"My own business bores me to death; I prefer other people's" – Oscar Wilde
Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale – Hans Christian Andersen
Fairy Tales have fascinated us for centuries. From Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers to modern day Disney stories – Fairy Tales have always been, and will always be a huge part of culture. They are entertaining to people of all ages, and they always seem to carry a moral undertone.
Something which makes them even more entertaining and even more interesting is learning that our modern day ‘happily ever after’ was not always the fate for some of our unfortunate household characters. It’s like being let into a secret, Cinderella didn’t really marry the prince and ride off in a white carriage, Sleeping Beauty’s spell wasn’t broken by a kiss on the lips by her handsome Prince Charming.
Scores and scores of literature delves into the deep and dark psychological roots of these folklore, and it is fascinating to read educated perspectives on stories that we have all come to know and love – ones that we never considered breaking down.
If you have never come across this before, prepare to be shocked. The origins of our favourite fairy tales are more horror than fantasy.
Based on the Grimm Brother’s Aschenputtel, this is perhaps the most commonly known.
Aschenputtel’s tale goes that a young maiden’s mother died young, and within one year her father had remarried to a woman with two beautiful stepdaughters. Beautiful on the outside, but black a coal on the inside. The maiden was teased and taunted by her step-mother and step-sisters, and reduced to a servant in her own home. Forced to sleep by the cinders of the fire to keep warm, she became known as ‘Cinderella’.
When her father journeyed into town one day, he brought back gifts for his girls. The two step-sisters had requested beautiful dresses and jewellery, while Cinderella asked merely for the first branch which knocked the hat off his head on his way home. This he brought back and she planted in her mothers grave, from which it grew into a grand tree.
A ball was organised in the town to help the young prince find a bride. All the young beauties were invited, including the step-sisters. Cinderella begged to go, but was only teased by her step-sisters and given empty promises by her step-mother. Cinderella called upon the help of the doves who lived in the tree rooted in her mothers grave, and they made her a stunning gown with crystal slippers, and she went to the ball in secret.
We all recognise the tale up to now, and we can all predict that she left her slipper behind in a rush to escape from the prince who adored her. After this, however, we may notice a few alterations to our Disney version of the story.
The prince journeyed to all the homes of the young maidens who had attended the ball in search of his love, and with him he took the crystal slipper. Whoever’s foot fit into the slipper was to be made his bride.
The slipper did not fit the first step-sister. So the step mother handed her a sharp knife, and told her to cut off her large toe to make the size. She told her that once she was the Queen she wouldn’t be doing much on her feet, so it was a small sacrifice to pay. So the first step-sister cut off her own toe, and the slipper fit her perfectly. The prince rejoiced and took her away with him, only to see that there was blood dripping from the front of the slipper. The slipper didn’t fit the second step-sister either. Again, the step-mother placed a sharp knife in her hand and told her to slice off the back of her heel. Again, the second step-sister did so and the slipper fitted perfectly, and the prince took her away with him. However, the prince noticed blood dripping down the back of the slipper.
Cinderella was called upon and the prince watched as she slid the shoe on perfectly. They were married and lived happily ever after.
But what happens to the step-sisters? At the grand Royal wedding, the step-sisters are attacked by birds, and both have their eyes plucked out. Condemned to live in blindness for the rest of their lives for their wickedness and falsehood.
Our Disney version of Snow White is not so different from it’s original form. The main differences can be found only at the end. Snow White is placed in the famous glass coffin by her loyal seven dwarfs, and set upon a hillside so that many may see her. She is spotted by a prince who falls in love with her, and the dwarfs allow him to take her with him. Along the road the carriage goes over a bump, which dislodges the poisoned apple from her throat and brings her back to life.
The evil step-mother, who was actually her own mother in the original, attends the wedding of a neighbouring prince because she hears that his bride is the most beautiful in all the land. Upon discovering that the bride is Snow White whom she thought was dead, she is thrown into a bitter rage, and forced to wear hot iron plates which make made her dance until she dropped down dead.
As with the other fairy tales so far, the beginning is on the whole very similar. Although the young princess is put to sleep by a prophecy rather than a curse. As the original tale goes, she is awoken after 100 years by the loving kiss of her devoted prince. This kiss breaks the charm, and the entire castle who had been lying unconscious, are awoken.
According to the brothers Grimm, the sleeping princess was not awoken by a kiss. She remained asleep while the princess molested and raped her, she continued to remain unconscious throughout her nine month pregnancy term, and still didn’t wake up as she was giving birth to her twin children. It is only when one of her children sucks on her finger tip, and removes the lodged splinter of wood that she is awoken.
The Little Mermaid
While our best known version of The Little Mermaid has its own highs and lows, with some very distinct and sinister moments remaining, it is a huge step away from the original by Hans Christian Andersen. Our little red-headed sea-friend trades in her life among the mer people to have legs and live on land with the handsome prince with whom she has fallen so madly in love. However as a consequence of her actions, she is not able to walk on her legs without experiencing extreme levels of agony – her experience is described as walking on knives.
And if this wasn’t cruel enough, the prince doesn’t choose her. He marries another woman, and leaves the little mermaid unloved. At which point she is so distraught, that she throws herself back into the ocean to live as she had once before. However when she touches the water she turns to ocean froth. As part of her spell she would never have been able to return to a life under the sea.
These are only the most popular fairy tales dispelled. There are many many more of these. From the myth of Pocahontas and John Smith to the family favourite Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
It is clear that these tales were passed down generation to generation by oral tradition. Brothers Grimm were one of the first to write the tales down, to get the documented and standardised. You will find many replicas of these famous tales across multiple cultures. From a Vietnamese Cinderella to a Finnish ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’, the variations are almost endless. And extremely interesting.
The stories were certainly spread by a thicker skinned generation. One who had to deal more directly with physical threats, and used the tales to warn of the dangers in living under-cauticously. All stories carry a moral lesson, and those that are infused with incest and sadistic behaviours are all the more memorable.
This leads us to consider that if our fairytales are deep rooted in a dark past, is it the same with other genres of our literary culture? More on this to follow…
This is a topic which has aroused a lot of online discussion, and below I have listed below some other interesting blogs:
Listverse’s ‘Top 10 Gruesome Fairy Tale Origins”
Mental Floss’s “8 Fairy Tale’s and their not so Happy Endings”