Twist in Tales

Written By: Barnali Sarkar

What if I told you that everything was not dreamy and innocent in the world of Sleeping Beauty? Or, a kiss didn’t make any difference in the life of The Frog Prince. Before you start asking whether I am trying to ruin your childhood memories of those hours spent on devouring fairy tales, let us look at the original version of these endearing stories that have hooked us for generations. 

Originally folktales were rewritten as fairy tales for the European aristocracy in the 17th century. Initially, these stories had murkier elements. Well-known French author Charles Perrault published a collection of stories titled the Tales of Mother Goose, including timeless classics such as Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty. These stories were spun orally and gained popularity through word of mouth. But in the 1800s when the Grimm Brothers started collecting German folklore, they published seven volumes of stories, including fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and other tales from Mother Goose. And the earlier versions of these fairy tales were a far cry from what they are today. 

Maybe the Grimm Brothers decided to leave their mark on the stories as many of the plots were grim and sinister. They were unsuitable for a young audience or kids as they were never meant for them in the first place. In fact, the world’s most celebrated collection of kids’ stories had begun as an academic anthology for scholars who studied German culture as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm started collecting German folklore with the sole intention of preserving their rich heritage. With time, the written version of these stories was altered with twists and turns and included happier and more acceptable endings.  

Some popular stories with dark shades and not so happy endings are: 

  • Cinderella: In the Grimm Brothers’ original version, the primary protagonist is called Aschenputtel and not Cinderella. Her wishes are not granted by the fairy godmother waving her magic wand but by a hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave, which the heroine waters with tear flowing from her eyes. Both the stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into the gold slipper. The stepsisters were beautiful but had “ugly hearts”. And to top it all, a pair of doves gouged out their eyes at Cinderella’s wedding. But the popular version is a watered-down adaptation of the original story as the slipper is made of glass and the stepsisters do not disfigure themselves or have their eyes gouged out by doves. But they are ugly in appearance. 
  • Snow White: This is a German fairy tale where the original version by the Brothers Grimm presents the evil queen as Snow White’s real mother who deploys assassins to bump her off. Moreover, the evil queen wants to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver to become fairer and younger. Hence she orders the killers to do her macabre biding. And when the evil queen attends the Prince and Snow White’s wedding, she is forced to wear hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead.
  • Sleeping Beauty: According to the Grimm Brothers’ version, the princess dies when a sliver of flax gets stuck under her fingernail. Her father cannot face the absurd reality and orders his men to lay her body on a bed in his estate. Many years later, another king who is on a hunting expedition, finds the sleeping princess and tries to awaken her. But when he fails to do so, the king outraged her modesty and impregnates her. The unconscious princess gives birth to twins and wakes up from her slumber when one of the babies accidentally removes the flax from her finger. By now the king who raped the princess is married to another woman. But he burns his wife alive and marries the princess and they live happily ever after.
  • The Frog Prince: The opt-repeated version portrays how the ugly frog transformed into a handsome prince when the princess kissed him, there was no kiss involved in the original story. In fact, the original version had the princess slamming the frog against a wall!

With time, the present form of many stories emerged as a fusion of various accounts of the same tales bearing in mind the social fabric and cultural origins of the storytellers. For instance, when the story of Cinderella appeared in ancient China and Egypt, several changes were introduced in the story pertaining to the social background of the storytellers. The Chinese story had a golden fish as Cinderella’s only friend. This fish is cruelly killed by her evil stepmother but an old man asks Cinderella to preserve the fish’s bones and seek help in times of trouble. And when the time comes, the fish grants Cinderella a beautiful gown made of feathers and golden slippers. The Egyptian version had Cinderella wearing slippers made of red leather whereas, in the West Indies, a breadfruit was transformed into her carriage instead of a pumpkin. And the very first version in the Grimm Brothers’ collection of folktales published in 1812 portrays Cinderella as a scullery maid who becomes a princess.

Although fairy tales played a major role in defining our childhood and making it memorable, these stories were in spirit a synthesis of the spoken version and their subsequent scripted adaptation. If we had read the original stories as kids most of us would be aghast or scared to death. And I wouldn’t even like to imagine the look on the faces of our parents. But then again the Grimms would argue that these stories weren’t meant for kids at all. And although I wouldn’t be able to look at fairy tales in the same way I used to before, once in a while I would still love to remain ensconced in the world of sweet and innocent stories.  

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