The fairy tales we know today—the happily-ever-afters with prince charming, had pretty horrid origins. Prepare to have your childhood illusions shattered.
In the past month, I’ve bought two copies of ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ to gift my two lovely little nieces. These are not your everyday fairy tales; there isn’t a glimpse of a princess waiting for her knight in shining armour.
Rather, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a collection of 100 illustrated stories, written in the fairy tale format of ‘Once Upon A Time’, but each centering on a formidable and extraordinary woman from history or current day: Elizabeth I, Serena Williams, the Brontë sisters, Frida Kahlo, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, and way more.
I wish I had this book to read when I was a little girl. Growing up on the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood and the likes I was pretty unaware of how the happily ever afters’ presented in these stories, didn’t particularly have happy origins.
When I now go back to these fairy tales, my childhood illusions are shattered, not only because I realize how these stories instill gender clichés in our society but digging deeper into their origins, I found that – violence, gore, sexual threat, abuse and poverty – were central to their plots.
Don’t believe me?
We are all familiar with “Little Red Riding Hood” thanks to the Brothers Grimm. In the story, a girl visits her grandmother’s house, and on the way, is greeted by a wolf to whom she naively discloses her destination. On reaching, we find the wolf waiting for her disguised as the old woman. Little Red Riding Hood is devoured after remarking “What big teeth you have, Granny!” A lumberjack later cuts open the wolf and saves the girl and her grandmother who are miraculously still alive in the beast’s stomach.
However, In Charles Perrault’s version, included in his 1697 collection Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times: Tales of Mother Goose, there is no savour. But a disturbing end awaits the readers, as the wolf demands that Little Red strip naked. She submits, throwing her clothing in the fire and joining the wolf in bed. Afterwards, the wolf eats her alive and the story ends there. It is believed that the contemporary French idiom for a girl having lost her virginity, elle avoit vû le loup — she has seen the wolf – comes from this tale.
Sleeping Beauty is based on a disturbing folk tale “Sun, Moon, and Talia” published by an Italian poet, Giambattista Basile in 1634. In the original story, the princess does not prick her finger on a spindle, but rather gets a sliver of flax stuck under her fingernail, causing her to collapse and appear dead. Her father cannot face the idea of losing her, so he lays her body on a bed in one of his estates. Later, a king out hunting in the woods finds her, and finding her beautiful, and unprotesting, he has sex with her (read rapes her), then heads home to his own country.
The story doesn’t end there. Still unconscious, she gives birth to two children, and one of them accidentally sucks the splinter out of her finger, so she wakes up. The king who raped her is already married, but he burns his wife alive so he and Talia can be together. And that is your happy ending!
Disney’s Ariel was one of my favorite characters as a kid. The tale of an adventurous young woman who challenges the patriarchy to explore an unknown world, what could possibly wrong with this fairy tale?
Well, in the original fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1836, the mermaid willingly suffers, physically and emotionally, for the chance to be with the prince she has fallen for. A sea witch helps her turn into a human by giving her a potion to drink…
Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.
The above passage from Andersen’s story seems to depict a girl’s transformation into a woman. The mermaid’s transformation is agreed upon only when, the phallic “sword” must pass through her and cause her pain, so that “the blood must flow.”
Does the language seem suitable for young kids?
Also, the end is a tragic one. The prince chooses another woman and our beloved mermaid commits suicide by turning back to the sea.
It’s believed that the original “Beauty and the Beast” written by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneauve in 1740, titled “La Belle et la Bête” was actually inspired by the real-life couple, French nobleman Petrus Gonsalvus and his wife, Catherine. Petrus had a rare condition called congenital hypertrichosis (Latin for ‘too much hair’) which caused his entire body to be covered in hair. As a boy, Petrus was treated more like property than a person, and in fact, he was taken from his home and given as a present to King Henry II of France. His marriage too was an experiment, just to see whether a wildman would produce a human or a horror.
If that isn’t depressing enough, another premise that Villeneauve explored in the original story was the marital rights of women in the eighteenth-century. Belle’s captivity was a very telling metaphor for the way in which in that period had little or no choice over who they married. Take Petrus’s wife for example. Catherine supposedly had not seen her groom and wasn’t aware who her future husband would be until the actual wedding ceremony.
Another fairy tale that may have been inspired by real life is the story of Snow White. In 1994, a German historian named Eckhard Sander, claimed that Snow White was based on the life of Margarete von Waldeck, a German countess. The young Margarete fell in love with a prince who later became Philip II of Spain. Margarete’s father and step-mother disapproved of the relationship, as they found it politically inconvenient. And mysteriously, Margaret turned up dead at the age of 21, apparently having been poisoned. As for the lovable dwarves, the von Waldeck family reportedly ran a copper mine where they employed young children, many of whom suffered from severe deformities because of the poor working conditions. The child laborers were mockingly referred to as dwarves.
Not only is the origin of Snow White very dark, the fairy tale by the Grimm brothers too had certain disturbing details, like when the Queen orders a huntsman to collect Snow White’s liver and lungs for a grisly meal!
None of these tales were intended for children’s tender ears. Even “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” originally were filled with gruesome scenes and targeted to an adult audience. Only later, was some of the mature content taken out. And it all vanished, when Walt Disney and company swished their magic wands to create the bright and happy pictures we see today. I personally am on a trip right now, exploring the origins. These blunt, unpretentious and somewhat gruesome narratives are far more scintillating, don’t you think?
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