The Gruesome Origins of Children’s Fairy Tales

The supernatural and mythological under-world rips away at the fabric of reality in hit TV series Grimm. This fantasy crime drama follows one Portland homicide detective, plagued by his supernatural ancestry harking back to the Brothers Grimm as he must fight the killers that only he can see. To celebrate the Blu-ray and DVD release of GRIMM: SEASON TWO on 21 October from Universal Pictures (UK), we’ve examined five of the world’s best known fairytales to discover the dark and gruesome origins of these popular folk stories.

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Little Red Riding Hood

Most will know of the traditional Brothers Grimm tale of a young girl in a red cape who travels to her grandmother’s house, only to find a wolf masquerading as her dear grandmother who eats them both. Thankfully, a burly huntsman comes along to save the day by cutting open the wolf’s stomach and freeing them both before disposing of the vicious beast. This adaptation was echoed to an extent by the Frenchman Charles Perrault, with an added sexual element in which the wolf (often represented as a terrifying werewolf or ogre) tricks the girl into bed with him and exposes himself.

Listen up kids! However, other versions of this classic folklore reveal a far more gruesome picture. An Austrian imagining sees poor old granny eaten long before little Red Riding Hood 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 Riding Hood arrives, she is hungry and so is directed to eat her dead grandmother’s teeth (rice) and jaw (chops) and drink her blood (wine). Shortly after being invited into the creature’s bed, the unfortunate girl is devoured in a single gulp, with no rescue at all.

Morals and Messages:

– Don’t trust strangers!

– Dangers and the dishonour of sex before marriage.

– The inevitability of night and day. Red’s bright red cap is a symbol for the sun. The sun is swallowed by the terrible night (the wolf). When she is cut out again, it represent the dawn of a new day.


CinderellaIn 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. The story was very similar to the modern one with the exception of the glass slippers and pumpkin coach. A more sinister variation by the Brothers Grimm sees the nasty stepsisters cut off parts of their own feet in order to fit them into the glass slipper hoping to fool the prince. The prince is alerted to the con by two pigeons.

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”. They spend the rest of their lives as blind, lame beggars while Cinderella lives in luxury with the prince. In older variations it’s Cinderella who kills her original mother or stepmother, only to get the wicked stepmother as a replacement.

Morals and Messages:

– The story of Cinderella denotes personal development and transformation.

– As Cinderella learns to distinguish between good and bad, her brand new dress reflects that transformation, since inner change links with outside modification as well.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping BeautyThe Disney film, based on a later version film, based on a later version by Charles Perrault, saw a lovely princess put to sleep when she pricks her finger on a spindle. She sleeps for 100 years, until a prince kisses her and lives happily ever after. In one of the very earliest versions of this classic story, published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile as Sun, Moon, and Talia, the princess does not prick her finger on a spindle, but rather gets a sliver of flax stuck under her fingernail. She falls down, apparently dead, but her father cannot face the idea of losing her, so he lays her body on a bed in one of his estates.

Later, a king out hunting in the woods finds her, and since he can’t wake her up, rapes her while she’s unconscious, then heads home to his own country. Sometime after that, still unconscious, she gives birth to two children, and one of them accidentally sucks the splinter out of her finger, so she wakes up. The nobleman’s wife found out about the sexual encounter and ordered the children be kidnapped and cooked alive. The cook instead serves up a goat to the nobleman, but on hearing of his wife’s actions, he burns her alive and goes off to live happily ever after with his sleeping beauty.

Morals and Messages:

– Some folklorists have analysed Sleeping Beauty as indicating the replacement of the lunar year by the solar year.

– The basic elements of the story can also be interpreted as a nature allegory: the princess represents nature, the wicked witch is winter, who puts the Court to sleep with pricks of frost until the prince (spring) cuts away the brambles with his sword (a sunbeam) to allow the sun to awaken sleeping nature.

Snow White

Snow WhiteIn the tale of Snow White that we are all familiar with, the Queen asks a huntsman to kill ‘The fairest of them all’ 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. In the original 1812 Grimm version of this tale, the evil Queen is Snow White’s actual mother, not her stepmother.

The Disney version also left out the fact that the Queen sends the huntsman out to bring back Snow White’s liver and lungs, which she then means to eat. 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. 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.

Morals and Messages:

– A child is victimised by an adult. Adult anxieties and jealousies cause the adults in the stories to act against the children- the children being the objects of the adult’s jealousy.

– The dichotomy of innocence and passion is seen in the contrast of the colour trio. Bettelheim sees the whiteness as setting Snow White’s sexual innocence while the red sets her sexual passion and the ebony as the warning of death.

– The cannibalistic ingestion of Snow White’s internal organs by the Queen is associated with the absorption of power.

– The number seven has a long history in fairy tales, myths, and literature in general. There are numerous examples of the number seven found in the Old Testament. It is the number of days in a week, based on the planets orbital times. Each of the four phases of the moon lasts seven days. In many of the tales of Snow White, the child matures at the age of seven.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and GretelIn the widely known version of Hansel 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 Hansel 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.

Morals and Messages:

– Some say that because the step-mother dies when the witch is killed, they are the same character.

– The fairy tale may have originated in the medieval period of the Great Famine (1315–1321), which caused people to do some desperate deeds like abandoning young children to fend for themselves, or even resorting to cannibalism.

– Children should be careful of their sweet tooth and not run away from home.

Grimm: Season Two is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 21 October, from Universal Pictures (UK).

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