Happily Never After: The Dark Origins of Popular Fairytales
We spent most of our childhood dreaming of having our own perfect fairytale endings—winning epic sword battles, living in a big castle in a beautiful palace, you name it. Disney even made us dig ourselves into a deeper hole of delusion with its pleasant adaptations of famous tales that were originally written by the likes of the Grimm brothers, Lewis Carroll, James Matthew Barrie, and Charles Perrault.
Unfortunately, many of the fairytales we know and love are actually heavily modified versions of their original, more gruesome counterparts. We gathered some of the fairytales we thought all these years to be all sunshine and rainbows but turned out to be full of terror, violence, and even gore. If you’re looking for stories that emulate your happily ever after, this is not the place to look.
The Disney film adaptation of Cinderella was already pretty heavy to begin with; surviving in an abusive household and being held in slavery is far from child-friendly. The severity was masked by Cinderella’s wish-granting fairy godmother and Cinderella’s adorable mouse sidekicks Jaq and Gus. We know how the rest of the story goes: Cinderella meets her fairy godmother by giving her a magical makeover with the iconic blue dress and glass slippers. As in almost every fairytale retelling, Cinderella and Prince Charming became inseparable that night. But when the clock struck midnight, Cinderella ad left her glass slipper on the steps of the prince’s palace. Still in a lovestruck daze, the prince ventured off to find the slipper’s perfect fit. This is French author Charles Perrault’s version from 1697—the version we’re all familiar with.
However, in true brothers Grimm fashion, their rendition, Aschenputtel, was, of course, much darker. You already know that Drizella and Anastasia couldn’t fit their large feet into the slipper, but did you know what they actually did in Aschenputtel? Here’s a hint: they went to great lengths just to get the glass slipper to fit perfectly. In fact, one of them cut off their own toes while the other chopped off her own heel. Oh, the things people do for a handsome man.
If you thought that was bad, the gore and dismemberment actually don’t stop there. Cinderella goes on to marry the prince, the stepsisters are her bridesmaids, and they all live happily ever after… not. During the long-awaited wedding ceremony, some birds proceed to gouge Drizella and Anastasia’s eyes out, so not only are they missing toes, they’re missing eyes now, too. And we wonder why Disney whitewashed the real story…
Loved by many for accurately depicting what it means to never want to grow up, Peter Pan has become an iconic fairytale that continues to be enjoyed by both children and adults. Wendy, the eldest child of the story’s titular family, is told by her father to grow up in a fit of rage. Peter Pan and his sidekick Tinkerbell eventually pay these children a visit and take them to Never Land, where they meet the Lost Boys and Tiger Lily, not knowing that they’d be caught in the middle of a war against Captain Hook and his allies. The children must then make the decision of staying forever young in Never Land, or growing up as they return to their family in London.
But what many don’t know is that J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan actually had an incredibly gloomy backstory to it, one steeped in grief. Barrie had an older brother named David. He was the perfect child—maybe even the favorite. Tragically, David suffered a life-changing injury when he fell and cracked his skull after getting hit by an ice skater. Though he managed to survive for a short time, David eventually succumbed to the trauma he sustained from his wounds.
As Barrie grew up, David never grew older. He would forever be the young boy that he was before the accident. Surely you can already connect the dots—David was the very boy that inspired the character of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. This revelation gives a whole new meaning to the tale. One can even argue that Never Land is a representation of heaven, where kids who passed on early in their lives would forever be the same age. But then, dead kids are a big no-no in the world of Disney and Pixar.
The Frog Prince
You’ve probably heard of Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. The film ignited everyone’s love for sweet beignets and did a good job at introducing viewers to New Orleans’ rich culture of music, food, and dancing. It follows the story of Tiana, a young lady who dreamed of establishing her own restaurant. She chanced upon a prince named Naveen who had turned into a frog. Naveen mistook Tiana for a princess and asked her for a kiss to break the spell and transform him back into a human. She obliged, so of course, she turned into a frog herself. They spend the rest of the film journeying to escape the curse. This version centers on themes of love, happiness, success, and adventure.
But beyond the jazz and delicious cuisine lies the not-so-fun actual story devised by the great Grimm brothers. Originally published in 1812, The Frog Prince, otherwise known as Iron Henry, is about a princess who accidentally drops her golden ball in a pond and bumps into the frog prince while looking for it. Instead of a kiss, the wicked fairy’s curse was only broken when the princess hurled the frog prince against the wall. We’re pretty sure the blood and innards splattered on the walls didn’t live up to Disney’s sunshine standards.
It’s definitely not the romantic love story we were made to believe it was. The kiss solution had been floating around for the longest time already and even turned into a modern proverb of sorts—that it’s normal to kiss tons of frogs in your life before settling down with a true prince. But maybe we should follow the Grimm brothers’ version and bash them against concrete. Nonetheless, how throwing frogs against a wall somehow transformed into kissing frogs is something we might never figure out.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been interpreted by many to be a visualization of what it’s like to be on recreational drugs. The girl drank all sorts of potions and munched on wild mushrooms to shrink herself, and the caterpillar looked to be smoking through a hookah. Alice even hallucinated and imagined entirely new surroundings. It was really just a whole acid trip disguised as a children’s tale.
Drugs aside, the real story this tale was inspired by is nothing short of creepy. The author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who we know better under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, had reportedly been notorious for befriending little kids and having virtually zero adult friends. He was a photographer and a professor at Oxford who loved spending time with his colleagues’ little children and sending them sweet letters… but probably not in the wholesome way that you’re thinking.
He once wrote to a girl, “Extra thanks and kisses for the lock of hair. I have kissed it several times–for want of having you to kiss, you know, even hair is better than nothing.”
Dodgson eventually met Henry George Liddell, the new dean of Christ Church, and was introduced to his three young daughters, Lorina, Edith, … and Alice. Dodgson had taken the girls out on a boat ride. He told them a story to keep them entertained throughout the entire trip, and Alice loved it so much that she asked him to write everything down. She later became his muse for the classic tale.
Dodgson’s questionable history of excessive fondness towards young girls definitely sets off alarm bells for what kind of a person he actually was. A prolific photographer, professor, and author, yes, but a good person… perhaps not. Historian Martin Gardner even referred to Alice as Dodgson’s first love with whom he shared a relationship that was more special than that of his other “child-friends.” If that alone doesn’t scream predator, then we don’t know what does.
Little Red Riding Hood
Just when you thought the tales about young girls would stop at Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood suddenly swoops in—but as a cautionary tale. The version that’s widely known and told all around the world is the brothers Grimm one, but surprisingly, it’s the less grim of the two.
Little Red, a young, gullible girl, is making her way to deliver a basket of goodies to her ailing grandmother when she meets a deceptive wolf. Being the trusting individual that she is, Little Red stops to chat with the wolf, not knowing that she had just given it a chance to easily sneak into her grandmother’s cottage. The wolf stealthily breaks into the cottage, eats the grandmother, and dresses in her clothes, all before the carefree girl could arrive.
How she could mistake a large (and not to mention furry) wolf for a frail old woman is a mystery in itself. The wolf eventually eats Little Red, too, but a heroic woodsman cuts open the wolf’s stomach, frees the pair, and fills the wolf’s stomach with rocks. The wolf drowns and dies, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Though in Charles Perrault’s 1600s version, there is no such thing as a happy ending. In fact, the woodsman isn’t even there to save Little Red and her grandmother. Little Red was described by Perrault as “the prettiest creature who was ever seen.” You can probably already see where this is going. The wolf goes through the very same process: befriend Little Red, distract her, sneak into her grandmother’s house, eat the woman, and pose as her to trick her granddaughter. Except this time, when Little Red gets eaten herself, there is no one there to save her and her grandmother. Lo and behold, they end up getting digested by the big bad wolf.
Perrault meant Little Red Riding Hood to be a warning against sexual predators. Perrault wrote, “Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”
Though Perrault meant well, ??his tale’s intended moral rings with internalized patriarchy. Sadly, like every version of Little Red Riding Hood, Perrault teaches girls to not fall victim to wolves, instead of teaching wolves to not be wolves.