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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