The Good, the Bad, and the Gross: Dark Origins of Our Favorite Fairy Tales
We’re all familiar with at least some aspects of most fairy tales. After all, who hasn’t seen a Disney movie complete with singing princesses and their trusty dancing spoons? To some, these stories are perfection and you don’t mess with perfection. But alas, the original creators of these beloved tales weren’t thinking about singing teacups and whistling puppies. No, these writers were a bit more, shall I say, Grim(m)?
To start on the relatively tame side, we have the story of Rapunzel, the long-haired beauty held captive in a tower by a wicked witch, who’s eventually saved by a handsome prince. The original tale doesn’t start all too differently except that she isn’t rescued the first time the prince comes by—in fact, the prince comes by a lot, and ends up getting our girl pregnant (he doesn’t rescue her though—she’s fine up there, captive in her tower).
At a certain point, as many of you know, it becomes difficult to hide a pregnancy. The witch, being of sound mind and good vision, realizes that a man must have been stopping by the castle and flies into a rage that culminates in chopping off Rapunzel’s hair (something of a scalping, actually) and banishing her to wander the wilderness forever.
But that’s not all! Not satisfied with simple banishment, the witch plants a trap, throwing Rapunzel’s stolen hair over the balcony when the prince comes a-knockin’. As soon as the prince reaches the top of the tower, the witch pushes him back out the window, where after falling a great distance, he manages to survive, but has his eyeballs pricked out by rose bushes. Romantic!
The Pied Piper
Long ago, a town called Hamelin had a rat problem—a really big rat problem (the rats themselves may not have been big, but there were a lot of them). Being a responsible man, the town’s mayor decided the rats needed to go, and called upon the Pied Piper to lure the rats out of Hamelin with his pipe.
The Piper says “okey dokey” and charms the rats out of the town and into a nearby river to drown. Now that was all well and good, but for reasons unbeknownst to us, the mayor refused to pay the Piper as much money as he had originally promised. Understandably, the Pied Piper is upset by being stiffed of his fee. Not understandably, the Piper decides to exact his revenge by luring the children of Hamelin into the river and drowning them as he did the rats.
On a historical note, it is believed that this story was written in an attempt to explain why so many children in this region went missing with great frequency. While it’s doubtful that children were actually lured to their deaths by a rat-charmer, the fact remains that there were a lot of disappearing children and that’s concerning in and of itself.
…We’ll get to infanticide a little later.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
We all know Snow White, the beautiful stepdaughter to the king’s jealous new wife, ends up banished to the forest to be killed. Well, according to canon, the jealous stepmother was actually Snow’s birth mother, which is somehow a little creepier. Also creepy: not only was the huntsman sent to abandon Snow in the woods but he was also supposed to kill her, extract her liver and lungs, and bring the organs home for her mother’s dinner. Nothing like a little cannibalism among family.
Fast forward to the bit with the poisoned apple putting Snow White to sleep. Originally the apple wasn’t meant to promote beauty rest, but rather a case of dead-ness. Fortunately for Snow White, she had a little magic and a lot of luck on her side. A prince miraculously discovered the beautiful girl and came to her aid. When attempting to lift the girl, he did an accidental Heimlich Maneuver and dislodged the apple. Somehow, in spite of being dead to the world for some time, Snow began breathing again and fell in love with her rescuer, immediately agreeing to marry him (does anyone else have problems getting dates?).
At the wedding, the evil queen arrives, not realizing who it is that her prince is marrying (ignore the hints of incest). At the wedding, the wicked wench is forced into a pair of shoes that had been cooking over a fire and is made to dance in the burning shoes until she literally drops dead.
The beginning of this tale is well known, save for the fact that instead of glass, the famous shoe was actually made of gold. Where the story gets a little tricky is when it comes to the trying on of the gold/glass slipper.
Of course, the prince searches the kingdom and doesn’t find the proper foot for the slipper. Eventually he comes to Cinderella’s house. Cinderella is pushed behind her stepsisters in their dash to try on the shoes. To understand the motive behind their coming actions one has to understand that since the prince has already been to every other house in the kingdom, the stepsisters have figured out that the shoe somehow belongs to Cinderella (they know that neither of them was dancing in slippers of gold/glass). And since they also know that their stepsister has smaller feet than they, the sisters decide to do something drastic. They decide to cut up their feet—the oldest sister chops off her toes and the younger stepsister slices off her heels. While the shoes do end up fitting, the dripping blood somehow tips off the prince that these are not actually the feet he’s looking for.
Eventually, the prince learns of Cinderella and has her try on the shoes, which of course fit perfectly. To end the tale, the prince marries Cinderella and the stepsisters are left with their dismembered feet and probably terrible balance. To add insult to injury, Cinderella’s pet doves dive-bomb the stepsisters and peck out their eyes during Cinderella’s wedding ceremony.
Like all fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty is a little messed up from the get-go. A wicked witch puts a baby girl to essentially an eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday (I say “eternal” because she’s doomed to sleep until her true love’s kiss, but no one can really fall in love with you when you’re unconscious). This was done all because she didn’t get invited to this kid’s birthday party—and that could be because the king and queen were worried that exactly this sort of thing would happen. But I digress.
I will give the newer version some credit for leaving out the, for lack of a gentler term, sexual assault. In the first version of Sleeping Beauty, our heroine is alone and asleep in a random room in the castle (in this version, she isn’t the princess, but the daughter of a nobleman). During some wandering of the castle (we assume), the king found her. When he found he could not wake the girl, he decided to have sex with her, and possibly a few times—Beauty gave birth to two children while still asleep.
In the end, Beauty is only woken due to random circumstance; one of her children sucked on her finger and inadvertently removed the magic splinter that was keeping her asleep. To his credit, the King was really happy when Sleeping Beauty awoke from her nap and decided he wanted to be with her. Of course, being married in the days before legal divorce made it difficult for him to be with Beauty, so he went ahead and boiled his wife to death.
In all fairness though, his wife did apparently try to cook his illegitimate children for dinner a couple times without his knowledge, so maybe she had it coming.
Hansel and Gretel
The earliest hints of this tale start to appear around the beginning of the Middle Ages and star not only an evil witch, but also her husband, the Devil.
Like in many versions of the story, little Hansel and his sister Gretel are led into the forest to be abandoned by their parents. In this version, however, instead of finding a house of candy, they were lured into a house by a woman with promises of food and a warm place to sleep (“stranger danger!”). It all went downhill from there when it quickly became apparent that there were no beds for the kiddos to sleep on, but cages to keep them in while they fattened for the witch’s husband (again, the Devil).
It seems that the Devil preferred his meat raw, so when it came time to make the children into a meal, instead of cooking Hansel and Gretel, the witch instead planned to tie them to a sawhorse and bleed them to death. Nice. Gretel did not know how to climb aboard the sawhorse, so when the witch attempted to demonstrate, she and Hansel tied the witch down and slit her throat. During their escape from the house, they were chased by the Devil but thwarted his effort by crossing the river, because apparently the Prince of Darkness can’t swim and forgot his floaties.