16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told

D.G. Hewitt - August 9, 2018

Some fairy tales have bridged generations. While some stories might go out of fashion, a select group of classic tales are enduringly popular. They include stories of princes and princesses, of witches and magic both good and evil. And, for the most part, they have positive endings, with the protagonists overcoming challenges and living ‘happily ever after’.

However, ‘once upon a time’, such fairy tales were far darker. Often, they would be used as warnings to children. They would, for instance, warn children about the dangers of going into the forests alone. Or they would show the dangers of trusting strangers or of not obeying your parents. That’s why, fairy tales were often gruesome and gory.

Over time, almost all fairy tales have been toned down. This is especially true for those stories that have been given the big-screen treatment. These days, readers and movie audiences want happy endings, and so classic tales have been changed to deliver this. So, here are just a few of the most popular fairy tales that have been given the Hollywood treatment and moved away from their darker origins:

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
In the original version, Sleeping Beauty was not awoken by a chaste kiss. Wikipedia.

Sleeping Beauty

Almost all modern-day fairy tales are based on darker stories from centuries past. But arguably no original versions are as bleak as that of Sleeping Beauty. Far from being a sweet romance, the original version of this classic makes for horrific reading and would definitely fall foul of the censors if it were published today.

The modern Sleeping Beauty is based on a tale penned by the Italian storyteller Giambattista Basile. He wrote of a beautiful young lady, lying in a deep sleep in a castle, unable to be woken by conventional means. So far so recognizable. But that’s as familiar as it gets. To begin with, it’s a king rather than a prince who rides by the castle and decides to investigate further. More disturbingly, instead of giving Sleeping Beauty a chaste kiss, the king lifts her up, carries her to a large bed and rapes her. Indeed, it’s only after she’s given birth to twins and then begin feeding on her bosom does Sleeping Beauty awaken from her long slumber.

And the darkness of the original tale doesn’t end. In this version, the king was a married man when he assaulted Sleeping Beauty. His wife, the queen, ends up hearing about his illegitimate twins and wants them not only killed but also tries to devise a way of making her unfaithful husband eat the dead babies. In the end, the evil queen’s plan is foiled and, bizarrely, the royal couple separate, and the king ends up marrying Sleeping Beauty. The pair live happily ever after – despite the fact their union began with his raping his future wife!

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
In the first version of Pinocchio, the puppet was a violent animal killer. Wikipedia.

Pinocchio

Disney’s 1940 movie Pinocchio was based on an 1881 serial penned by Carlo Collodi. As you might have guessed, the screenwriters took the general premise of the Italian’s story for their animated feature film, though of course they left out a few choice elements. The end result was a tale missing some of the darker details of the original version – unsurprisingly since Disney were out to make a sweet morality tale for children rather than scare their young viewers.

Again, the general premise of the modern version is the same as that of the original: Gepetto makes a puppet who slowly transforms into a real boy. However, while Pinocchio might be mischievous in the Disney movie, in the original stories, he is downright villainous. Most notably, Jiminy the Talking Cricket, a key character in the movie, is killed in one of the opening chapters. Tired of his moralising and advice, an angry Pinocchio hurls a hammer at Jiminy, killing him outright. What’s more, the boy-puppet doesn’t even show the slightest remorse for murdering his father’s insect friend.

Other dark details understandably omitted in more recent versions of the Pinocchio story include the bit where the puppet’s feet are burned off soon after he runs away for the first time. And then there’s the bit where Pinocchio steals some gold coins, gets caught and is hanged for his crimes. Indeed, Collodi originally intended for his story to end with the puppet hanging from a tree dying, seeing his work as a powerful morality tale for young readers. His editors, however, had other ideas and forced him to write a happier ending.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
There was no ‘happily ever after’ in the original Little Mermaid. Wikipedia.

The Little Mermaid

Disney’s version of this classic fairy tale was a huge hit and loved by children and adults the world over. And surely a large part of its success was down to the fact that the cartoon movie left out big chunks of the version penned by Hans Christian Anderson many years before. The Dane’s tale was no all-singing and all-dancing affair under the sea, but rather quite a grim story of the sacrifices some people are prepared to make in the name of love.

In the original version, the Little Mermaid does indeed save the prince from drowning. She also goes to see the sea witch and ask for legs so that she may find him again. However, from this point on, the tale is much darker than the “Disneyfied” version. The sea witch warns her she will die if she fails to get a kiss from her true love. Tragically, the prince meets someone else and marries her. In a cruel twist, the witch gives the Little Mermaid one last chance: if she kills the prince, she will be allowed to get her tail back and return to life under the sea. In the end, she can’t bring herself to murder her love. She jumps back into the sea, to certain death. She ends up as sea foam.

While the Hans Christian Anderson version might seem sick and twisted to the modern reader, at the time it was seen as both tragic and uplifting. Indeed, the Danish writer wanted to show how noble self-sacrifice could be – though he undoubtedly also used the tale to warn his young readers about the dangers of having unrealistic dreams and even trying to break out of the social class you were born in.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
In modern versions of The Ugly Duckling, the suffering and bullying is toned down. Wikipedia.

The Ugly Duckling

The story of a young duckling who is bullied for being ugly but then transforms into a beautiful swan is famous around the world. Or at least a sanitized version of it is. The original version, written by Hans Christian Andersen and published in 1844, can make for uncomfortable reading. In this version, the duckling is not just laughed at but subjected to some pretty horrendous abuse, though this serves to make the happy ending even more satisfying.

For instance, in the original tale, it’s not just his fellow ducklings who laugh at the small bird, the whole of the barnyard joins in the abuse too. At times, the taunts mocking his supposed ugliness even turn into violence. Then, in a twist that’s often left out of modern versions, the animals tormenters are almost all slaughtered. The eponymous Ugly Duckling manages to find refuge with a kindly old lady, but her cat is also a bully and forces him out of her home.

Much of the original tale, then, sees the Ugly Duckling struggling to survive alone through the winter. However, the ending is pretty much as the modern reader would expect: when spring comes, the Ugly Duckling returns to the farmyard, filled with fear and trepidation. When he sees a group of swans, he expects to be shunned and mocked. Instead, he is welcomed. When he looks in the water at his reflection, the reason is clear: he has become a beautiful swan himself.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Originally, it wasn’t a sweet kiss from the princess that turned the frog into a prince. Wikipedia.

The Frog Prince

Almost every child in the Western world knows the story of a princess who kisses a frog and the animals transforms into a handsome prince. But how true is this to the fairy tale penned by the famous Brothers Grimm at the start of the 19th century? Not completely is the answer. For, while the original tale did indeed feature a princess, a frog and then, with a dash of magic, a handsome prince, the plot has become much more saccharine over the years.

In the Brothers Grimm version, which itself was based on the classic tale of a king who had once been a frog – a tale which some historians believe can be traced all the way back to Roman times – the princess was hardly a fair maiden. Instead, she was a spoilt brat with a mean temper. And so, instead of kissing the frog she finds, she instead throws it violently against the castle walls. It’s this act of violence that causes the magical transformation, breaking the spell and producing her royal husband-to-be.

The story that opens the first collection of stories compiled by the Brothers Grimm is by no means the only version of this fairy tale. There’s another one, too. In this one, the creepy twist is that the princess needs to sleep with the frog for one night in order to break the spell. Despite being disgusted at the thought of sharing her bed with a reptile, the princess agrees and wakes up next to her prince.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
The original tale of the Fox and the Hound is bloody, cruel and sad. John Schoenherr.

The Fox and the Hound

Walt Disney’s 1981 movie The Fox and the Hound tells the story of the unlikely friendship between a fox and a dog. The motely duo are raised together by a no-nonsense farmer. Despite the many challenges they face, not least their animals instincts and the pressures of society to be enemies, their friendship endures. The animated movie was based on a 1967 book of the same name – and the original source material is far from sweet and sentimental.

In the book, which was written by Daniel P. Mannix, the young fox cub is indeed raised by a farmer. He even grows up alongside dogs. Eventually, he goes back to the wild. But he returns to the farm sometimes, coming back to mock the dogs. The fox consistently taunts the pets, boasting of his intelligence and cunning. This angers the dogs and one day, one of the pack breaks free from his chains. The dog faces the dog but is hit by a train and dies. The devastated farmer vows revenge and sets out to capture and kill the fox.

In the following chapters, the farmer and his dogs find the fox’s family. They kill his mate. They also kill his children. But they never manage to capture the wily fox. But that doesn’t mean the book finishes with a happy ending. In the dark original version, the fox dies of stress and exhaustion, all alone in the woods. Meanwhile, the farmer’s favourite dog gets old and needs to be shot to be put out of his misery. Understandably, the Disney screenwriters decided to make some serious changes to make their movie suitable for young audiences.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Disney wisely ignored some of the more horrible parts of the original Cinderella story. Sony DSC.

Cinderella

The story of Cinderella is, for many, the ultimate fairy tale. After all, it’s all about a young girl from a lowly background who overcomes adversity – and evil relatives – to become a princess. And, indeed, over the years a happy, pure version of it has become popular the world over. But the sanitized version of today is a long way from the tale published by the Brothers Grimm more than 100 years ago.

The basic premise is the same: The young and beautiful Cinderella is kept as a virtual slave by her jealous evil stepsisters. And she’s barred from going to the prince’s ball by the mean duo. But, unlike the fairy godmother who appears in the famous movie version of the fairy tale, in the original, Cinderella instead prays to a tree she has planted by her mother’s grave. It’s here where her wishes are answered. A gown to wear to the ball magically appears, as do a pair of beautiful slippers. Cinderella puts its all on and goes to the ball, where she wins the heart of the prince.

As everyone knows, Cinderella loses a slipper in her rush to get home before midnight. But in the original version, the evil stepsisters concoct gruesome ways to convince the prince they are the ladies for him: One cuts her own toes off in order to fit into the shoes, while the other chops off her own heel. When their attempts to stand in the way of true love are uncovered, the sisters’ eyes are pecked out by angry birds – an ending that was understandably omitted from the children’s film.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Early versions of the Pied Piper story had different horrible endings. Wikipedia.

The Pied Piper

The tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is known the world over. Unlike many such tales, it’s not exactly a happy one. And even the modern-day version is pretty dark. Indeed, the modern-day telling, as made famous by the Brothers Grimm and then the poet Robert Browning, sticks close to the twisted original version of the legend – child abduction and all.

The story centres on the small German town of Hamelin. Here, in the late Middle Ages, the people were struggling with an infestation of rats. Then, one day, a rat-catcher in multicolored (or ‘pied’) clothes arrives and offers to drive all the rats away. For a price, of course. The desperate people agree and hire him. The Pied Piper then takes out his magic pipe and starts to play. The music draws the rats out and they all follow him as he walks out of town. The wily Pied Piper leads the plague-ridden rodents to the river where they all drown.

Despite having rid Hamelin of rats, the people don’t pay the Pied Piper. Angered, he waits until all the adults are in church and then plays his pipes again. The children follow him out of town and they are never seen again. In some modern versions, the people of Hamelin give in, pay him the money they owe and their children are returned to them. But in some earlier tellings, the endings are much darker. Sometimes the Pied Piper drowns all the children too. And in some versions, he makes them join an army and fight in the Crusades.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Snow White endured a lot more in the original story than she does in the Disney movie. Ancient Origins.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Walt Disney chose the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for his first animated feature film – and the movie-going audiences loved it! Indeed, it’s widely-heralded as a masterpiece and made Disney a household name – and a fortune. But it probably wouldn’t have been so popular had Uncle Walt kept in some of the more disturbing elements of the story.

Disney’s version was somewhat true to the Brothers Grimm story. For instance, in both, Snow White’s wicked stepmother, the evil queen, becomes jealous of her beauty and wants her dead. In the film, she gives Snow White a poisoned apple. But in the original, she asks a hunter to take her into the forest and kill her so that she can be the “fairest of them all”. What’s more, she asks the hunter bring back Snow White’s lungs and her liver so that she knows the dastardly deed has been done. Of course, the hunter can’t bring himself to butcher the young beauty, so he kills a wild boar instead and takes its organs back to the queen. In a sick twist, the mad monarch eats them!

The cartoon ending is also a little more suitable for children. When Snow White and her handsome prince wed, the groom commands that the evil queen be condemned to dance until her death. But what Disney didn’t include from the original was the bit where the prince puts his bride’s nemesis in burning hot iron shoes, and it’s these that make her dance wildly until she drops dead.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Instead of meeting a witch, Hansel and Gretel meet the devil himself in early versions of the tale. Wikipedia.

Hansel and Gretel

The story of Hansel and Gretel, the two children who get lost in the woods, is widely known and widely loved by children. As with many fairy tales, it was made famous by the Brothers Grimm when they included it in their 1812 collection of short stories for youngsters. But it’s likely the German authors took their inspiration from another – much darker – story that had been used to warn kids of the dangers of going alone into the forests for centuries before.

In the much-loved tale, as told by the Brothers Grimm and countless parents since them, Hansel and Gretel are the children of an impoverished woodcutter and his cruel wife. Their mother decides to cast them out, leaving the young brother and sister to wander the forests. Then, one day, they come across a cottage and decide to seek help. But far from being the home of a kindly soul, the gingerbread house belongs to an evil witch who enjoys nothing more than killing and eating children.

In the later versions, Hansel and Gretel get wise to the witch’s plan and, after some time as captives, manage to escape. But other versions aren’t so cheerful. Indeed, in the French version many believe the modern tale is based on, the pair actually end up stumbling across the devil himself. And he is far smarter than the witch. He captures the children as they try to escape and then builds a sawhorse to execute them on. In a sick twist, the brother and sister pretend not to know how they can get on the sawhorse, so the devil’s wife offers to demonstrate. When she’s on there, the youngsters use the saw to slash her throat and then escape to their freedom.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Rapunzel’s prince met a grisly end in early versions of the fairy take. Pinterest.

Rapunzel

The story of Rapunzel is one of the best-known fairy tales of all time. Made famous by the Brothers Grimm at the start of the 19th century, it’s published many times and has even been given the Disney treatment – though the cartoon left out many of the more unpleasant elements of the original. In fact, even the Grimm brothers re-wrote their version to make it more suitable for younger audiences following a backlash in their native Germany.

As most people know, the story involves a princess locked in a tower. She’s been imprisoned there as a baby after her father was caught stealing medicinal herbs from the evil witch’s garden. Over the years, Rapunzel’s hair grows and grows. It grows so long, in fact, that when a passing prince hears Rapunzel singing from her window, he is able to climb up to meet her using her hair as a rope. Before long, Rapunzel falls pregnant. The witch learns of her romance and, in a fit of rage, cuts off her hair. She then uses it to entice the prince up the tower. As soon as he reaches the window, the witch leans out and pushes the poor prince. He falls onto a rose bush, with thorns impaling his eyes.

This gory detail is often left out of the story. Or if the prince does fall, he is fine and he and Rapunzel live happily ever after. What’s also left out is the fact that the Brothers Grimm had a lot of real-life stories to draw on. Instances of women being locked up in towers or castle cells, often being punished for the crimes of male relatives, were far from uncommon in Medieval Europe – and these almost never had a happy ending.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Historians still debate today the dark origins of Little Jack Horner. Pinterest.

Little Jack Horner

Though a nursery rhyme rather than a fairy tale, Little Jack Horner is another classic example of a seemingly-innocent tale with deeper – and possibly even darker – origins. Indeed, while seemingly nonsense, this is actually the tale of political intrigue, bribery and even treason, though even expert scholars disagree over the exact details of the story.

The first known reference to Little Jack Horner dates way back to 1725. Already by this point, the rhyme included him eating a Christmas pie, sticking his thumb inside it and pulling out a plum. Before long, numerous theories had been put forward, each claiming to be the truth behind the silliness. According to most accounts, the nursery rhyme was actually about a real-life man called Thomas Horner who got stuck into a pie he was supposed to be delivering to King Henry VIII of England.

As most people know, Henry VIII tried to shut down all the country’s monasteries. In an effort to save Glastonbury Abbey, the abbot there tried to bribe the king: he hid the deeds to 12 manor houses in a pie and had his steward – none other than Horner himself – deliver it to the royal court. Horner had a look inside the pie and managed to take the deeds to one house for himself. Interestingly, his descendants still own Mells Manor, though they have always denied that their distant relative acquired it by sticking his fingers in a pie destined for the king!

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
The Goose Girl fairy tale started out as a dark morality tale for young girls. Pinterest.

The Goose Girl

A German fairy tale, the Goose Girl was popularized by the Brothers Grimm when they included it in their 1815 anthology of children’s stories. It’s a tale of princesses, treachery, deceit and, ultimately, of justice. Unsurprisingly, it’s been translated many times into a number of different languages. In most cases, however, modern versions have left out some of the gorier details of earlier times.

The modern version is a colourful fable about the immorality of lying. It sticks closely to the original, with a princess sent off by her parents to meet her husband-to-be. She is accompanied on the long journey by her magic talking horse and a single servant girl. Before long, the servant refuses to obey orders, and so the princess is forced to fetch her own water from a river. At the river, she loses a special charm necklace her mother gave her. The servant threatens to tell the Queen unless the princess agrees to swap clothes. Once in the royal girl’s clothes, the commoner starts to pose as the princess, and it works. She lives a royal life, while the real princess is cast out as a lowly goose girl.

Eventually the king – to whom the princess was to be married – learns of the deception. In the modern version, he casts out the fraudster and weds her mistress. But in the early versions, the ending is far bloodier. Here, the king asks the fraudster to name an appropriate punishment for a servant who pretends to be a royal. Not knowing she’d been rumbled, she says they should be put naked in a barrel fitted with spikes on the inside and then rolled through the town. And so, this is the punishment she herself receives, dying in agony while the real princess watches on with satisfaction.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
The Disney film Chicken Little was inspired by much darker versions from years past. Amazon.

Chicken Little

The 2005 Disney movie might have introduced the story of a chick who fears the sky is caving in to the modern world, but the fable has been around for centuries. And many of the earlier versions were nowhere near as sweet and innocent as the cartoon. Indeed, historians of folk takes believe this one goes back more than 2,500 years and has been used in a wide range of different cultures to warn of the dangers of mass hysteria.

For much of its history, the story upon which Chicken Little was based was passed down orally. The tale was of a young bird who, when an acorn falls on his head, becomes convinced the sky is caving in. He is determined to tell the king of the impending apocalypse and so sets off on a long journey. Along the way, he meets a variety of animals. They all believe his theory and join him on his mission, with the hysteria steadily increasing as the group grows in size.

In most early versions, the story ends in violence and bloodshed. Usually, the animals meet a fox who pretends to believe them. He invites Chicken Little and his buddies back to his home for a rest. But once they’re here, the wily fox eats all of them. By the 19th century, such violent versions of the fable began appearing in print. It was used as a warning of the dangers of giving into hysteria and believing outlandish claims. Of course, in the Disney version, the protagonist and his friends are spared this grisly fate – instead, they turn out to be heroes and end up living happily ever after.

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
The imp Rumpelstiltskin was much more evil in earlier versions of the fairy tale. Wikipedia.

Rumpelstiltskin

Variants of this fairy tale have been told for more than 1,000 years. But these days, it’s the Brothers Grimm version of Rumpelstiltskin which is read to children the world over – and this one has a far more cheerful ending than many of the versions that went before it.

The story involves an ambitious miller who boasts to the king that his daughter can weave straw into gold. The greedy king believes him and locks the young girl up in a tower overnight. She is told that, if she doesn’t produce gold by the next morning, she will lose her head! An imp appears and offers to help. In return for her necklace, he will make the gold.

Of course, the king just gets greedier, promising to marry the girl if she fulfils his wishes. The imp also demands more and more – first the girl’s ring but finally her firstborn child. Sure enough, the miller’s daughter becomes queen. And then, when their first child is born, the imp demands to take it away. The new mother refuses. After much arguments, the imp gives her one last deal: only if she can guess his name will she be able to keep the baby.

In the Brothers Grimm version of 1812, the queen hears the imp singing while she is out walking in the woods. This way, she learns his name is Rumpelstiltskin. When he returns the next day, then, she passes the test. Though angry, the imp just runs away, never to be seen again. But in other versions, he doesn’t take losing quite so well. Most infamously, one version – which the Brothers Grimm copied later – have that Rumpelstiltskin is so angry he stamps one foot right through the castle floor. He then grabs his other leg and literally rips himself in half – all in front of the onlooking queen and her infant!

16 Classic Fairy Tales that Have Disturbing Origins than Told
Little Red Riding Hood rarely enjoyed a happy ending in early takes on the tale. UC Davies.

Little Red Riding Hood

According to historians, the origins of Little Red Riding Hood can be traced back as far as the 10th century. As with many European folk tales, there were a number of different versions told in different countries. While the plot details might have varied, the overall theme was the same: a young girl, named for her magical red hooded cloak, is stalked by a wolf as she goes to visit her grandmother. The cunning wolf recommends that she pick some flowers for her grandmother. Then, when the girl is distracted, he runs ahead to the grandmother’s cottage to lie in wait for his young prey.

In most versions of the tale, the wolf eats the grandmother whole. He then dresses in her bonnet and waits in her bed. Little Red Riding Hood is tricked into believing the wolf is her elderly relative and joins in him bed, where she is also eaten. Most famously, in the widely-read version written by Charles Perrault and published in 1697, there is no happy ending – nobody comes to rescue her and cut her from the wolf’s stomach.

More disturbingly, in Perrault’s version, the girl strips naked before getting into bed – a clear indication that the fairy tale was originally a morality tale warning girl of wily seducers. When the Brothers Grimm penned their version more than a century later, such sexual overtones were removed – and versions, where the wolf serves Little Red pieces of her own grandmother to eat, were ignored completely. Instead, they gave the tale a happy ending, with a brave and handsome huntsman saving the day by killing the wolf and cutting both the grandmother and her granddaughter free from his stomach.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Little Red Riding Hood, 1810.” The British Library.

“The original story of Sleeping Beauty would have terrified even Maleficent.” The Orlando Sentinel, May 2014.

“Bad Things Happen to Bad Children: The Real ‘Pinocchio’ is nothing like you remember.” Slate.com, October 2011.

“Murder, suicide and eternal torment: The dark story of the Little Mermaid.” The Sun, October 2017.

“The Frog Prince, or Iron Heinrich.” University of Pittsburgh.

“7 Classic Disney Movies Based on R-Rated Stories.” Cracked.com, June 2010.

“The Disturbing True Story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Scribd.com.

“Reason Behind the Rhyme: Little Jack Horner.” NPR.

“Are Grimm’s Fairy Tales too twisted for children?” BBC Culture, August 2013.

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