Set in far-off enchanted kingdoms, fairy tales invoke a sense of wonder. Powerful kings, wicked queens, monsters and all manner of magical beings are among the memorable characters that inhabit these classic stories. To some extent, these tales map the terrain of the human psyche. They resonate with the archetypal hopes, dreams and fears that reside in the collective unconscious.
But many well-known and dearly loved fairy tales aren’t as sweet and uplifting as they might seem. In fact, many of them originated in dark and violent imaginations. And by current standards, some of them verge on taboo. The following ten classic stories – now sanitized for modern audiences – indeed had darker origins. They originally depicted cannibalism, torture, sexual assault, bodily mutilation, infanticide and bestiality. So much for happily ever after.
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Disney’s 1937 animated masterpiece immortalized the tale of Snow White, “the fairest of them all.” After fleeing from her jealous stepmother the wicked Queen, she hides out in the woods with seven friendly dwarves. However, the Queen finds her and tricks her into eating a poisoned apple. Snow White falls into a deathly sleep – until a handsome prince awakens her with “love’s first kiss.”
Naturally, the saccharin Disney animation leaves out several grisly details from the original Brothers Grimm story. For one thing, the Queen employs a hunter to kill Snow White and cut out her lungs and liver. He can’t do it, however, so he delivers the lungs and liver of a wild boar instead, which the Queen triumphantly eats. At the end of the story, the Prince forces the Queen to wear red-hot iron shoes that cause her to dance to death.
9. Sleeping Beauty
Like Snow White, the medieval folk tale of Sleeping Beauty uses the symbolic archetype of an evil queen. In the popular Disney version, Queen Maleficent causes Princess Aurora to fall into “eternal” sleep when she pricks her finger on an enchanted spinning wheel. The only thing that can break the spell is a kiss from a true love. Enter a dashing prince who overcomes adversity to save the day.
However, in the version recorded by Giambattista Basile, a 17th century Italian poet, Sleeping Beauty is not rescued by a prince. Instead, she is raped by a passing king. She subsequently gives birth to twins – and wakes up after one of them sucks the thread from her finger. The king and the princess then fall in love, but his wife jealously plots to kill the children, cook them and feed them to him. She fails, however, and the king burns her at the stake.
Everyone knows the rags-to-riches tale of Cinderella. Tormented by her ugly step-sisters and forced to work as a housemaid, Cinderella wants to go to the royal ball, but her wicked step-mother, Lady Tremaine won’t allow it. And in any case, she hasn’t a ball gown, slippers, horses or a carriage. Luckily for Cinderella, her Fairy Godmother is on hand to weave some magic.
In fact, Cinderella has thousands of variations. The earliest recorded version dates to the seventh century BC and concerns a Greek slave girl who marries an Egyptian Pharaoh. In the much later Brothers Grimm variation, the ugly stepsisters mutilate their feet to try and fit into Cinderella’s discarded glass slipper. One of them cuts off her toes; the other her heel. But their plot ultimately fails. And at the end of the story, birds peck their eyes out.
7. The Pied Piper
The Pied Piper is apparently based on true events that occurred in Hamelin in Saxony, Germany, in the 13th century. It is a story about a musical rat-catcher who clears up an infestation by luring the rodents to a river, where they drown. But when the town refuses to pay him, he lures its children away. In modern versions of the tale, he returns them after an arrangement with the townsfolk.
In fact, there are several sinister variations on the story’s resolution. In one version, the titular character leads the children into a mountain cave where they disappear forever. In another, he drowns them in the river. And in a different version, he coerces them to fight in the Crusades. Meanwhile, since rats and their fleas are vectors for the bubonic plague, it has been speculated that the Pied Piper is a symbolic personification of the Black Death.
6. Hansel and Gretel
The Brothers Grimm popularized Hansel and Gretel, a tale about the young children of a woodcutter. Cast out alone into the woods by their mother, the children stumble on a gingerbread house belonging to a witch. She lures them inside, takes them captive and tries to fatten them up for her dinner. However, Hansel and Gretel eventually outsmart her and push her into an oven, where she burns to death.
The Brothers Grimm version is dark, but an earlier French version is even worse. Instead of stumbling on a cannibal witch, Hansel and Gretel encounter the devil himself. He takes them hostage with the intention of cutting them to pieces on a sawhorse. However, the children manage to persuade the devil’s wife to climb onto the sawhorse first. They then cut her throat and make a successful getaway.
In 2010, the Brothers Grimm story Rapunzel was adapted to a Disney animated feature called Tangled. It concerns the fate of Rapunzel, a beautiful maiden with extraordinarily long hair. Rapunzel is kept prisoner by a witch inside a tower. And her hair is so long that the witch uses it as a ladder whenever she wants to climb up to her room. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair,” she calls up to her.
Naturally, Rapunzel is eventually rescued by a prince. But in the original version, the prince first gets her pregnant. And when the witch finds out about their sneaky trysts, she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and banishes her. She then pushes the prince from the tower. He hits the ground, pokes his eyes out in some thorns and drifts around blind until he finds Rapunzel by the sound of her voice.
4. The Little Mermaid
The 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, a defiant teenage mermaid who longs to experience life on land. But her father, King Triton forbids her from visiting the surface. She does so anyway and ends up falling in love with a human prince. And the only way she can be with him is to make a Faustian pact with a sea witch, who transforms her into a human for three days.
However, Disney left out scores of details from the original Hans Christian Andersen version. For one thing, Ariel’s pact with the sea witch demands that she gives up her tongue. For another, every step is excruciating, as if she’s walking on broken glass. If she doesn’t win the prince’s heart, their agreement states she will die. In fact, she does fail, and is transformed into sea foam.
The story of Rumpelstiltskin concerns a miller’s daughter who is taken captive by a king after her father boasts she has the power to spin straw into gold. In fact, she has no such abilities, but the king still demands she spins him a room full of gold. Fortunately for her, a magical elf called Rumpelstiltskin turns up to make her an offer: he’ll turn the straw to gold in exchange for her firstborn child.
The miller’s daughter strikes his deal, delivers the gold and subsequently marries the king. Rumpelstiltskin later turns up to claim their first child, but queen refuses to hand him over. So he offers a compromise – if she can guess his name, he’ll leave her alone. She eventually outwits the elf and “guesses” his name correctly. In the Brothers Grimm version, he flies away on a ladle. But in an earlier, darker version, he stomps his foot in rage, plunges it deep into the earth and then tears himself in half.
2. The Ugly Duckling
Penned by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1843, The Ugly Duckling is a well-loved fairy tale about individuality and personal transformation. Appearing different from other young ducks, the titular character is mocked and shunned by his peers. Until one day the duckling grows up to become a beautiful swan.
The story has been told many times over the years and two Disney films are among the renditions. However, most accounts water down the level of abuse depicted in the original version. And in one particularly dark turn, the wild ducks and geese who mock the protagonist are slaughtered by a group of hunters.
1. Little Red Riding Hood
Everyone knows the story of Little Red Riding Hood, an old and popular tale about a young girl who meets a cunning wolf while wandering alone in the woods. The wolf eats her grandmother, dresses in her grandmother’s clothes, lures the naïve Red Riding Hood into her bed and eats her too. Fortunately, a woodcutter bursts in, cuts open the wolf and saves both the girl and her grandma.
However, in much earlier versions of the story that perhaps date to the 10th century, the wolf also tricks Red Riding Hood into eating her grandmother’s flesh. In another version, he makes her strip naked before eating her, changing the story into an apparent morality tale about female promiscuity. And in another version, no one comes to Riding Hood’s rescue. She is eaten by the wolf. The end.