The Brothers Grimm were Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German professors of linguistics, who became best known for collecting folk and fairy tales. In the course of their work on linguistics which included an analysis of how words change their sounds over the course of time, they found that one of the best ways to get older people to talk to them and share the sounds of their dialects was to ask them to tell the stories that had been passed down to them. The brothers kept a record of these stories and eventually published them in 1812 under the title Kinder- und Hausmärchen. They followed this with an update in 1814. The Grimms’ collection of tales consists mainly of Germanic tales but includes a number of French tales as well. The stories were not intended primarily for children. They contain witches, trolls, goblins, and wolves who prowl dark forests. Some of the tales were quite explicit and were rewritten by the brothers to better reflect what was considered appropriate for their time. Many translations exist, but most of these are attempts to make the stories into harmless entertainments for children. The original tales are often very dark and do not make any attempt to avoid frightening their listeners, regardless of age.
The Pied Piper (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812)
In the tale of the Pied Piper, we have a village overrun with rats. A man arrives dressed in clothes of pied (a patchwork of colors) and offers to rid the town of the vermin. The villagers agree to pay a vast sum of money if the piper can do it – and he does. He plays music on his pipe which draws all the rats out of the town. When he returns for payment – the villagers won’t cough up so the Pied Piper decides to rid the town of children too! In most modern variants, the Pied Piper draws the children to a cave out of the town and when the townsfolk finally agree to pay up, he sends them back. In the darker original, the Pied Piper leads the children to a river where they all drown (except a lame boy who couldn’t keep up). Some critics say that there are connotations of pedophilia in this fairy tale. The story may reflect a historical event in which Hamelin lost its children; thus the Pied Piper may be a symbol of the children’s death by plague or other catastrophe (such as the disastrous Children’s Crusade, led by Nicholas of Cologne – symbolized again by the Pied Piper).
The Little Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault, 1697)
The Grimms’ version of this tale that most of us are familiar with ends with Red Riding Hood being saved by the woodsman (or the huntsman) who kills the wicked wolf. But in fact, the original French version (by Charles Perrault) of the tale was not quite so nice. In this version, the little girl is a „well bred young lady” who is given false instructions by the wolf (who was sometimes a werewolf or an ogre) when she asks the way to her grandmother’s cabin. Foolishly Red Riding Hood takes the advice of the wolf and ends up being eaten. And here the story ends. There is no woodsman – no grandmother – just a fat wolf and a dead Red Riding Hood. And the wolf represents a sexual predator. In those days, a girl who lost her virginity was said to have „seen the wolf” and Perrault makes his moral explicit at the end. In an Austrian version Little Red’s granny is killed and eaten before Little Red arrives. Granny’s entrails are used to replace the string on the door latch and her teeth, jaws and blood stored in her cupboard. When Little Red arrives, she is hungry and so is directed to eat her dead grandmother’s teeth (rice) and jaw (chops) and drink her blood (wine). Fake granny then invites Little Red to get naked and climb into bed with her, where as the story puts it, Little Red “noticed something hairy”. Shortly after the unfortunate girl is devoured in a single gulp, with no rescue. The moral to this story is to not take advice from strangers: „From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers”.
The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Andersen, 1836)
The 1989 version of the Little Mermaid might be better known as “The big whopper!” In the Disney version, the film ends with Ariel the mermaid being changed into a human so she can marry Eric. They marry in a wonderful wedding attended by humans and merpeople. Forget the happy capers of Disney’s Ariel and Flounder – the original tale is a gory and depressing story about self-sacrifice and agony of love. In the very first version by Hans Christian Andersen, a young mermaid visits the sea’s surface, where she saves a prince from drowning and falls in love. She visits a sea witch and trades her tongue for legs, even though it will feel like she’s walking on jagged swords and she’ll be turned to sea foam if the prince rejects her. The prince is mildly interested in this mute girl, particularly when she dances for him – so she does, despite the excruciating pain, and watches him marry the princess he wrongly believes she saved him. The original ending saw the mermaid turn to sea foam, but it was amended to have become a „daughter of air” for not killing the prince, even though it would save her – so, frankly, she is still dead for all intents and purposes. The story has been interpreted as the difficult liminal passage of the girl into the order of speech and social symbolism (power, politics, and agency) which is symbolically understood as masculine.
The Snow White (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812)
In the tale of Snow White that we are all familiar with, the Queen asks a huntsman to kill her and bring her heart back as proof. Instead, the huntsman can’t bring himself to do it and returns with the heart of a boar. Now, fortunately Disney hasn’t done too much damage to this tale, but they did leave out one important original element: in the original tale, the Queen actually asks for Snow White’s liver and lungs – which are to be served for dinner that night! The first Grimms’ version of Snow White cast her mother rather than a stepmother as the queen jealous of Snow White’s greater beauty. The wicked queen shows herself to be a cannibal by eating what she thinks is the lung and liver of her daughter/stepdaughter (although in reality they belong to a passing boar). When the first attempt at killing Snow White fails, the queen decides personal violence is the answer and attempts to strangle Snow White with lace. Eventually a poisoned apple does the trick and Snow White is dead. When a travelling king’s son sees her corpse in the forest he insists on having this dead body at his side forever. What the prince wanted to do with a dead girl’s body I will leave to your imagination. He won’t even eat unless the corpse is lying next to his food. His servants soon get frustrated with carting a heavy coffin from room to room and one of them picks up the body of Snow White to give it a beating. This dislodges the apple and brings Snow White back to life. At the conclusion of the tale, a pair of iron shoes are heated in the fire until red hot and then brought to the wicked queen. She is forced to put them on and dance in agony until she dies. In some tellings, the seven dwarves are not industrious mining folk, but robbers preying on travellers in the forest, while the magic mirror is a dialog with the sun or moon.
The Sleeping Beauty (Giambattista Basile, 1634)
Sleeping Beauty now ends with a chaste kiss which wakes the sleeping princess after her hundred year sleep. But alas, the original tale is not so sweet (in fact, you have to read this to believe it.) The prince marries Sleeping Beauty the same day and that night, the story makes a point of telling us, the royal couple get no sleep. Unsurprisingly, this leads in due course to two children. But the prince cannot live with Sleeping Beauty as he dare not tell his family about her. Why? Because his mother is an ogress whom his father has married only for her riches and the whole court knows that she cannot resist eating any small children that cross her path (perhaps worth noting that this makes the handsome prince a half ogre). After the prince becomes king he feels confident enough to bring Sleeping Beauty and their two children to the court. However his earlier fears prove well founded. As soon as he goes off to war his mother sends Sleeping Beauty to the country in order to eat her children without interference. When the palace cook objects, the ogress implies that he will be on the menu if he doesn’t change his mind. After she thinks she’s eaten the two children (although the cook has fooled her), the ogress decides to eat Sleeping Beauty as well. The cook manages to trick her again, hiding Sleeping Beauty and the children in his house. Unfortunately one of the children makes too much noise whilst Sleeping Beauty is whipping him for misbehaviour and the game is given away. The ogress arranges for a large tub to be filled with horrible creatures into which she will throw Sleeping Beauty, her children, the cook, his wife and her maid to be devoured. Fortunately the Prince (now the king of course) arrives back from his war early. This final thwarting of her plan so enrages his mother that she throws herself head first into the tub of horrible creatures and is instantly eaten up. In the older Italian original version, the young woman is put to sleep because of a prophesy, rather than a curse. A king discovers Sleeping Beauty (here called Talia) whilst she is still sleeping and rapes her. In due course she gives birth to twins, without waking up. Thankfully a pair of fairies are on hand to help the children suckle. Only when the babies mistakenly attempt to feed from her finger is the original splinter removed and Sleeping Beauty woken. In due course the the king comes back to see Sleeping Beauty again and is even more smitten now she’s awake. They have a few days of companionship, after which the king promises to send for her. Unfortunately he neglects to mention that he already has a queen and thus cannot marry Sleeping Beauty. This time it’s the king’s wife who attempts to have the children eaten by serving them to their unsuspecting father, whilst taunting him with the ambiguous statement that what he eats is his own. The cannibalism is secretly foiled by the cook. The king learns of his wife’s actions and thinking that she fooled him into eating his children he has her burned alive. After which he is free to marry Sleeping Beauty and does.
Hänsel and Gretel (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812)
In the widely known version of Hänsel and Gretel, we hear of two little children who become lost in the forest, eventually finding their way to a gingerbread house which belongs to a wicked witch. The children end up enslaved for a time as the witch prepares them for eating. They figure their way out and throw the witch in a fire and escape. In an earlier French version of this tale (called The Lost Children), instead of a witch we have a devil. Now the wicked old devil is tricked by the children (in much the same way as Hänsel and Gretel) but he works it out and puts together a sawhorse to put one of the children on to bleed (that isn’t an error – he really does). The children pretend not to know how to get on the sawhorse so the devil’s wife demonstrates. While she is lying down the kids slash her throat and escape. According to some commentators, the witch and the (step)mother are, in fact, the same woman, representing „the maternal evil at home”. One radical interpretation suggests that the witch, often depicted with stereotypical Jewish features, is burned to death in an owen as a symbol of the „final solution”.
Cinderella (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, 1812)
In the modern Cinderella fairy tale we have the beautiful Cinderella swept off her feet by the prince and her wicked step sisters marrying two lords – with everyone living happily ever after. The fairy tale has its origins way back in the 1st century BC where Strabo’s heroine was actually called Rhodopis, not Cinderella, and lived in the Greek colony of Naucratis in Ancient Egypt (Geographica, 17, 1-33). The story was very similar to the modern one with the exception of the glass slippers and pumpkin coach. But, lurking behind the pretty tale is a more sinister variation by the Grimm brothers: Cinderella’s fortunes are turned around not by a fairy godmother, but a macabre tree growing out of her mother’s grave, which she waters with her tears. Like the Disney version, Cinderella is able to call on birds to perform the tasks set by her wicked stepmother and a bird provides her with suitable clothing for the ball. But when the king’s son turns up on the familiar quest to find the foot that fits the shoe, these stepsisters are prepared to go above and beyond to get their man: one cuts off her toe and the other slices off her heel to make the shoe fit. Unsuprisingly each attempt is given away when one of Cinderella’s bird friends helpfully points out the blood running out of the shoe. Vengeance on the stepsisters is completed at Cinderella’s wedding to the prince. As the sisters go into the church, birds peck out an eye from each sister. After the wedding, the same birds peck out each woman’s remaining eye, thus “punishing them with blindness all their days”. In older variations it’s Cinderella who kills her original mother or stepmother, only to get the wicked stepmother as a replacement. An interesting social aspect is the lost significance of the heroine having a small foot. One of the original versions of the Cinderella story comes from ancient China at a time where wives were often chosen by their foot size. Having a small foot suggested that you had agreed to it being bound and were therefore obedient and dependent, traits then seen as highly desirable in a wife.
More „unsanitized” stories at:
Maria Tatar (2004). The annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: Norton.