Grimm and grimmer

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.


  1. elly says

    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.

    Based on my own experience, I’d say that the appropriateness depends very much on the age of the children involved.

    When I was around 11 or 12 (late 1968 -- 1969), I came across the “Harvard Classics” volume devoted to “Folklore and Fable” (my parents owned the whole “five foot shelf” of books) and very quickly got hooked on the unsanitized Grimm stories therein. I already knew were horribly violent (thanks to a “Horizon” article on the Grimm brothers by Anthony Burgess), but that was what made them so interesting to me. I was fascinated by the differences between (what were more-or-less) the original folk tales and the neutered (and rather boring) versions I’d grown up with. Those stories gave me a glimpse into a past that was far grittier than I ever realized; which made them far more authentic and appealing than their “Disney-fied” counterparts.

    FWIW, I suspect the Grimm stories had a lot to do with the interests I ultimately developed in history and sociology. They were living proof (so to speak) that many of the things I “knew” from TV and other media had been deliberately altered by others, in ways that were difficult to discern without digging in and doing research. What was done to archaic German folk tales was also being done to the history I was learning in school and even much of the news that I was haphazardly exposed to. That was actually a pretty good lesson for a preadolescent to learn, IMHO.

  2. Ed says

    I personally enjoy the originals as literature and an interesting look into the psychology of another time period and value system, but children should read something else.

    At the same time, I think the cleaned up, Disney-type revisions of these stories are worse than the originals which are almost impossible to take seriously as offering any kind of moral advice to a civilized person. They’ll give the kids nightmares, but the “nice” versions will smuggle in bad ideas unless they are so revised that they’re “Cinderella” or “Snow White” in name only.

    Another thing is that the modernized versions are more classist. Unless they had a specific reason to be about the nobility, the Grimm`s stories featured ordinary people.

  3. lorn says

    In my view a central theme of those Grimm stories is avoidance of easy labels and automatic faith in authority figures. Yes, parents and princes may generally be helpful but at some point their interests and yours may part ways. It is generally best to be diligent, cooperative and helpful but to also maintain some skepticism while protecting your own interests and avoiding being a victim.

  4. says

    G-rating (or is that just “grating?) aside, a lot of the fairy stories (especially handled by Disney) just get creepier, with their insidious gender-role programming and implications that if you believe or try hard enough, you can do anything. Never mind the princess-disease, where every girl should see herself as a princess and, of course, royalty and aristocracy is a good thing.

  5. machintelligence says

    Actually, mothers are significantly more likely to kill their step children than their biological offspring. Perhaps this was reflected in the re-writing of the tales.

  6. HCAndersen says

    Just an little nitpicking from a Dane, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales were actually his own creation, not based on older folk tales. Many do not feature happy endings of course, and this may well be based on his experiences starting life very poor. And last, his tales were not meant for children but for adults.

    On another note, I do find that the original fairy tales are much more alive than the sanitized versions, and that they give voice to many real issues that real people need to process, some of those people unfortunately still children. I think it is fair to say that some mothers are mentally and emotionally, if not physically doing the things to their children that are described quite well in the old tales, and since we have such a taboo about this, it may be entirely appropriate for a kid to find their experience mirrored in the tales.

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