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With fantastical stories of witches and fairies, goblins and elves, or heroic princes and their villainous counterparts, folklore and fairy tales have long been an ingrained tradition in story-telling for children.
These stories allow us to explore the furthest reaches of our imaginations – but some have more sinister back stories. We take look below at the darker side of the canon’s most enduring tales.
Considered the ultimate tale of how love conquers all, this traditional fairy tale written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont is an enduring classic that has spawned operas, films and ballads. The ‘original,’ however, is neither as sanguine nor as comic as later versions. In the original, Belle is the daughter of a bankrupt merchant, as opposed to an eccentric inventor, the silverware in the Beast’s impressive castle neither sings nor dances and, most importantly, it is the machinations of Belle’s two wicked sisters that result in the Beast’s demise, and not the comically villainous Gaston, who is merely a Disney embellishment. Furthermore, though de Beaumont’s narrative does end happily, with Belle’s love breaking the curse placed on the Beast, many versions deny this happy ending for the ill-fated couple, instead choosing to close the story with Belle grieving over the Beast’s prone form.
This archetypal story of unjust oppression has been re-interpreted in various films and literature, and has even been used in psychological terminology. Though the ending remains the same in the less ‘sanitized’ versions of the lore, the existence of the glass slippers has remained an unexplained error in oral transmission; in the earlier versions, the slippers were made of squirrel fur. When the prince was seeking his elusive love he was, according to the Brothers Grimm, almost tricked by the two stepsisters, both of whom cut off parts of their foot in order to fit into the slipper; it was only through the heavenly doves that the Prince realised that the sisters were bleeding from their self-inflicted amputations. Furthermore, in a spirit of quasi-macabre comedy, some versions end with the stepsisters’ eyes being pecked out by the same doves, thus allowing evil to be justly punished.
Recently adapted into 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the original Grimm fairy tale is, unfortunately, far less sentimental and romantic than its modern adaptations. Where modern versions claim that the spell is broken by the kiss of the princess, the reality is that the Prince’s transformation was occasioned by the spoilt and petulant princess flinging the unassuming frog against the wall in anger and disgust. Other versions of the story even claim that, instead of a kiss (or a throw), the frog spent one night sleeping peacefully on the pillow of the princess, with her (very) reluctant agreement, and this, apparently, was sufficient to break the spell of his frog-like form.
A terrifying story of cannibalism and child abuse, which thankfully ends happily for the protagonists, this tale of the Brothers Grimm also has all the elements of an exciting adventure for children, including gingerbread houses, talking geese and hidden treasure. As well as being a tale of a man being forced to abandon his children at the command of his manipulative wife, the details of Hansel and Gretel’s captivity at the hands of the witch (Hansel using the bone of a previous victim to trick his captor, for example, and Gretel eventually shoving the witch into an oven) are as alarming as they are compelling. Some of these events are still present in ‘sanitized’ versions, but many omit the more grisly details involved in the children’s escape from the gingerbread house.
With its eponymous female character having become a landmark of Denmark (in the form of a statue), the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen is one of the more tragic of all stories in the entire fairy tale canon. Unlike the more child-friendly versions, in which the little mermaid chases and finds her happiness, the original mermaid never succeeds in gaining the prince’s love. However, unlike the darker and more cynical undertones revealed in other folklore, the original Little Mermaid tale shows the rewards that come from self-sacrifice, as she the mermaid chooses to become sea foam rather than kill the man who has earned her unrequited love. Both heart-breaking and uplifting, The Little Mermaid is a complex exploration of the issues involving social class and doomed aspirations.
Regarded as one of fiction’s most lovable felines, Puss-in-Boots is more famous for his quick wit and boot-touting ways than for the folklore in which he acted as the principle character. Rather than merely being an anthropomorphic cat with a vain penchant for leather-ware, Puss is, in fact, a sly, crafty and quick creature, who, with his guile, his charm and his resourcefulness, catapulted his master to fame and fortune and obtained for him a princess bride, a castle and innumerable riches so they could live in luxury for the rest of their lives. Despite having a lighthearted and somewhat optimistic approach to life, there is a certain Machiavellian ruthlessness in the methods of this clever cat, and he seems to encourage the maxim that ‘the ends justify the means’, even if the results are rather unsavoury.
This German tale has become the subject of much fascination (and parody) over the years, with the idiom ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’ becoming all too memorable. The happy couple, however, had to endure many more trials and tribulations than is initially apparent, for they were only reunited after Rapunzel had been cast out, pregnant and alone, into the wilderness by the irate witch, while the prince was blinded after falling from the tower and into the thorny brambles below. And there are even more cynical versions of the narrative. In these, a pregnant Rapunzel is abandoned and forgotten by the prince who never had any intention of marrying her. Presumably this version was intended as a cautionary tale about the dangers of seduction.
The Red Riding Hood lore has had so many re-workings that it is difficult to work out which is the ‘earliest’ version. Though the most expurgated versions simply use the wolf as an allegory to warn against talking to strangers, several darker accounts reveal a violent and destructive layer beneath the initial veneer. One version hints at the wolf and the grandmother being one and the same person, another hints at Red Riding Hood ‘graciously’ allowing the wolf to eat her grandmother before she kills the wolf, so as to be able to seize her grandmother’s property. The most disturbing, however, is probably the version that hints at bestiality, in which Red Riding Hood uses her body to save herself from death, thus consummating her ‘love’ with the wolf on the very sheets upon which her grandmother was killed.
With a premise already bizarre and faintly disturbing in itself, many versions of Sleeping Beauty actually end happily, with the spell being broken by true love’s kiss. However, Charles Perrault’s version offers a bizarre addition, claiming that the prince’s mother is an ogress with a tendency towards devouring little children. Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty and her children narrowly escape being boiled and eaten thanks to the timely return of her husband and the kindly endeavours of a palace servant. Even so, the most disturbing recension of the story is the one in which the prince, captivated by the sleeping princess’ beauty, assaults her while she sleeps. The princess awakes, giving birth to twins, but the prince has long gone.
Known as the first fairy tale that Disney chose to lavish its magic upon, the guilelessness and charm of the cartoon Snow White has endured in the memories of many children and adults alike, especially with the catchy songs and the comic antics of the seven dwarfs. Bleaker variations tell a completely different story, however, with implications of necrophilia by the prince, and the sexual degradation of poor Snow White at the hands of the seven dwarves who enslave her. Other obscure versions even hint that Snow White’s father, the king, is so enamoured with his daughter’s beauty that an unhealthy obsession takes hold, thus forcing the princess to flee from the castle (and into the clutches of the dwarves).