This is a guest post by Melissa Lobo.
Many of the children’s stories that abound today involve charming main characters accompanied by silly (and only sometimes smart) sidekicks who, though they learn an important lesson on the way, end their adventures with a neat-and-tidy happily ever after. Nonetheless, this type of plot device has not always been the standard.
In fact, a significant number of stories find their start with a much darker, sinister origin story. Instead of cheery songs and happy endings, these stories were traditionally a cautionary tale against children’s possible wicked thoughts or actions. Most notably, these tales typically involved much more gruesome death than your average bedtime story of today.
While the traditional tale of Cinderella involves the two evil stepsisters and a stepmother, a mistreated girl and a prince, that’s where many of the similarities end. Cinderella is a poorly treated girl who is abused constantly by her stepfamily. She has assistance (from either a fairy godmother or a dove, depending on the version) and ends up going to the ball and leaves a fur or gold slipper behind.
Cinderella Fleeing the Ball by Anne Anderson
The story gets truly dark when the prince visits the households of the kingdom in an attempt to locate his beloved and Cinderella’s stepsisters decide to cut off portions of their feet in order to be able to fit into the shoe. One sister hacks off her toes, while the other carves down her heels to make the slippers work. With regard to animal sidekicks, this version of the story does not involve the set of helpful mice that often pop up in modern tellings, but the prince does get assistance from two doves. These doves follow the prince along as he tests the shoe, then step-in when he arrives at Cinderella’s house. They help him to see that blood is pooling in the shoe and the stepsisters are trying to deceive him.
In further contrast to the friendly animal companions of today, both doves ultimately peck someone’s eyes out.
Schneewittchen by Alexander Zick
This short story about the fair and lovely Snow White differs right from the beginning; in the original tale, the huntsman is ordered to bring back several internal organs of the princess for the evil queen to consume. The evil queen meets her untimely end, however, when she’s forced to don iron shoes that have been heated in the fireplace and proceed to dance until she dies.`
Originally a German tale, this story seems to have a hard lesson for every character in it. Instead of getting rescued and living happily ever after with the prince, Rapunzel is never truly rescued in the classic short story. Instead, the witch finds out that the prince has been coming into the tower each night. She tricks the prince into climbing Rapunzel’s hair and then throws him into the thorns below, where he is blinded.
Illustration by Johnny Gruelle
The witch then banishes a pregnant Rapunzel from the tower, where she wanders afraid and alone until finally meeting up with the prince again. Older versions of the story are even darker, as the prince refuses to marry Rapunzel and claims he never really loved her to begin with.
Hansel and Gretel
Although the modern telling of Hansel and Gretel might seem like a dark story in itself, the original Brothers Grimm version was infinitely darker. In it, the woodcutter’s wife casts Hansel and Gretel out into the forest to save herself and her husband from starving to death due to a famine.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham
Hansel and Gretel eventually end up at the witch’s cottage, where they realize they’re in trouble when they see her cleaning out a cage from the last child she ate. She doesn’t clean it out very thoroughly, however, as Hansel finds a bone in it from the previous occupant and uses it to trick the witch into thinking he’s not yet fat.
Gretel finally saves the day when she pushes the witch into the fire, leaving her to scream and burn to death. Hansel and Gretel do eventually make it home, to find that their mother has died and that they are free to reunite with their father.
In this German folktale, a miller claims to a king that his daughter has the ability to spin straw into gold. The king calls for the daughter, and then promptly locks her in a room, telling her that if she hasn’t spun the straw into gold by morning she will be beheaded (in less gruesome versions, it’s said she will be locked in a dungeon forever).
Rumpelstiltskin then appears and makes a deal to spin the straw into gold for a price. This repeats itself several more nights with his price escalating until the cost is the girl’s first-born child. He informs her that the only way she can stop the deal is if she finds out his name. Through luck and some quick thinking, the girl figures it out, saving her child. This is one tale that actually became darker with later tellings; in the original, Rumpelstiltskin runs away. In later versions of the story, he grabs one foot and literally tears himself into two.
Illustration by Anne Anderson
There’s a whole host of other fairy tales (like Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, or Chicken Little) that work similarly; in modern retellings, much of the main storyline stays the same, with one notable difference from the original: someone (or sometimes everyone) actually gets eaten. These darker original children’s stories often relied on the fear of death to prove a point or warn children against bad behavior.
Whether it’s cannibalism, unusual (and cruel) punishments, or simply a tragic ending, these children’s stories are certainly not the variety that we know and love today. And while there are definite similarities in plot and characters, it seems from reading these origin stories that ‘happily ever after’ might just be a modern invention.
Melissa Lobo is a young and energetic writer, a mom to a sweet little boy, and a fur-mom to two perfect pooches. Before becoming the Associate Content Director for Project Female, she was a journalist specializing in topics related to women in politics and policy affecting women.