The following article was published in the wonderful (and free!) InD’tale Magazine, “serving self and small published with a romantic flair.” To read more and sign up for a digital subscription (Did I mention it’s free?), visit www.indtale.com.
When you think of “clean reads,” do you immediately picture a handsome knight rescuing a gorgeous damsel, placing her gracefully atop his snowy white steed, and trotting off to their standing-room-only wedding by the sea? Do you think of fairy tales in which good conquers all, true love never dies, and beauty (even if disguised at first) is the ultimate sign of virtue?
If so, you might be in for a rude awakening (though not nearly as rude as the first Sleeping Beauty’s, as you’ll soon find out). That’s because many of the wholesome, Disneyfied fairy tales we know and love are actually hiding much darker pasts—pasts filled with sex, violence, and terrifyingly inventive ways to kill people. Put it this way: if your kids read the original tales before bedtime, you’ll be calming their screams until morning!
I stumbled upon these grisly origins while doing research for Desperately Ever After, which takes our most beloved fairy tale characters and imagines what happened to them when the wedding bells stopped ringing. From Hans Christian Andersen to the Brothers Grimm, consider these the skeletons buried deep in the back of Walt Disney’s closet.
Fair warning: you may experience loss of innocence.
While Charles Perrault was kind to Cinderella’s stepsisters, a quick flip through the Grimm brothers’ tale might indicate that they believed in a penal code known as “eye for a head.”
In their version of the story, the heroine’s stepsisters are so desperate to squeeze into the prince’s slipper that they hack off chunks of their oversize feet. Unfortunately for them, the pools of blood forming inside the heel give them away rather quickly.
Fine, you might say. That’s gross but it was by their own hand. Surely it makes up for all the horrible things they did to Cinderella as a child.
Perhaps. But this rags-to-riches darling saw things differently. This vengeful Cinderella wasn’t satisfied by maiming. So as her stepsisters hobble down the aisle at the wedding of the century (no doubt flabbergasted to have been invited in the first place), Jacob and Wilhelm’s Cinderella watches birds swoop down and peck out their eyes.
(My only question: Did this happen before or after the flower girl?)
But hey, at least she let them escape with their lives. On Snow White’s big day, the pure-of-heart princess forces her wicked mother (yes, biological mother in the original story), to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead.
While the Grimms’ lessons may have been well intended (I mean, the queen did try to eat Snow White’s entrails), later storytellers opted for a more merciful approach. Walt Disney, for example, sent the evil queen tumbling off a cliff. And yes, he also removed the umbilical cord. Much cleaner.
It was more than just hair that Rapunzel let down in the Grimms’ 1812 tale of the girl locked in the tower.
The start of the story remains largely the same today, but when the original prince climbs up Rapunzel’s locks, he does a lot more than just talk. In fact, it is her burgeoning pregnant belly that tips the witch off to her secret romance! The brothers changed this in 1857 to make it a tad less scandalous. But they kept the lovely part about the prince being thrown from the tower and blinded by thorns. (Are you seeing a theme here?)
And Rapunzel wasn’t the only naughty one back in the day. In Charles Perrault’s 1697 version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf convinces Red to strip naked and climb into bed with him. Then he eats her. Alive.
Moral of the story: Premarital sex leads to agony and death. I wonder why that lesson didn’t last.
I remember the first time I found out the real ending to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. I was flipping through a friend’s book collection at her house when the truth clobbered me over the head like a dropped grand piano. I was instantly devastated, depressed, and livid. The mermaid I’d come to love was named Ariel, hung around with a silly guppy, and got hitched to Prince Eric at the end. They lived happily ever after. It was a fact.
At least this is what I was supposed to believe as a kid.
The original, however, leaves our mermaid nameless, gives her no marine friends, and turns the prince into an oblivious, insensitive fool. Not only does he not realize she’s in excruciating pain (each step feels like walking on knives, Andersen writes), but he leads her on and them marries someone else!
To save herself and go back to her former life, the mermaid must stab the prince to death. But she can’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she lets the stinker live, leaps into the sea (sans fins), and turns into foam.
Years later, Andersen tries to dial down the depression by adding a reference to heaven—but it’s not the same as an ocean of merpeople reprising “Part of Your World” on Ariel’s wedding day.
In Disney’s 1959 “Sleeping Beauty,” Prince Phillip falls madly in love with Aurora before she becomes victim to a witch’s sleeping curse. The noble prince then goes to battle, machetes his way into the castle, and wakes his true love with a G-rated kiss. Squeaky clean, right?
Not so fast. For one thing, it was impossible for the lovers to meet before locking lips in Perrault’s tale because they were born centuries apart. The same goes for Grimm’s, which always made me wonder. Cursed or not, what kind of woman would be happy to wake up covered in dust, in an unfamiliar century, with a strange man’s tongue down her throat? Or, more importantly, what kind of man would stumble upon a comatose woman on a bed and decide it was perfectly within his rights to kiss her?
According to Giambattista Basile, who penned one of the tale’s earliest renditions in 1634, a rapist. That’s who.
In his story, called “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” the princess wakes up not by true love’s kiss, but by one of the twin children she gave birth to (while comatose!) during her slumber. Turns out the prince, having found her in the woods and being unable to rouse her, decided to have sex with her nonresponsive body rather than seek medical attention.
What’s more, he’s married. And when his wife finds out, she attempts to eat the princess and her twin kids. It’s okay though. The prince burns the ball-and-chain alive so he can be with his now conscious Talia and their accidental progeny.
Later on, Perrault ditches the rape scene and turns the cannibalistic wife into the prince’s mother. Now that’s much better, don’t you think?
When it comes to gruesome origins, “Sun, Moon, and Talia” addresses a lot—rape, cannibalism, violent revenge. But I haven’t even mentioned the king who tries to marry his daughter (“The Princess in Disguise”); the man with a penchant for murdering his wives and stowing their bodies in his castle (“Bluebeard”); or the musician who leads dozens of children to a river so they can drown (“The Pied Piper”). Nor did I report that Rumplestiltskin initially tore himself in two, or that a kiss wasn’t what initially turned the frog back into a prince (rather, the princess got so fed up with his refusal to accept “no means no” that she flung him into a wall).
Over the centuries, these tales have had a remarkable journey. Some have been scrubbed clean, some have fallen by the wayside, and some have taken on iconic stature within an ever-changing world. Their continuing evolution at the hands of new storytellers is a testament to their original creators.
As the author of a series that strives to pick up where their stories left off, I can’t thank them enough for their vision. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Laura Kenyon is an award-winning journalist and author of the women’s fiction series Desperately Ever After (on sale for $2.99 through April 13). For more information, visit laurakenyon.com or connect with her on Twitter (@laura_kenyon) and Facebook (laurakenyonwrites).