Hollywood has always taken a keen interest in revitalising fairy tales. The likes of Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent), Snow White (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack the Giant Slayer) have all had a recent makeover on the big screen and, although the idea of these cinematic adaptations changing classic stories for new audiences may seem like just another cynical Hollywood cash grab, this approach is really nothing new. The Brothers Grimm are widely credited with bringing many of the most recognisable Germanic folk and fairy tales to wider attention in the early 19th century. Before these tales were collected, revised and printed by the Brothers, they survived for generations as part of oral tradition and would be changed or altered depending on their audience or to bring them in line with the sensibilities of the time. The stories managed to persist for so long as oral tales because they acted as cultural and national artefacts and they held additional value by instilling cautionary advice into children. It’s not known to what extent the Brothers Grimm changed some original tales for their first publication of ‘Children’s and Household Tales’ in 1812 (although some of their fairy tales can be traced back to earlier published works from other countries), but they themselves went on to rewrite some of their own storytelling to make it more child-friendly and acceptable to a larger audience. As well as the Brothers Grimm revisions, some of the early versions of other fairy tales have sexual and violent content which is truly shocking, and will definitely surprise those who are only used to the modern, sanitized retellings of the stories.
10. The Wolf Eats Little Red Riding Hood
Gustave Doré /public domain
Charles Perrault was France’s answer to the Brothers Grimm. The author collected fairy tales which were popular at the time in French courts and published them in his 1697 work ‘Histoires ou contes du temps passé’ (Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals), and this collection contains the first printed version of Little Red Riding Hood. In Perrault’s tale, a pretty young girl wearing a red riding hood is on her way to her grandmother’s house when a wolf starts talking to her. Although he is tempted to eat the young girl, the wolf knows that he cannot because there are woodcutters working nearby. Instead, he asks her where she is going. The girl points up the road and says that she is going to her grandmother’s house, so the wolf offers her a race to see who can get there first. The girl is pretty nonplussed by this encounter so she doesn’t rush and instead takes her time, picking berries and nuts along the way. Meanwhile, the wolf rushes to the grandmother’s house, imitates the young girl’s voice at the door and, when he is inside, eats her up. When the young girl arrives, the wolf is hiding in the bed and, after imitating the grandmother, he eats her up, too. Unlike later versions (including the one told by the Brothers Grimm), there is no woodsman to save the day and the story ends with Little Red Riding Hood being devoured. Perrault was kind enough to explain the moral of the tale in an epilogue which basically says that young girls shouldn’t trust strangers no matter how “tame, obliging and gentle” they may be because they could still be wolves in disguise.
9. The Little Mermaid Doesn’t Woo the Prince
Helen Stratton /public domain
Hans Christian Andersen was another author who was acclaimed for his fairy tales, although most of his works are far less grisly and disturbing. Nevertheless, the tales still went to some dark places, and this is particularly evident in the Little Mermaid. In the original story, The Little Mermaid saves a prince from drowning and, in an effort to make him fall in love with her, she trades her voice and tail for human legs on which she can dance better than anyone has ever seen. However, each step she takes on them is agonising and feels like knives driving into her feet. She braves the pain and tries to woo the prince by dancing, but he reveals to the Little Mermaid that he is in love with the princess he has been betrothed to because it is she who he believes saved him from drowning. The Little Mermaid cannot tell him the truth and is distraught, but the sea witch offers her the opportunity to become a mermaid again if she kills the prince and lets his blood drip onto her feet. The Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the man she still loves, so she throws herself into the ocean and becomes seafoam.
8. The Gingerbread Man goes on a Rampage
Every child is familiar with the classic tale of the gingerbread man who suddenly comes to life and promptly goes on the run to avoid being eaten. Some countries have produced some interesting twists on the tale by substituting the gingerbread man with their own national delicacies, but the most baffling variation by far comes from Hungary. In the story of ‘The Little Dumpling’, it’s actually not a dumpling that comes to life but rather a big ball of head cheese – a gelatinous cold cut made from various bits of animals. It first eats the family that made it and then rolls through the town, gathering up anyone else it comes across (including a regiment of soldiers and a herd of pigs) and growing in size. In the end, the dumpling is cut open from the inside by a pig farmer it swallows and everyone comes crashing out.
7. Rumpelstiltskin Meets a Grisly End
Many variations of a troublesome imp similar to Rumpelstiltskin exist in different cultures, but the Brothers Grimm are widely credited with bringing the definitive tale to the masses. As the popular story goes, an imp offers to help the daughter of a miller who has been locked in a tower and forced to spin straw into gold. The imp says he will spin the gold for the girl but as payment he demands her first born child. The girl agrees but, years later when the imp returns for the child, she cannot bear to give up her own baby. The imp agrees to leave her alone if in three days’ time she can correctly guess his name. One night, the miller’s daughter overhears the imp singing his name – Rumpelstiltskin – and when she repeats it back to him he gets so angry that he has been bested that he runs away, never to be seen again. Interestingly, unlike other Grimm tales where the brothers made nicer changes to appease critics (many complained that the first edition of their tales contained too much sex and violence and was therefore unsuitable for young audiences), they actually changed the ending to Rumpelstiltskin to make it more disturbing and give the imp a worse comeuppance. The imp gets so angry that he drives his foot into the ground and sinks in the floor up to his waist. Filled with rage, he grabs his foot to free it and pulls so hard he tears himself in two.
6. Cinderella gets her Revenge on her Stepsisters
Cindarella is another fairy tale from Perrault’s ‘Histoires ou contes du temps passé’ and the French author’s original is actually very similar to the Disney version. However, when the Brothers Grimm got their hands on the tale it was given a much grislier twist. Cinderella (who is called “Aschenputtel” – ash fool – by her wicked stepsisters) is aided throughout the story by white birds sent down from heaven by her deceased mother. These birds take the place of the fairy godmother character and give Cinderella the opportunity to attend the lavish King’s ball. After she loses her golden slipper when she runs away from the ball before the strike of midnight, the prince visits every house to see if he can find the maiden who fits the shoe. One of the wicked stepsister’s cuts off her toes in an attempt to fool the Prince and the other cuts off her heel, but the white birds tell the Prince each time and he scolds them for their treachery. He finally comes to Cinderella and when the slipper fits he proposes that they get married. On the way to the wedding, the two white birds fly down and peck at the stepsisters so that they are both blind in one eye. On the way back from the wedding, the birds swoop down again and peck at the stepsister’s remaining eyes so they are both completely blind.
5. The Evil Queen in Snow White Dances Herself to Death
Franz Jüttner (1865–1925)
The Disney version of Snow White is surprisingly faithful to the Brothers Grimm tale as it keeps many of the same elements such as the magic mirror, poisoned apple, seven dwarfs and the huntsman, and it more or less follows the story. However, in the original tale the evil Queen is actually Snow White’s mother (not stepmother) and she orders the huntsman to cut out her liver and lungs so she can serve them at a feast. Also, it’s not a kiss which awakens Snow White from her stupor when she eats the poisoned apple. Instead, the prince is carrying away her glass coffin on horseback and the jostling of the ride dislodges the apple from her throat causing her to wake up (the prince takes the coffin because he is enchanted by Snow White’s beauty, but it’s not exactly clear what he was going to do with her had she not awoke). The Brothers Grimm tale also has a final, nasty twist as when the evil queen attends the wedding between Snow White and the prince, she is forced to wear glowing-hot iron boots and made to dance in them until she drops down dead.
4. Hansel and Gretel Meet an Ogre
Hansel and Gretel is another story widely accredited to the Brothers Grimm, but there are many other folk tales which feature abandoned children fending for themselves. The rise of such stories was likely inspired by the Great Famine of the 14th century where some families had to give up their own children to stay alive, and Hansel and Gretel in particular bears more than a passing resemblance to Perrault’s Little Thumb. The French tale (also known as ‘Hop-o’-My-Thumb’) follows seven siblings who are abandoned by their parents and get lost in the woods. The youngest, Little Thumb, overhears his parent’s plans and leaves a crumb of bread trails back to their house, but it gets eaten by birds. The children eventually come across a house and knock on the door seeking shelter and food. An ogre’s wife lets them inside and tries to hide them under a bed so her husband doesn’t find them, but the mean ogre smells out the children and promises to cook them the next day. That night as the siblings are sleeping in the same bedroom as the ogre’s seven daughters, Little Thumb switches their tatty old hats with the gold crowns the ogres are wearing. In the middle of the night, their father enters the room and feels around in the dark for the children. Feeling the caps, he unknowingly slices the throats of each of his seven daughters and goes back to bed. Little Thumb eventually manages to make a fortune by stealing the ogre’s enchanted boots and the siblings return home to their parents and live happily ever after.
3. Rapunzel Gets Pregnant, the Prince Tries to Commit Suicide
Like so many of their fairy tales, the original Brothers Grimm version of Rapunzel has much more sex and violence. The dashing prince knocks up Rapunzel and hatches an escape plan by bringing a piece of silk to her tower each day so she can eventually create a ladder from the material. However, the wicked witch finds out about the pregnancy, cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and kicks her out into the wilderness. The witch then tries to dupe the prince by drawing him up into the tower with the severed hair. However, when he sees that it is the witch at the top and not Rapunzel, he throws himself from the tower in grief and lands in thorny bushes which blind him. For months, the blind prince wanders the wilderness until he hears Rapunzel’s singing from far away. Rapunzel has given birth to twins in the time that the prince has been wandering lost and blind, and when the two lovers are reunited Rapunzel’s weeping tears restore his sight and the family return to his kingdom to live happily ever after.
2. The Frog Prince is thrown against a Wall
The Frog Prince is another fairy tale which has become increasingly distorted to modern audiences. Recent versions of the story feature a princess who lays a kiss on a frog, breaking a curse which magically transforms the creature back into a handsome prince. The origins of the tale can be traced back to an old Scottish story called ‘The Well of the World’s End’ which first appeared in print in 1549, but the Brothers Grimm ‘The Frog King’ is by far the most popular version of the story. Unlike modern retellings, the princess is very stubborn and sullen, and she reluctantly befriends the frog after it promises to retrieve her favourite golden ball if she becomes his companion. The princess eventually get agitated with the frog after she brings it back home, so she throws it against a wall in temper. This breaks an enchantment and the frog turns into a handsome young prince, who is so grateful to the princess that he marries her. When the story was translated into English by Edgar Taylor in 1823, he changed it so that the frog asks to sleep on the princess’ pillow for three nights. After the third night, he is transformed into the prince. This doesn’t quite explain where or when the popular act of the kiss came into the tale, but most original European versions of the Frog Prince have some act of violence, not compassion, turning the frog into a human (in the original Scottish tale, the frog is decapitated).
1. Sleeping Beauty gets Raped
Henry Meynell Rheam
Based on an Italian fairy tale called ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ first printed in 1634, the original Sleeping Beauty is the titular Talia, the daughter of a great lord. Wise men prophesied that Talia’s life would be threatened by a splinter of flax so her father banishes all traces of the plant from the house. Inevitably, Talia gets a splinter embedded under her fingernail and she drops down seemingly dead. The lord cannot bear to bury his daughter so he keeps her in his estate. One day, a king hunting nearby finds Talia and, unable to wake her, rapes her. She eventually gives birth to children, one of whom sucks the flax splinter from her finger causing Talia to suddenly wake up. The rest of the story continues to deviate from what most people know about Sleeping Beauty, but she eventually marries the rapist king after he kills his wife who is jealous of Talia and tries to kill her and the two illegitimate children. Not quite the fairy tale ending.