The Sinister Origins of Our Favorite Fairy Tales
If you’re studying – or plan to study – a degree in English Language and Literature, you’re presumably a very keen bookworm and anything from Shakespeare to fascinating modern-day novels are likely to take your fancy.
If you grew up watching Disney movies or you’ve had cozy bedtime stories read to you, then you’re probably allowed to discover the dark and disturbing truths behind all of your favorite childhood folktales – not that I’m here to ruin your childhood or anything.
1. Snow White & the Seven Dwarves
In Walt Disney’s 1937 animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, I think it would be safe to say that the wicked witch pretty much occupied all our nightmares growing up – actually, the storyline wasn’t far from the original 17th and 19th century versions by Giambattista Basile and the Brothers Grimm.
What many of us probably don’t know is that in earlier adaptations of the story, the wicked Queen is in fact Snow White’s biological mother – making the woman’s actions that much creepier. Luckily, the animated Disney film, like in most other versions of the story, portrays her as a stepmother – though it doesn’t censor the horrific attempted murder at the beginning, when the wicked Queen orders her huntsman to take Snow White into the woods, kill her, and bring back her heart as proof of his deed.
In the original story by the Brothers Grimm, the Queen summons the huntsman to the woods, not to kill Snow White and bring back her heart in a pretty little box; but to bring back her lungs and liver so that she may cook them with salt and devour them…nice. But there’s more: when the Queen attends Snow White’s wedding in the end, the young bride decides to get her own back by heating a pair of iron shoes and giving them to the Queen to dance in. Of course, her feet were horribly burned, and she essentially ended up dancing herself to death – now that’s unsettling.
This was my all-time favorite fairy tale when I was a child, and probably still is. All classic versions of the story pretty much revolve around the beautiful and kind-hearted Cinderella, her evil stepmother, her ugly stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a handsome prince, and a few mice and a pumpkin. When Cinderella is met with her stepsisters’ ill-treatments, she runs off into the garden to sob, after which a fairy appears and works all sorts of her magic to transform Cinderella’s misery into a fanciful dream-come-true.
Whether we’re discussing the very first ‘Cinderella story’ in ancient China, or the 17th century (very watered-down) adaptation by French storyteller Charles Perrault, the main point of focus in this widely-loved fable has undoubtedly always been one: That shiny slipper, which ultimately becomes Cinderella’s ticket to her happily-ever-after.
In Giambattista Basile’s edition, Cinderella is a cold-blooded killer who snaps her stepmother’s neck with the lid of a dressing trunk, at the orders of her scheming governess. The governess then gets to marry Cinderella’s father, and banishes his daughter to the kitchen. All the main elements to the story (i.e. the grand ball and a handsome prince) are left intact, except that the lost slipper is patent and fur, not glass.
In the Grimm Brothers’ 19th century version, Cinderella’s jealous stepsisters mutilate their own feet to fit the slipper, and their eyes are pecked out by birds. Lovely.
3. Sleeping Beauty
Like most other fairy tales, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a tale of good versus evil, love and fate. Its music is inspired by Russian classical composer, Tchaikovsky, and is as lovely and as innocent as can be.
However, you can bet that the original 17th century adaptation of the story is anything but innocent – and of course, it was created by none other than the man himself: Giambattista Basile.
The story, then titled Sun, Moon, Talia, begins the way we know it today: Princess Talia is condemned upon birth to have her finger pricked by a splinter, which will send her into an eternal slumber. Her devastated father lays his beloved daughter to rest in a velvet chair, and vows to leave the castle and never return. The story goes pear-shaped from then…
No, the princess isn’t awoken by true love’s first kiss; instead, a king from a nearby kingdom happens to stumble upon the abandoned castle, where he lay eyes on the sleeping beauty for the first time and is so seduced by her good-looks, he rapes and impregnates her. While still asleep, the princess gives birth to twins, Sun and Moon – one of which, searching for breast milk, sucks the splinter out of his mother’s finger and breaks the evil spell. Of course, the king returns to see Talia, and is subsequently thrilled at what he had accomplished.
You know, it’s a really good thing most people haven’t heard of these original fairy tale adaptations…
4. Peter Pan
We all know Peter Pan as the mischievous boy who never wants to grow up – but how far was the boy willing to go to preserve youthfulness?
In a novel titled The Little White Bird, written for adults by J.M. Barrie in 1902, Peter Pan appeared as an infant. Readers fell in love with the character, which prompted Barrie to write a separate play in 1904, titled Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. It featured much of today’s well-known characters, including Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, and was later adapted into the book as we know and love today.
However, there’s a very dark side to Pan that we haven’t seen (until now, of course). The Peter Pan adaptation we grew up adoring luckily failed to mention the scope of the boy’s obsession with not wanting to grow up. In Neverland, growing up is literally against the rules, and when Peter Pan discovers that the Lost Boys had begun to show signs of growth – he unremorsefully kills them. At some point later in the story, Pan is left to drown, and Hook is scoffed by a crocodile.
And that, my friends, is the real story of Peter Pan. It’s believed that Barrie’s own childhood trauma of losing his brother was reflected in his writing, and in one of Peter Pan’s most famous quotes in the novel: To die, would be an awfully big adventure.
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This article was originally published in February 2019 . It was last updated in January 2020