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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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