The Disturbing Origins of Fairy Tales | History Hit

The Disturbing Origins of Fairy Tales

Little Red Riding Hood by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1911
Image Credit: Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 – 1935), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood are some of the first stories many children are told: full of magical goings-on, wicked stepmothers, love stories and the triumph of good over evil, they have captivated imaginations for centuries.

But the original versions of these popular fairy tales were much darker in nature. Originating in European folk stories, often designed to be parables with a moral twist, they featured painful punishments, sadistic parents and children being devoured by wild beasts – hardly the stuff of bedtime stories.

The men who turned these gruesome old tales into popular, family-friendly stories were the Brothers Grimm, and although their fairy tales have also now been augmented and reimagined, their legacy lives on to this day.

Charles Perrault and the first fairy tales

Charles Perrault spent most of his life at the court of Versailles, serving Louis XIV under his finance minister, Colbert. In 1695, Colbert had Perrault removed from office. With his newfound spare time, Perrault began collecting and publishing traditional folktales designed for children, including the volume Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals.

Portrait by Charles Le Brun (cropped)

Image Credit: Charles Le Brun, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oral traditions, including the passing down of stories, were the main method of dissemination for much of the medieval and early modern period: each time stories were told, small details would change, meaning they were constantly evolving and changing over centuries and in different regions.

Perrault penning these stories in ink was probably one of the first times they had been written down and given a fixed form.

The Brothers Grimm

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were German academics in the early 19th century who really popularised fairy tales. Inspired by a surge of Romanticism in Germany, they collected stories from German folklore, many of which were the same or similar to the tales collected by Perrault over 100 years before.

They ‘collected’ their stories by talking to people of all classes, from German peasants to aristocrats, writing down the versions of the stories as they heard them. As time went on, they began to compile and edit them, rewriting passages and removing others. Some believe the brothers added religious and spiritual motifs to the tales, as well as adding elements reminiscent of classical mythology and biblical stories.

During their lifetime, they published multiple editions of Children’s and Household Tales, with the stories changing quite considerably within: some almost doubled in length, and they were increasingly tailored for a young audience, with passages of a violent or sexual nature being removed.

The first edition, published in 1815 contained 86 fairy tales, but by the seventh edition, published in 1857, they had amassed over 210 for their collection. 

When we think of fairy tales, we think of imprisoned maidens, turreted towers, magic spinning wheels, wicked witches and demonic dwarves and dragons. Much of the iconography of these stories, particularly those from Europe, dates back to Medieval times. Some of them, such as the story of Hansel and Gretel, are even rooted in specific events.
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The fairy tales which appear in the compilations of both Perrault and the Brothers Grimm had existed across Europe in various iterations for centuries. But through these new 19th-century compilations, popular pan-European folk stories took on a distinctly Germanic, northern European quality. Largely, they still exist in this Germanised form today.

The idea of the deep, dark, dangerous forest, for example, is rooted in German culture and is a motif which appears in many different fairy tales.

Likewise, French or Latin-sounding fairies, princes and princesses were transformed into Germanic wise women, kings, king’s sons and daughters and enchantresses, all of which sounded more traditionally Teutonic (relating to Germanic northern Europeans) and appealed better to their audience.

Darker classics

Both Perrault and the Brothers Grimm were united in their desire to transform the stories they collected into moralistic tales for social good. They were as much warnings for children to behave themselves as anything else – discipline instilled through fear.

Characters and storylines were adapted in order to reinforce this, although none were actually ever dropped entirely. Some of the classic tales still told today, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White were much darker.

Snow White by Alexander Zick

Image Credit: Alexander Zick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Originally, Little Red Riding Hood was simply eaten by the wolf, a comeuppance for her naivety. Perrault originally moralised it as a warning for pretty young women not to listen to strangers. Similarly, it was Snow White’s mother (not her stepmother) who wanted to eat her lungs and liver, and she meets her comeuppance in the original story by dancing in agony in red hot iron shoes until she falls down dead.

Many of the original versions also had more explicit sexual references or imagery which was cut out swiftly as the compilations were predominantly aimed at children. Stories that involved children being eaten (either by animals or adults) were also censored.

Linguists and historians think the original inclusion of these themes was a reflection of the medieval society in which these folk tales originated, which was much more brutal.

Fairy tales in the 20th century

Many children are familiar with classic fairy tales because of Disney adaptations. The first feature-length Disney film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, released in 1938. Although some of the more violent aspects of the story had been edited out since the first time it was printed by the Brothers Grimm, it remained relatively sombre, with real villains and at times a dark atmosphere.

Disney later went on to adapt many more of the fairy tales found in the collections of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Today, the choices made by Disney’s animators and screenwriters tend to define popular conceptions and representations of these age-old characters and stories.

Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde… How did the popularity of these gothic characters endure for so many years? And where do they originate from?
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Sarah Roller