We all grew up with an assortment of fairy tales, but how often do we really reflect back on them, and realize what they mean? Most fairy tales have a certain message or takeaway for the reader, but it's not always as innocent as the children's versions may suggest. Here's a look at seven very popular fairy tales, and their often-sinister origins.
Table of Contents
1) Little Red Riding Hood
The Brothers Grimm – who were usually quite happy to produce horror-filled fairy tales – toned the story down. Earlier versions, including Charles Perrault’s 1697 edition, had Little Red Riding Hood cannibalizing her grandmother after the wolf kills the old woman, offering her the intestines.
Another twisted version has her stripping naked at the wolf’s insistence. After she throws her clothes into the fire, he takes her to bed. The wolf then eats her, which is the end of the story. Some literary historians suggest that the tale is cautionary – warning girls to stay away from strangers.
2) The Little Mermaid
Disney cleaned the story up, with The Little Mermaid offering her singing as a swap for human legs, but Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 version has her offering her tongue! Even more startling is that each step she takes is agonizing – like many sharp knives cutting into the flesh of her legs. If she wants to avoid being returned to the ocean, she must marry the prince within 24 hours.
Even though the pain will be excruciating, she decides to dance for the prince – hoping to win his heart. Sadly, the prince goes for another woman. The Little Mermaid’s sisters give her a dagger in order to murder the prince and save herself, but she can’t do it. She returns to the ocean and is transformed into sea foam.
3) Snow White
Snow White might’ve been a real woman, according to Eckhard Sander – a German historian – who states that she was based on Margarete von Waldeck. She was a noblewoman from Bavaria in the 16th century, who fell in love with a prince who became Phillip II of Spain. Her parent’s disapproved, as they thought it to be politically problematic. Margarete died of poisoning at the age of 21.
When it comes to the dwarves, the von Waldeck family apparently owned a copper mine where young children slaved away. Some of them were believed to have suffered from deformities due to the dire conditions in the mines. These children were mocked and called dwarves.
Originally, the Queen discovers Snow White’s existence through talking to her mirror, she sends the Huntsman to kill her and bring back her lungs and liver so she can eat them! Later on, when Snow White takes a bite from the poisoned apple, she falls into a coma and the prince places her in a coffin. While carrying the coffin, a clumsy servant falters and the apple piece is dislodged from her throat. The prince marries Snow White and the evil Queen is forced to dance herself to death at their wedding – wearing searing hot, iron shoes!
4) The Frog Prince
The ending is much more violent in the Brothers Grimm version. In spite of the princess’s lack of interest, the frog prince continues to court her until he gets onto her bed. The princess is so disgusted that she throws him against the wall. This is the act – not a kiss - that transforms the frog into the prince!
What’s worse is that in another version of the story, the princess beheads the frog and leaves him covered in blood and dying, after which he transforms into the prince. No room for a happy ending!
5) Hansel and Gretel
Considered one of the most disturbing of the fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel tells the story of two young children who are at the mercy of poverty and starvation, along with a cruel stepmother who wants them out of her sight. She decides to lead them into the woods and leave them there.
Learning about the plot, the children escape and leave a trail of white pebbles. They come across a house made of candy and cakes which is owned by a cruel witch who wants to fatten them up and eat them!
Apparently inspired by the Great Famine of 1315-1317, where disease and starvation plagued Europe, some resorted to crime and even cannibalism. Many desperate parents had no option but to abandon their children in order to survive.
6) Sleeping Beauty
An unnerving folk tale called “Sun, Moon and Talia” was the basis for Sleeping Beauty. Initially published in 1634 by Italian poet Giambattista Basile, a sliver of flax lodging under Talia’s nail, rather than getting her finger pricked by a spindle. She collapses and appears to be dead, while her grief-stricken father can’t stand the idea of burying her, so he lays her down in one of the beds in his estate.
When a king follows his hunting falcon to the estate, he discovers Talia and tries to wake her up. When she doesn’t respond he decides to rape her, before returning home. While unconscious, she gives birth to two babies, one of which sucks the flax from under her fingernail – bringing her out of her “coma”. Meanwhile, the king who raped her marries a woman who learns about the children and decides to have them killed. She plans to cook them and serve them to her husband! The queen’s cook substitutes lamb for the children. The king discovers his wife’s plot and burns her alive so he can be with Talia. Then the cook gets a promotion.
In the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm published their version of Cinderella, where her evil stepsisters Anastasia and Drizella were more than jealous brats. When the stepsisters try on the slipper in order to try and win the heart of the prince, they slice portions of their feet off to fit the little slipper.
It doesn’t take the prince long to realize the slipper doesn’t belong to them, seeing as it seeps and spills over with blood, resulting in his choosing of Cinderella. If that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face, the stepsisters are then chased by a flock of angry birds, who peck their eyes out for being so nasty!