And some of them lived happily ever after

Were the wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella” really so wicked that they deserved to have their eyeballs pecked out by pigeons? Because that’s exactly what happens to them in the original version of the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale. I grew up with the sanitised modern version, where the defeated stepsisters simply skulk away to nurse their damaged egos. In the book of original fairy tales that I picked up for my kids, however, the ending is very different. I won’t quote it directly, because I’m not really confident that I understand how copyright works, but to paraphrase – “And then Cinderella married the prince and they all lived happily ever after, except for the wicked stepsisters, who had their eyeballs pecked out by pigeons. The End.”

The Brothers Grimm certainly were grim. The “Cinderella” story alone contains enough gruesome tidbits to fill up a zombie’s lunchbox. For example, in an effort to squeeze into the tiny glass slipper, and thus connive her way into an undeserved shot at the crown, each stepsister uses a knife to hack off a piece of her own foot. At her mother’s suggestion, the first sister removes her big toe. The second sister follows by slicing off her heel. In each case, the prince only discovers the deception when he notices blood seeping out of the shoe. We’re a long, long way from Disneyland now, aren’t we?

The original versions of other Grimm fairy tales are similarly dark. In “Rumpelstiltskin”, the title character is so upset about having his true name revealed that he grabs hold of his own leg and literally tears himself in half out of rage. In “Little Red Riding Hood”, after disposing of the big bad wolf, Ms Hood and her grandmother entrap and murder a second wolf, just for kicks. In “Snow White”, the evil queen’s punishment at the end of the story – presumably ordered by the new queen, Snow White – is to be placed in shoes of red hot iron and forced to dance around for the amusement of the court until she falls down dead.

And those are just the ones that became beloved children’s classics.

Lesser known fairy tales from the Grimm collection include “The Girl With No Hands”, “The Devil’s Sooty Brother”, and “The Death Of The Little Hen”, which ends with what is quite possibly the most inappropriate closing line in the entire history of fairy tales – “And then everyone was dead.”

Long before they became watered-down merchandising vehicles, these stories were intended as cautionary tales. They reflect common concerns and dangers from the era of their creation. Look out for wolves and witches. Don’t eat fruit. Be nice to your homely stepsister because wild animals do her bidding and they will mess you up.

These were all relevant at the time. Some would argue that they are less relevant today. Horror movies, the modern day equivalents of 19th century fairy tales, teach us a different set of lessons. Never trust a ventriloquist’s dummy. Stay well away from the ocean. Be very, very careful about choosing your holiday accommodation. All of these are important life lessons for children and adults alike. My only concern is that focussing on these lessons will lead us to become complacent about the ones that we should be learning from the classics. The last thing I want is for my children to come across a gingerbread house in the woods and not understand the true extent of the horror that lies within.

So my kids will be reading the classics. And there will be nightmares, I’m sure. But a few sleepless nights are infinitely preferable to a lifetime entrapped in a secluded tower with very little chance of a haircut.

And don’t worry, they’ll be watching “Jaws” as well. I want to give them a rounded education after all.

Do fairy tales make you nervous? Leave a comment and tell me all about it. And don’t forget to subscribe for more hard-hitting parental commentary direct to your Inbox or RSS feed.

2 Responses to 'And some of them lived happily ever after'

  1. Mark says:

    That’s nice and all but very retrograde. I’ll be preparing my children for the future by exposing them to as wide a range of science fiction as I can legally cram into their skulls (which may, depending on which authors are better at predicting events to come, include some kind of direct download into their brains).

    That way they’ll be prepared for everything from a dark and rain soaked search for life like robots to riding through an utopian universe in a shiny spaceship.

    We’ll see who’s laughing when the alien hordes arrive.

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