Not so happily ever after
Slaughtering children, a cursed nightingale and a pregant Rapunzel: Victoria Marston relates the real fairytales
TODAY, ‘raised on fairytales’ is a common slur. Little girls who have grown up on a diet of Disney are deemed daft for patiently waiting for their prince to come and rescue them from a life of drudgery— even if this is more likely to constitute taking the Tube and answering emails than sweeping cinders. Young boys are fools to believe that they can take on the ogre and emerge victorious.
We might wonder what the Brothers Grimm would think of this evolution of their oeuvre, which was originally, quite frankly, pretty grim. Jacob and Wilhelm were German scholars who compiled folk songs and literature, initially staying true to the tales they collected.
However, the gradual sanitisation of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen, first published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815, was actually begun by their own hands. By the time of the publication of the seventh and final edition in 1857, the stories had been injected with a family-friendly sense of Christianity and idealism.
A classic example is the wicked stepmother, who appears in later versions of both Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. This ruthless woman was, in fact, initially a biological mother, but this didn’t sit well with the Grimms, who held motherhood sacred.
Our modern fairytales are not those that were once passed around a fire, from whispering mouth to horrified ear, with titles such as How Some Children Played at Slaughtering. The message was most certainly not one of ‘happy ever after’.
Consider these examples, from an English translation of the first edition by the Brothers Grimm—and perhaps don’t share them with your children at bedtime. ‘The Original Folk & Fairytales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition’ was translated and edited by Jack Zipes (£27, Princeton University Press)
Stealing is okay as long as it’s from a child gobbling witch