Thought fairy tales were all pampered princesses and happily-ever-afters? Think again. The original versions of some of our best-loved fairy tales are a far cry from their Disney-fied incarnations - with violence, gore, sexual threat, abuse and poverty all part of the plot. We’ve glossed over the true nature of these nursery songs and bedtime stories for the best part of a century - so here are the darkest fairy tales from the bookshelf revealed.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
Charles Perrault, 1697
“From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, do very wrong to listen to strangers. Alas! Who does not know that these wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!”
Today we’re more familiar with the Brothers Grimm version of this tale, where a girl and her grandmother are gobbled up by a wolf, but rescued by a huntsman. In Charles Perrault’s original, there is no happy ending. 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.
THE LITTLE MERMAID
Hans Christian Andersen, 1836
“Before the sun rises you must plunge this knife into the heart of the prince; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow together again, and form into a fish’s tail and you will be once more a mermaid.”
Forget the happy capers of Disney’s Ariel and Flounder – the original tale is a gory and depressing story about the self-sacrifice and agony of love. 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 saved him. The original ending saw the mermaid turn to sea foam, but it was amended to have her become a “daughter of the air” for not killing the prince, even though it would save her.
Giambattista Basile, 1634
“As he tried to wake her, she seemed so incredibly lovely that he began to grow hot with lust.”
The 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.
However, in this earlier version by the Italian poet Basile, the king does not wake Talia, the sleeping girl, with a kiss, but rapes her. She gives birth to two children (helpfully attended to by fairies) and one sucks her finger, eliminating the curse. Talia falls in love with the king, but the king’s jealous wife kidnaps their children and orders the cook to kill them and feed them to the king. The jealous queen also threatens to burn Talia to death, but the king has his wife burnt to death instead.
Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, 1698
“Enraged at the sight of Persinette’s maladie, she seized her hair and cut the precious cords.”
The original story, Persinette was penned by French noblewoman – and royal mistress – Mademoiselle de la Force. Persinette was kidnapped at birth by a fairy, who locked her in a tower with all the things she could ever wish for. The fairy was her only visitor and, as the tower had no stairs, she climbed Persinette’s long hair whenever she visited her.
However, a prince sees Persinette, climbs up her hair to the tower, seduces her and she falls pregnant. When the fairy discovers her swollen belly she banishes Persinette. The next time the prince visits, he finds the fairy in the tower who blinds him. The lovers eventually find each other and the prince’s sight is restored by Persinette’s tears.
HANSEL AND GRETEL
The Brothers Grimm, 1812
“Now, then, Gretel,” she cried to the girl. “Let Hansel be fat or lean, tomorrow I will kill him, and cook him.”
During a famine, an evil stepmother orders her husband to abandon his children in the woods, but the son, Hansel, overhears the plan, and leaves a trail of pebbles to guide him and his sister home safely. The next time they are abandoned, Hansel drops breadcrumbs, which are eaten by the birds. Lost and starving, they stumble upon a house made from gingerbread, only to be captured by the wicked, cannibalistic witch who lives inside. She enslaves Gretel and imprisons Hansel, fattening him up to eat.
When she orders Gretel to heat up the oven to cook Hansel, she tricks the witch into leaning into the oven and pushes her in. The children rob the house of riches and return to their father, to find that their evil stepmother has died.
Charles Perrault, 1697
“After some moments, she began to perceive that the floor was all covered with blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls.”
A beautiful girl is persuaded to marry a wealthy and mysterious aristocrat, who has a blue beard and several unaccounted-for previous wives. He wins her over by throwing lavish parties and leaves her the keys to the château when he goes abroad, but forbids her from entering a room beneath the castle. Curiosity gets the better of her, and she discovers the room’s floor is awash with blood, with the murdered corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives hanging from the walls on hooks.
As she and her sister plan to flee, Bluebeard returns home and is furious to discover blood on the room key. Before he can behead her, however, her brothers arrive and save her. Perrault’s tale is believed to be based on the real trial of Gilles de Rais, a 15th-century aristocrat and soldier who was hanged and burned for the murder of between 60 and 200 children in 1440.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, 1740
“They had hardly finished their meal when the noise of the rich beast’s footsteps was heard approaching, and Belle clung to her father in terror, which became all the greater when she saw how frightened he was.”
Obsession, entrapment, and a message for young girls amounting to “you’ll learn to love him”: this is no Disney love story. A lost merchant stumbles upon a grand palace, with a banquet left for him by an unseen owner. As he leaves, he plucks a rose for his beloved youngest daughter, Belle, and is confronted by a hideous beast who only releases him on the condition that he sends Belle back.
The beast lavishes food, clothes and gifts upon Belle, and asks her to marry him every night, being refused every time. She begs to be allowed to visit her family for one week, and he permits it, as long as she takes an enchanted mirror which allows her to see what is going on at the castle. Her jealous sisters persuade her to stay, hoping to anger the beast, but when Belle looks in the mirror, she discovers the beast is dying of heartache. She rushes back, weeps and announces her love for him, whereupon he turns into a handsome prince.
The Brothers Grimm, 1812
“Then her mother gave her a knife and said, “Cut the toe off; when thou art Queen thou wilt have no more need to go on foot.”
Variations of the Cinderella story have been recorded in ancient Greece, during the Tang Dynasty in China and in medieval Europe. The heroine in the Greek version is called Rhodopis – or “rosy-cheeked” – but the story of a prince vowing to marry the owner of a sandal remains very similar to the modern version.
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 that peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. They spend the rest of their lives as blind, lame beggars while Cinderella lives in luxury with the prince.