Beyond Magic Slippers and Poison Apples: The Dark Truth Behind Our Favorite Disney Fairy Tales
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Beyond Magic Slippers and Poison Apples: The Dark Truth Behind Our Favorite Disney Fairy Tales

For those who grew up under the wondrous cinematic spell cast by master cartoonist Walt Disney, the world of faery tales and fables appears to be a veritable wonderland created just for kids. Indeed, the happily-ever-after realms of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella, make it easy to assume that the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Anderson were born to create wondrous realms where children could let their imaginations run wild. But what most parents and children are unaware of it that most of these beloved classic stories were in fact not written for children at all, and many of those that were, were meant as cautionary tales designed to frighten children into obeying their parents.

For those who grew up under the wondrous cinematic spell cast by master cartoonist Walt Disney, the world of faery tales and fables appears to be a veritable wonderland created just for kids.

Indeed, the happily-ever-after realms of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella, make it easy to imagine that the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Anderson were born to create wondrous realms where children could simply let their imaginations run wild.

But what most parents and children are unaware of is that most of these beloved classic stories were in fact not written for children at all, and many of those that were, were meant as cautionary tales designed to frighten children into obeying their parents. 

In fact, many of these now-classic tales were actually banned from polite society in their original forms, deemed far too disturbing, risqué, or violent. 

Here are ten such tales that may make you think twice about the Disney legacy and the role faery tales have come to serve in popular culture.

Beauty and the Beast (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve)

In Villeneuve's original tale, the Beast is a prince who lost his father at a young age, and whose mother must abandon him to the care of an evil fairy in order to wage war to defend her kingdom. While under the evil fairy’s charge, however, the fairy attempts to elicit sexual favors from the young prince.  When the prince refuses her sexual advances, she transforms him into a beast as punishment. 

In this version, the plotline also reveals that Belle is not really a merchant's daughter (as in modern versions) but the offspring of a king and a good fairy. The wicked fairy had tried to murder Belle so she could marry her father( the king), and Belle was put in the place of the merchant's dead daughter to protect her.  In short, the original version is a tale of sex, attempted murder, deception, and adult-oriented intrigue--and hardly appropriate for children.

Cinderella (Stabo)

In the conclusion of the modern Cinderella fairy tale, the beautiful Cinderella is swept off her feet by the prince, her wicked step-sisters marry two lords, and everyone lives "happily ever after."  But in the popular variation created by the Brothers Grimm, the nasty step-sisters go to the extreme of cutting off parts of their own feet in order to fit them into the glass slipper, thus hoping to fool the prince. The prince is alerted to the trickery by two pigeons who then peck out the step-sister’s eyes, and then end up spending the rest of their lives as blind beggars while Cinderella gets to live in the lap of luxury at the prince’s castle. (Body mutilation?  Sadism?)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Robert Southey)

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In this favored, heart warming tale, we read of pretty little Goldilocks who finds the house of the three bears.  She sneaks inside and eats their food, sits in their chairs, and finally falls asleep in the bed of the littlest bear. When the bears return home and find her asleep, she awakens and escapes out the window in terror. (No harm, no foul.)  But in one of two earlier versions, however, the bears find Goldilocks, rip her apart and eat her, while in the second, Goldilocks is actually an ugly old, deranged hag who upon discovery jumps out of a window--either beaking her neck in the fall, or being quickly arrested for vagrancy and sent to the “House of Correction.”  (This one is more of a home invasion by a deranged and potentially dangerous woman than an unexpected visit by an innocent, hungry and sleepy child.)

Hansel and Gretel (Brothers Grimm)

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"Hansel and Gretel," a traditional German folk story, was published by the Brothers Grimm 1812.  In this version, Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister lured by a cannibalistic witch living deep in the forest in a house made of cake and confectionery. The two children ultimately manage to save their lives by outwitting the sly witch, but not before being enslaved while the witch prepares them for eating.  In an earlier French version, however, called “The Lost Children”  (author unknown) we encounter a devil instead of a witch, who tries to trick the children into lying on a sawhorse he has constructed to bleed the children to death. The children pretend not to know how to get on the sawhorse, so the devil’s wife demonstrates--at which time the children slash her throat and escape.  (Cannibalism AND throat slashing!  Isn’t that nice imagery for a child!)

The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Andersen)

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In the Disney version of this modern classic, the film is about a mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea to gain a human soul and marry the human prince, Eric.  But, in Hans Christian Andersen‘s version, the mermaid witnesses the Prince marry a princess instead and her, which breaks her heart.  While contemplating suicide, her sisters bring her a knife which the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long hair.  If the Little Mermaid slays the prince with the knife and lets his blood drip onto her feet, she will become a mermaid again.

But, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince as he lies with his new bride, and as dawn breaks, instead throws herself into the sea. Her body dissolves into foam, turned into a spirit, a "daughter of the air." The other daughters of the air tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to gain an eternal soul.  (The virtues of choosing suicide because she has lost the man she loves?)

Little Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault)

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The version of this tale that most of us are familiar with ends with Red Riding Hood being saved by the woodsman who happens by and kills the wicked wolf. But in the original French version, the little girl is a young lady who is given mis-direction by the wolf when she asks the way to her grandmother’s house. Foolishly taking the wolf’s advice, she ends up being eaten. This version has no woodsman and no grandmother, just a wolf who succeeds in obtaining dinner. While one could argue that the moral of this story is to never listen to a stranger, historically, this tale was actually written to frighten children from ever venturing beyond their backyards.

The Pied Piper (Brothers Grimm)

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In the popular version of the Pied Piper (of Hamelin), we find a village overrun with rats, its inhabitants at wits end.  As chance would have it, a man arrives just in time and offers to rid the town of the vermin by playing his pipe. Agreeing to pay the piper a vast sum of money, he plays a tune which causes all the rats to follow him out of town--as if hypnotized. When he returns for payment, however, the villagers won’t pay as promised, so the Pied Piper decides to rid the town of the children, too!  While in most modern versions the piper draws the children to a cave outside of town and sends them back once he‘s been paid, in a much darker, earlier version, the piper leads the children to a river where they all drown--except a lame boy who couldn’t keep up.  (Does this ring of pedophilia?  And what's the lesson in an entire town that reneges on a deal?)

Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi)

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In the Disney version of this tale, Pinocchio is the story of a poor old man who made a wooden puppet, a puppet whose goal is to become a real boy.  Pinocchio is given life by a blue fairy who then hires a cricket named Jimminy as Pinocchio's conscience.  Every time Pinocchio does something, Jimminy must keep an eye on the puppet and tell him right from wrong.  But Pinocchio ignores Jimminy sometimes, so he ends up in many wonderous adventures--with his nose often giving him away. 

But in the first rendition of this tale, Pinocchio is made by a poor puppet maker who really doesn't like children much at all.  Shortly after being created, Pinocchio sells his school books for a ticket to a puppet show. During the show, the other puppets greet Pinocchio, disrupting the play, so the director gets angry and wants to use Pinocchio as firewood.  On the way home, Pinocchio meets a cat and a fox with whom he spends the evening at an inn and although Pinocchio doesn't eat much, ends up having to pay for his companions' dinners because they ran off without paying--but not before telling him to meet them at the Field of Wonders. On the way to the Field, Pinocchio is attacked by two assassins who are after his stash of coins. Pinocchio barely escapes by biting off one of the attackers' hands and running away; but the thieves catch up with him and hang him from a tree. After escaping, Pinocchio seeks justice in court, but the Judge sends him to prison for four months. When he gets out, he tries to steal grapes and is caught by the owner of the vineyard, who ties him and makes him his new watchdog. (Clearly, the original Pinocchio is about deceit, brutality, robbery, sadism, and child abuse!)

Sleeping Beauty (Charles Perrault)

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In the original Sleeping Beauty, the lovely princess is put to sleep when she pricks her finger on a spindle. After sleeping for one hundred years, a prince arrives and awakens her with a kiss. In the now classic “fairy tale” ending, they fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after. But in the original, a much different plot develops.

In the Perrault version, the young woman is put to sleep because of a prophesy, rather than a curse.  And it isn’t a prince who approaches her but a king who finds her sleeping body too hard to resist, so he rapes her.  After nine months she gives birth to two children (while still asleep). In this plot twist, one of the two children sucks her finger, removing the piece of flax responsible for keeping her asleep. She awakes to find herself having been raped and the mother of two children. (Obviously, this male chauvinistic tale was never meant for young impressionable minds.)

Snow White (and the Seven Dwarfs) (Brothers Grimm)

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In the popular Disney version of Snow White, the Queen asks a huntsman to kill Snow White (for vanity purposes) and bring her heart back as proof. Instead, the huntsman, who finds he can’t bring himself to do it, returns with the heart of a boar.  In the original tale, however, the Queen actually asks for Snow White’s liver and lungs–which she plans to serve for dinner that night.  Also in the original, Snow White wakes up when she is jostled by the prince’s horse as he carries her seemingly dead body back to his castle–not from a magical kiss. This version ends with the Queen being forced to dance to death in red hot iron shoes! (Let’s see, cannibalism, necrophilia, torture . . .)

References:

The Hard Facts of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar

http://listverse.com/2009/01/06/9-gruesome-fairy-tale-origins/

http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/cinderella-folk-tales-variations-plot-and-setting

http://www.answers.com/topic/fairy-tale

http://disney.families.com/blog/the-disney-fairy-tale-vs-the-original-fairy-tale

Images via Wikipedia.org except where credited otherwise (with my apprecaition)

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Comments (17)

Very nice piece of work. Thanks for sharing.

Marsea

I knew some of the original tales, you enlightened me on others.

If I've informed and entertained, then I'm a happy man!

I think the Pied Piper was based on a Childrens Crusade, the ending was the same, they never returned home and the reality behind that story too is probably horrific.Thank you for making the effort of dealing with so many fairystories. A compelling read.

I have always enjoyed other versions of these tales. The 'Little Mermaid', I know that sad version but the others I think are too gruesome to be televised. These tales made my stomach ache and you know? I would like to keep this article in my blog- of course I'm talking about the link. Awesome stories, thank you. FB liked :)

Glad I could add to your knowledge on this subject, Phoenix! Thanks for the "like"!

Excellent comparison of the origins of these stories, James.

Thanks, Deep Blue for the comment and support!

Quite a fascinating article! I once read a horribly depressing chapter on The Pied Piper, which described how he was actually a mass-murderer. It is interesting to view something like Childrens' Fairy tales from a whole different perspective.

Thanks Gregory. Once you get past the misconception that faery tales were written for kids, it opens up a whole new perspective.

This is great. I never knew about these versions. The only thing I know is that i had read all these stories several times when I was a kid and I loved and enjoyed them then I read them again several times to the kids i am teaching.Thanks

My pleasure, Nicole.

Truly excellent article. i had heard about the sleeping beauty edition but some of these are pretty awful! Really top research on this :D

Thanks, Norma!

well illustrated and informative.thanks

I had no idea the original messages and story contents for my beloved fairy tales were so awful.Thank you for enlightening me.

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