When thinking about classic fairy tales, stories like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, and even Frozen (especially if you have children and have heard the soundtrack 10,000 times by now) probably come to mind. Thanks to the Disney versions or the many books that retell these classic stories, all of these tales are ones we know well.
Or… rather, we think we know these stories. In the past few decades, many of the most popular fairy tales have been heavily sanitized to be happier and not as dark and twisted as the original stories they were based on. If we go back a few hundred years, the stories that are at the root of the fairy tales that we think we know are often much darker, more twisted and even more gruesome.
From the Little Mermaid being turned into sea foam instead of getting her happy ending, to the Snow Queen kidnapping a young boy, there are a few dark twists that you probably didn’t know existed (and might not want to know about if you ever hope to enjoy the modern retellings of these stories again).
Here are six classic fairy tales that you thought you know – and their much darker origins.
The Little Mermaid – an unhappy ending
In one of Disney’s most popular animated films, Ariel, or “The Little Mermaid,” lands a prince and trades in her fin for some legs so she can enjoy her happily ever after with him. The original tale, however, has a much more tragic twist. Danish storyteller Hans Christen Anderson’s version (which Disney based the movie on) centers around a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea to gain a human soul and the love of a human prince. Not too different than the Disney version… right? Well, wrong. The mermaid drinks a (painful) potion that gives her legs, and then meets the prince, who is mesmerized by her beauty. He likes to see her dance, so she dances for him despite the excruciating pain it causes. When the prince’s father orders his son to marry a neighboring king’s daughter, the prince assures the mermaid he will not… long story short, he does anyways. The mermaid’s heart breaks. Even worse, thanks to some technicalities in the potion, she’s actually going to die since he didn’t choose her. Her sisters find a loophole: they bring her a knife that a Sea Witch has given them. If the mermaid slays the prince with the knife and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid again, her suffering will end, and she can live a full life. But the mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the prince as he sleeps next to his bride, and she throws herself into the sea. Her body dissolves into foam.
The Snow Queen – kidnaps a young boy
Disney’s “Frozen” was inspired by “The Snow Queen,” another story that comes to us from Hans Christian Anderson, but the original tale is a little different than Disney’s heartwarming version about sisters Anna and Elsa. “The Snow Queen” is a very long, elaborate story as far as fairy tales go, centering around a little boy Kai and his friend, a girl named Gerda. One winter, Kai goes out with his sled to play in the snow and hitches it to a white sleigh carriage, driven by the Snow Queen, who appears as a woman in a white fur coat. Outside the city, she kisses him twice: once to numb him from the cold, and a second time to make him forget about Gerda and his family. A third kiss would kill him. She takes him to her palace, and if he is able to form the word “eternity,” the Snow Queen will release him from her power and give him a pair of skates. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Gerda sets out to look for him. A series of adventures ensue, and eventually she finds Kai at the palace. Gerda runs up to Kai and kisses him, and he is saved by the power of her love. They dance, and when they tire of dancing they fall down and spell “eternity,” so even if the Snow Queen were to return she would be obliged to free Kai. Although the themes are maybe vaguely similar to Anna and Elsa’s story, it’s clear that Disney took a lot of liberties with the source material.
Red Riding Hood – becomes the wolf’s meal
It’s a classic story we all know: a girl wearing a red cape is walking through the woods to see her grandmother and bring her some food. A wolf spots the girl and decides to pretend to be her grandmother. He eats the grandmother (or sometimes merely causes her to flee), and takes her spot in bed. Nowadays, we usually tell the tale of a clever Red Riding Hood figuring out that the wolf isn’t her grandmother and managing to flee from the wolf. Unfortunately for her, in the original story by Perrault, Red Riding Hood never figures out that the wolf is tricking her… and she is eaten. The story ends there. In another version, Grimm’s to be exact, the wolf eats her but then she is rescued by a lumberjack who cuts her – and her grandmother – out of the wolf’s stomach, which is at least a bit happier, albeit messier, version of the tale.
Sleeping Beauty – a rape
Sleeping Beauty is a classic fairy tale about a beautiful princess, a sleeping enchantment, and a handsome prince that has been told and retold many times including the recent Disney film “Maleficent.” Master storytellers the Grimm brothers brought us the version that is most well known to us today: it’s a relatively sanitized story about a beautiful princess who pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, which sends her into a deep sleep. Of course, a prince sees the sleeping beauty, awakens her with a kiss, and they live happily ever after. However, there are also some much darker versions. French writer Perrault says that the princess is awoken not with a dainty kiss but only after she has been raped by a king and given birth (in fact, it’s her children who wake her out of her coma). To add insult to injury, the king’s jealous wife then tries to eat the children. In another dark version by French writer Basile, after the woman falls into a deep sleep, she is propped up on a throne. Her father then shuts up the castle and abandons her in it. In this story, a passer-by king wanders into the castle, rapes the sleeping girl, and she gives birth to twins, who, once again, the jealous king’s wife tries to cook and eat. Fortunately, the jealous wife was tricked, and she eats lamb instead; then, the king marries the princess and they supposedly live “happily” ever after.
Snow White – a prince falls in love with the “dead” princess
Snow White is a classic tale of a lovely (if not naïve) princess, her dwarves, and a queen that relentlessly hopes to poison her (for whatever reason) and finally manages to do so with an apple. Grimm’s version of the tale is similar to the Disney story, although as proof that Snow White is dead, the Queen demands that he return with her lungs and heart. (The huntsman instead cooks a young boar and tries to pass off the beast’s organs as Snow’s.) After jumping through a few hurdles, the Queen usually manages to poison Snow with an apple. Time passes, and a prince traveling through the land sees Snow White. He goes over to her coffin and, enchanted by her beauty, instantly falls in love with her. In Grimm’s version, her friends the dwarfs let the prince have the coffin, which makes us wonder whether they were all that great of friends. As his servants carry the coffin away they stumble on some roots and this causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat, awakening her. As punishment for her attempted murder, a pair of hot iron shoes are brought and placed before the Queen. The Queen is then forced to step into the burning shoes and to dance until she drops dead.
Cinderella – gruesome twists
The Cinderella story originated as “The Little Glass Slipper.” The modern version we all know comes from Grimm’s and Perrault’s versions of the story, which are similar to the one we know today, plus or minus a few shocking details. In the Grimm version, Cinderella is not assisted by a Fairy Godmother but rather her dead mother. When she goes to talk to her mother in a graveyard, a white bird drops a dress and slippers for her to wear to the ball to meet the prince. The rest of the story progresses as we know it: she goes to a ball, loses a slipper, and the next day, the prince goes around the kingdom to try to figure out whose foot fits the shoe. In a bloody twist, her stepsisters are ordered by their mother to cut off their toes with a knife in order for their feet to fit into the shoe. The prince isn’t foiled for long: he figures out whose foot really does fit the shoe, and in a final gross twist, at his wedding to Cinderella, birds dive down and peck out the eyes of the stepsisters. How’s that for payback?