince, and winds up pregnant, innocently remarking to her jailer witch that her clothes feel too tight. The witch, not to have any competition, chops off Rapunzel’s hair and magically transports her far away, where she lives as a beggar with no money, no home, and after a few months, two hungry mouths to feed. As for the prince, the witch lures him up and then pushes him from the window. Some thorn bushes break his fall, but also poke out his eyes. For all this extra bloodshed, however, there’s still a happy ending.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
In this tale’s earliest known incarnation, there was no Goldilocks — only the three bears and a fox called Scrapefoot, who enters the three bears’ palace, sleeps in their beds and messes around with their salmon of knowledge. In the end, she either gets thrown out of the window or eaten, depending on who’s telling the tale. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the use of the word “vixen” to mean female fox is how we got to Goldilocks, by means of a crafty old woman in the intervening story incarnations.
The Little Mermaid
We all know the story of the little mermaid: she sells her voice for a pair of legs, flops around for a bit, then wins her prince’s heart, right? Well, not exactly. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, she trades tongue for legs all right, but part of the deal is that every step will be nearly unbearable, like walking on sharp swords, and the day after the prince marries someone else, she’ll die and turn into sea foam. Hoping to win the prince’s heart, she dances for him, even though it’s agony. He claps along, but eventually decides to marry another. The mermaid’s sisters sell their hair to bring her a dagger and urge her to kill the prince and let his blood drip onto her feet, which will then become fins again. She sneaks up on him, but can’t bring herself to do it. So she dies, and dissolves into foam. Later, Andersen changed the ending, so that the mermaid becomes a “daughter of the air” — if she does good deeds for 300 years, she can get a soul and go to heaven. Many scholars find this rubbish.
The Frog Prince
Traditionally the very first story in the Grimm Brothers’ collection (and so it is in Pullman’s), this story is simple enough: the princess kisses the frog, out of the goodness of her heart, and he turns into a prince. Or, if you’re reading the original version, the frog tricks the resentful princess into making a deal with him, follows her home, keeps pushing himself further and further onto her silken pillow, until finally she hurls him against the wall. Somehow, this action is rewarded by his transformation into a prince, but it’s not even the most violent. In other early versions, she has to cut off his head instead. That’s rather far off from the traditional kiss, don’t you think?