Dark origins of Grimm’s fairy tales

woman standing near a castle
Photo by Alesia Kozik on

By Peter Fernandez

The Brothers Grimm were the German siblings Jacob Ludwig (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Carol (1786-1859), who collected, researched, and published hundreds of oral stories, most of European origin. Had it not been for these archivists and lexicographers, the world may never have heard of Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, the Golden Goose, and Sleeping Beauty. Their first collection, Kinder und Hausmarchen, or, Nursery and Household Tales, containing 86 stories, was published in 1812.

In the early 19th century, Germany was divided into 200 principalities, according to author/lecturer Sarah Dobbs, “and many people including the Grimm’s law professor, Friedrich von Savigny-wanted to see them united as a single nation.”

Deutschland’s intelligentsia was hoping that turning to traditional myths and fables could define and bond a united German national identity. “The theory was that these stories,” continued Dobbs, “passed down from one generation to the next, contain the collective hopes, fears, and morals of the German people.”  

What isn’t widely known is that the unrefined, organic contexts of these folktales consisted of diabolically dark, gruesome, and gory ingredients. Such stories embraced cannibal-giants and witches, dragons and devilish dwarves, ghosts, ghouls, and wicked stepmothers, yet, also, a common hero/heroine, who would rise above the aforementioned conflict to attain riches, glory, and live happily ever after, not unlike a Wagnerian opera.

Regrettably, the Grimms included a trio of anti-Semitic fables, which explains, in part, how and why, in the next century, a “psychopathic god” would design and engineer the meteoric rise and fall of one of the world’s most cultured and advanced industrial nations. After WWII, the occupation forces of Britain outlawed Grimm’s Fairy Tales because “they fed a supposedly blood-thirsty German imagination.”

However, even before that war, global publishers were taming these feral Freudian folktales, as Walt Disney enthralled audiences with a squeaky clean version of Snow White in 1937. The original medieval tale’s antagonist is Snow White’s own mother, who wants to eat her liver and lungs. With the help of the dwarfs and her royal beau, the protagonist gains revenge upon her ghoulish mum at Snow White’s wedding: “They put a pair of iron shoes into burning coals. They were brought forth with tongs. She was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell dead.”  

The Grimm’s Cinderella variant also has little to do with Disney’s 1950 cartoon or the innocence and optimism that defined that buoyant decade’s popular culture. The young protagonist’s mother dies, and her grave is transformed into a magical shrine replete with a wish-giving tree, and dove-familiars. At the ball, Cinderella loses her slipper, because the prince “smeared the staircase with pitch, and there, when she ran down, had the maiden’s left slipper which remained sticking.”

Back in Cinderella’s dysfunctional domicile, the stepsisters’ feet do not correspond with the glass slipper. “Then her mother gave her a knife and said, ‘Cut the toe off; when you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.’” The second stepsister cuts off her heel. Cinderella’s dead mother sends the doves to inform the prince of the scheme. You could say that Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters were heels for not toeing the socially acceptable line.

At the story’s end, the doves attend our golden girl’s wedding, along with the step-sisters, who hope to gain favor and share in Cinderella’s bright future. “…Then the doves pecked out the eyes of each of them… And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”

The original Sleeping Beauty was written in 1528 by Naples’ Giam-battista Basile, and titled, “Sole, Luna, e Talia” (Sun, Moon, and Talia). Asking the court mystics to predict Talia’s future, her royal father learns that she will be in danger from a splinter of flax. He bans it from the kingdom, but from her tower’s lofty casement, our protagonist sees an old woman, who, apparently, didn’t get Daddy’s message, outside spinning flax on a spindle. She gives it a try, cuts herself, and falls dead. The inconsolable king abandons and converts the palace into his daughter’s catacomb.  

A century passes, and a hunting royal finds that his falcon has flown into the crypt. Inside, he finds Talia’s perfectly preserved body. He succumbs to his latent necrophilia, and nine months later, the dead Talia gives birth to twins. He names them Sun and Moon because they are essentially wonders. Later, their mother is resurrected after one of the suckling brats nips her. Despite their unhinged and creepy courtship, the pair and their brood live happily ever after.

Most fairy tales concern our childhood fears, the death or abandonment of a parent or sibling, yet, also, of primal desires, romantic and sexual in nature. The sketchy origins of these fictions are, indeed, as disturbing as the emotions their characters and plots can, ultimately, conjure.

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3 replies »

  1. In retrospect, I sometimes wonder if the euphemisms created by Disney may have done more damage than not to the psyche of my generation by creating the illusion, not only of an idyllic utopia, but of what is, so far at least, the unrealistic expectation that everyone on the planet can live together in complete harmony.

    I’m reminded of General Maximus (in the movie Gladiator) speaking with Marcus Aurelius.

    “I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.”

    “Yet you have never been there.”… said Ceasar. “You have not seen what it has become.”

    Hope springs eternal. ‘Strength and honor.’

  2. This information is fairly well known to anyone who’s taken a course in children’s literature or folklore; for everyone else, it’s good to have this information as part of one’s knowledge base, but it’s hardly revolutionary in this age of Google and Wikipedia, not to mention the recirculating of kiddie lit characters like the Wicked Witch of the West in the musical “Wicked,” or the recent film adaptation of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Anyone who’s seen the latter, in the original Broadway version or in the recent film, has seen Cinderella’s stepsisters get a bloody comeuppance! Folk tales and fairy tales are found all over the world, and, yes, many of them are “sketchy.” BTW: the Grimms’ tales were not, originally, collected for children to read. And even created tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s, a generation later, are heavy on the doom factor, as my students have found out when I inflict the original “Little Mermaid” on them (spoiler: she doesn’t marry the Prince). The article perhaps offers interested readers a doorway into further study of these tales, but arguing that the Grimms were part of a bloodthirsty Teutonic ambition to rule the world through diabolical storytelling is a little bit on the order of what Shakespeare called “to gild gold, or paint the lily.” After all, the Nazis had plenty of folklore to call upon, and did, as Wagner made plain, without bringing Sleeping Beauty or Rumplestiltskin into the mix. It’s important that we understand that earlier ages had different priorities than ours, perhaps; not that one should excuse anti-Semitism (which was endemic in the German states as well as the rest of Europe (and America) for hundreds of years before and after the Grimms (or Walt Disney). But it’s helpful to try too understand why different cultures passed on these tropes and beliefs, and what that means for us today, as students and as participants in our own cultures. The article seems unnecessarily inflammatory to me, but perhaps that’s because I long ago came to terms with the world of fairy tales and understood, even at a tender age, that that world did not necessarily reflect my own, nor should it; it was the place where stories dwelt, to love or hate, to ponder or throw away, or perhaps to file under “wonder” and leave for the next generation to discover.

  3. Excellent criticism. Was not aware such stories were not initially intended for children, and should have known this. I was surprised the British authorities did what they did, but the world was still in shock, and we got hindsight. Who knows what little Adolph Schicklegrubber read.