Fairy tales are a staple of children’s literature with the first exposure to them coming in the form of bedtime stories read by parents. The stories that were recounted by people like the brothers Grimm and Han Christian Andersen are common knowledge to children all over the globe. These authors usually did not write these stories themselves but collected folk tales and retold them.
Many of the stories have dark elements and when, as an adult, I look back on them, they seem quite violent and filled with horrific details of abuse and death. The stories usually have happy endings but getting to it can involve taking a gruesome road as in Little Red Riding Hood for example, where you have the wolf eating her grandmother and her before being killed by a hunter who cuts open its stomach and has them emerging whole.
It turns out that the first edition of the book by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm that was published in 1812 consisted of the original folk tales on which these stories are based. They were much harsher versions of the familiar stories but as the book went through several editions, the stories were prettified and by the time the seventh edition, the one we are familiar with, came around in1857, quite a bit of sanitization had taken place. Of course, once Disney got done with the stories, the transformation to a G-rating was complete.
Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, has now translated the first edition into English and published a book about them titled The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The stories are more gruesome, the familiar happy endings often missing, and some stories are so horrific that they did not make the cut in later editions.
Rapunzel is impregnated by her prince, the evil queen in Snow White is the princess’s biological mother, plotting to murder her own child, and a hungry mother in another story is so “unhinged and desperate” that she tells her daughters: “I’ve got to kill you so I can have something to eat.”
How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat. They offer her slices of bread, but can’t stave off her hunger: “You’ve got to die or else we’ll waste away,” she tells them. Their solution: “We’ll lie down and sleep, and we won’t get up again until the Judgement Day arrives.” They do; “no one could wake them from it. Meanwhile, their mother departed, and nobody knows where she went.”
Rapunzel, meanwhile, gives herself away to her captor when – after having a “merry time” in the tower with her prince – she asks: “Tell me, Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming too tight? They don’t fit me any more.” And the stepmothers of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel were, originally, their mothers, Zipes believing that the Grimms made the change in later editions because they “held motherhood sacred”. So it is Snow White’s own mother who orders the huntsman to “stab her to death and bring me back her lungs and liver as proof of your deed. After that I’ll cook them with salt and eat them”, and Hansel and Gretel’s biological mother who abandons them in the forest.
Cinderella’s stepsisters go to extraordinary attempts to win the prince in the original Grimms version of the tale, slicing off parts of their feet to fit the golden slipper – to no avail, in the end, because the prince spots the blood spilling out of the shoe. “Here’s a knife,” their mother urges, in Zipes’ translation. “If the slipper is still too tight for you, then cut off a piece of your foot. It will hurt a bit. But what does that matter?”
Notice how the mothers were changed to stepmothers in the later editions. This has no doubt created problems for countless stepmothers down the years who have had to fight the prejudice that they do not have the well being of their stepchildren at heart and secretly wish they would go away. Zipes speculates that these and other changes were made in order to delete “all tales that might offend a middle-class religious sensitivity” and that the authors “added many Christian expressions and proverbs”.
Oddly enough, Zipes thinks that the original stories are still suitable for children. I disagree. I had enough problems with reading even the sanitized versions to my children and did my own bit of judicious selection and editing. The originals seem just too much. While children are not as delicate as we may think, I do not see the point in telling them bizarre and bloody horrific fantasies. Discussing real life is hard enough.
NPR had an interview with Zipes.