Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Happily Ever After? The Truth About Fairytales

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

As you may know, I absolutely adore fantasy, especially folk stories and fairy tales. But it's no real newsflash that a lot of the most popular fairy tales have been 'brightened up' in modern times. For as magical and enchanting as they may be, even they have their fair share of dark moments!

The golden age of Disney films is a good example - some of the imagery used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs looks like it came straight from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari; one of the first horror movies ever made!
But even these stories descend from some pretty grisly and sometimes shocking origins, the depth of which doesn't come to mind straightaway. It's easy to forget that fairy tales were not originally intended for children. It was only later that they became mystical fables which helped to teach boys and girls life lessons.

So here are some of my favourite fairy tales in their original forms. Some of them do have a happy ending, but they are all definitely more gruesome than how they've often been portrayed in popular culture. Some are ones you may not have heard of, but I take no responsibility for any ruining of childhoods here! Read on at your own risk!

The Little Mermaid

The sea witch claims the mermaid's voice by cutting out her tongue, and gives her an indefinite period to win the love of the prince and an immortal soul by marrying him. Every step feels like walking on knives, but she still dances with ethereal beauty, causing everyone to take notice. But the prince believes another woman saved him from the shipwreck and decides to marry her instead. The mermaid is approached by her sisters, who have cut off their hair and given it to the witch in exchange for a dagger. They offer it to the mermaid, saying that if she stabs the prince through the heart and lets his blood wash over her feet, she'll regain her tail and be able to return to her family. But the mermaid loves the prince too much to kill him, so she leaps overboard and transforms into sea foam.

The Wild Swans

When eleven princes are turned into swans by their wicked stepmother, their sister Eliza determines to lift the curse. The only way she can is by picking nettles from a graveyard with her bare hands, trampling them into flax with her bare feet, and then weaving eleven shirts from them to dress her brothers in. But throughout the whole process, she cannot speak a single word, no matter how much pain she is in, otherwise all her brothers will die. She carries on weaving even though she is eventually accused of witchcraft for her work, and narrowly escapes being burned at the stake.

Snow White

The huntsman sends seven year-old Snow White into the forest, even though he knows she will likely be killed by wild beasts. He then slays a pig, taking its lungs and liver as proof of the kill, which the queen later eats in the belief that they are her stepdaughter's. When the queen discovers Snow White is still alive, she tries to kill her not once, but three times: by lacing her bodice too tight, running a poisoned comb through her hair, and then giving her a poisoned apple. When the prince finds Snow White, he convinces the dwarves to let him take her away because he has fallen in love with her dead body. On the way to the castle, however, his men accidentally drop the glass coffin, causing Snow White to wake up when the piece of apple dislodges from her throat. The queen is later invited to the wedding, only to be punished for her attempted murders by being forced to dance in a pair of white-hot iron shoes until she drops dead.


Rapunzel is taken by a sorceress at birth as payment for her parents' theft of a lettuce. She later meets a prince who climbs the tower to visit her, and brings skeins of silk so she can make a ladder to escape with him. One day Rapunzel mentions to the sorceress that her dress has grown tight around her belly, causing the sorceress to realise she has been seeing a man. Furious, she cuts off Rapunzel's hair and exiles her to a distant land. When the prince comes to the tower, the sorceress says he will never see his beloved again. The prince leaps from the window in despair and is blinded by thorns. He wanders alone for years and eventually comes to the land where Rapunzel has been living with the twin children she had given birth to. She recognises him and cries tears into his eyes, which heals him.

The Red Shoes

Karen is a girl who becomes fascinated with a pair of red shoes. When she leaves her elderly guardian to die in favour of dancing at a ball, she is unable to stop. She is forced to dance constantly through fields and graveyards, until her feet are bleeding, with no way to get the shoes off. She is soon confronted by an angel who tells her she is forsaken by all her loved ones, and condemned to dance forever until she is little more than a skeleton, to warn children against vanity. Desolate, she eventually manages to find a headsman and persuades him to cut off her feet. He made her some wooden legs and crutches so she could finally go home and repent, but the shoes carried on dancing by themselves with her feet still in them.

Sleeping Beauty

The princess is cursed to prick her finger on a flax spinning wheel and die after a wicked fairy is not invited to her christening party. Another fairy at the party who had not yet granted the princess a gift, alters the spell so that the spindle will not cause death, instead a century-long sleep. But there is one version of the story which says the teenage princess wasn't left completely undisturbed. Instead, she is found by a passing king who has his way with her, causing her to grow pregnant and give birth to twins while she is still asleep. It is the action of one of the babies that woke her, searching for a breast and instead suckling on her finger, loosening the shard of flax that had stuck there.


In the original version, the stepmother is even more determined to make sure one of her own daughters marries the prince. However, the slipper Cinderella had left at the ball was fitted especially to her foot. So the stepmother, saying there would be no need to walk again once married to the prince, tells the first stepsister to cut off her toe so the slipper will fit. The prince notices the blood and brings her back, so the second stepsister is then ordered to cut off her heel. Again, the prince sees the blood in the shoe and returned to the house. Cinderella was then able to try the slipper. The stepsisters later went to the wedding, but two pigeons attacked them and pecked out their eyes.

And finally, a little word about Blindsighted Wanderer...
Even though it's not a fairy tale written by Andersen or collected by the Brothers Grimm, the Asrai water nymphs do feature in a folk tale that inspired my first published novel. You can see the similarities most clearly in the prologue, but even that differs slightly.

In the original legend, the Asrai doesn't escape the fisherman - he rows to the edge of the lake with her bound in a net and hidden underneath a clump of reeds. By the time he gets there, however, the sun has risen and melted her into a pool of water.