The Gruesome Side of Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Not all fairy tales end in "happily ever after." -- Credit: AForestFrolic (via Flickr)
Not all fairy tales end in “happily ever after.” — Credit: AForestFrolic (via Flickr)

When some people think of fairy tales from their youth, they can count on one thing — a “happily ever after.” But fairy tales weren’t always feel-good stories. Many were downright morbid.

These fairy tales of old — like those passed down by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm — were more often cautionary tales meant to teach children hard lessons. The Brothers Grimm became famous for their retellings of these old German folk tales, in all their gory glory. But thanks to brands like Disney, the fairy tales children grow up with today scarcely resemble their darker origins.

Let’s explore those “grimm” beginnings.

The Dark Side of Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Here are some of the darkest elements to be found in early translations of Grimms’ fairy tales, including some specific examples from some popular and lesser-known stories.

Murder

A bone flute -- Credit: asgitner (via Wikimedia)
A bone flute — Credit: asgitner (via Wikimedia)

Perhaps one of the most basic dark elements common to Grimms’ fairy tales is murder. The particularly disturbing part is that murder in fairy tales very often happens within families.

The Juniper Tree

A woman decides to eliminate her stepson so her daughter can inherit all of her father’s riches. She chops off the boy’s head by slamming a chest shut on it as he reaches in for an apple. To make matters worse, she props his head back onto his body and ties the head on with a scarf (so apparently no one will realize he’s been murdered). She then prompts her own daughter to “box his ears” if he doesn’t respond to her, thereby making her daughter think she murdered her brother.

The Singing Bone

Two brothers are tasked with killing a wild boar, with the successful one promised the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage. One brother goes out and kills the boar. When his drunk brother sees this he murders the successful brother and takes the boar to the king himself to claim the princess.

How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

This is actually two short tales from Grimms’ first edition. In one a group of children “play at slaughtering” with a child being chosen to play a pig. The “butcher” in the group slits his throat while other catches his blood in a bowl (to later make sausage). The murderous child is let go in that first one. In the second tale we have two brothers. Again, one plays a butcher and one plays the pig. The “pig” has his throat slit. The boys’ mother, who was bathing a third child at the time, comes downstairs at the commotion. She grabs the knife and stabs her other son in the heart. When she goes back upstairs, the third child had drowned.

Cannibalism

If a violent death isn’t enough to turn you off of Grimms’ fairy tales, how do you feel about devouring human flesh? Cannibalism is another theme found within several of their collected stories.

The Robber Bridegroom

A young woman is promised to a man by her father. She never gets a good feeling about the guy, and she’s warned by a bird that she is in a murderer’s house when she visits her bridegroom’s home for the first time. As it turns out, her bridegroom has no intention to marry her and live happily ever after. He and his fellow robbers instead capture girls, kill them, and eat them. She sees them do this to another young woman before escaping.

The Juniper Tree

After murdering her stepson, the woman in this tale chops up his body and feeds him to his own father in the form of stew.

Mutilation

Parents in some of Grimms’ tales seem to have no problem ordering the mutilation of their children’s bodies (or even doing it themselves). These two tales are perfect examples.

Cinderella

In older versions of this tale, the two stepsisters mutilate their feet in an attempt to fit into the glass (or golden, depending on the version) slipper. One cuts off her big toe and the other cuts off part of her heel — all at their mother’s instruction. After all, notes their mother, “when you are queen you will no longer have to go on foot.”

The Girl Without Hands

Long story short, a father is instructed by the devil to chop off his daughter’s hands. And he does.

Child Abuse & Neglect

The Girl With No Hands -- Credit: cheekycrows3 (via Flickr)
The Girl With No Hands — Credit: cheekycrows3 (via Flickr)

One of the darker themes found in Grimms’ tales that sometimes survives into the sanitized versions is that of child abuse and neglect. For example, you probably know the story of Snow White’s stepmother sending a huntsman after her to kill her in the forest. Planning to murder your children seems to be an unfortunate, but common, theme in these early folk tales.

Hansel and Gretel

In Hansel and Gretel, the children are deserted in the forest after their stepmother convinces their father that they’d be better off without an extra two mouths to feed. When the children find their way home following a trail of pebbles, that doesn’t stop the loving parents from trying again to leave them for dead.

The Twelve Brothers

In this tale a king decides that he wants his pregnant wife to bear him a daughter, and when that daughter is born he wants her to be his sole heir. Therefore he has 12 coffins created for his 12 sons, whom he plans to have killed if the baby is indeed a girl. It is. Fortunately the queen warned one of the boys and he was able to get his brothers to safety.

The Girl Without Hands

The father in this tale chops off his daughter’s hands solely to save his own skin. And this was all because he couldn’t keep her dirty enough for the devil (her tears washed her hands clean and the devil had no power over her if she was clean — meaning pure and pious). The devil swore to take the man himself if he couldn’t deliver his daughter.

The Juniper Tree

Before the stepmother murders her stepson, she abuses him. This quote comes from an early version of the tale. “And the Evil One filled her mind with this until she grew very angry with the little boy, and she pushed him from one corner to the other and slapped him here and cuffed him there, until the poor child was always afraid, for when he came home from school there was nowhere he could find any peace.” Basically, she terrorized her stepson because she was worried he would stand in the way of her and her daughter’s inheritance.

Revenge

Ah, revenge — the most common dark theme of all of Grimm’s collected tales. If you grew up reading the “originals” you would have learned that bad deeds are not only punished, but punished severely.

Cinderella

Unlike the Disney series of Cinderella tales where the stepsisters see redemption, in early versions they have their eyes pecked out by birds and are forced to live the rest of their lives as lame blind beggar women (after having already mutilated their own feet).

The Twelve Brothers

In this tale we don’t directly witness the murders. But it’s noted that the 12 brothers murder every girl they come across as vengeance for their own fate. That ends when one brother meets their sister and strikes a deal to have her spared (and she in turn redeems them after she accidentally turns them into ravens).

The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids

After a wolf eats six of her seven kids whole, a mother goat cuts open the wolf’s stomach to save her kids. But rather than leaving it at that, she seeks revenge by filling his opened stomach with stones. As the wolf goes to the river to drink, the stones weigh him down and he falls in where he drowns.

Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood)

In a very similar ending, some versions of the Little Red Cap story also end with a wolf’s stomach being cut open. In this case it is a huntsman who finds the wolf and cuts his stomach open to rescue the girl and her grandmother (who were also swallowed whole). And again, they fill the stomach of the wolf with rocks, which kills him.

Snow White

Forget the innocence you probably think of when reading about Snow White. The Grimms’ version shows a more vengeful side. The evil queen is forced to wear a pair of iron shoes heated on burning coals, in which she must dance until she dies.

The Singing Bone

After it becomes known that the husband of the princess actually killed his brother and stole the wild boar he was tasked to find and kill, he’s put to death himself. Just to make this story a little darker, his acts became known after his dead brother’s bone surfaced, was turned into a flute, and tattled on him through song.

The Robber Bridegroom

After she discovers that her bridegroom is killing and eating women, the young woman has him come to her family’s house for their wedding. She then tells the tale of what she witnessed and even has a victim’s chopped-off finger as proof. Her family then seizes the man and his fellow robbers and they are all executed for their crimes.

Suicide

Rumpelstiltskin -- Credit: Walter Crane (via Wikimedia)
Rumpelstiltskin — Credit: Walter Crane (via Wikimedia)

Sometimes the violence in fairy tales is less about violence done unto others, and instead violence done unto oneself — generally in some sort of fit.

Rumpelstiltskin

People read into the ending of Rumpelstiltskin differently — whether his actions constitute suicide-by-rage or an accident. But in the end of the tale when the little man doesn’t get his way, he tears himself right in half.

Bearskin

There are three sisters and one man who made a deal with the devil. Basically he has to spend 7 years unwashed and wearing a bear skin as a cloak (and using it as his only bed) to see a lifetime of wealth. He shows kindness to a stranger who then promises Bearskin one of his three daughters. When he meets the sisters, the elder two are repulsed by him. But the youngest agrees to marry him when he returns in three years (the end of his seven year deal). When he returns, the two elder sisters are so infuriated that this now-handsome and wealthy man is going to marry their sister instead of them that they both kill themselves. One drowns herself in a well and the other hangs herself from a tree.

How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

In the second of these two tales, after seeing all three of her children dead, the mother then commits suicide by hanging herself.

Violence Against Animals

The Frog Prince -- Credit: Robert Anning Bell (via Wikimedia)
The Frog Prince — Credit: Robert Anning Bell (via Wikimedia)

Children and women weren’t the only common victims of violence in Grimm’s fairy tales. Animals saw their fair share too.

The Frog Prince

Older translations don’t have a princess kissing a frog to turn him back into a prince. Instead the young princess, repulsed by the frog, throws him against a wall. Somehow that fit of violence breaks the spell he was under.

The Bremen Town Musicians

This tale features a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster. They venture to Bremen to become musicians. But the reason they do this is because their owners or masters all wanted to kill them because they were becoming old and of less use to them. Fortunately for the animals in this story, they lived. They even managed to outsmart some robbers, steal their house, and live out their days there more comfortably.

Beyond the Brothers Grimm

The Grimm brothers weren’t the only story-weavers known for their dark fairy tales which have since been sanitized. Hans Christian Andersen is another great example — more specifically his story of The Little Mermaid.

Forget the Disney musical. The earlier versions didn’t just involve the mermaid losing her voice. She had her tongue cut out. She wasn’t simply granted a pair of legs in exchange for that either. When she walked she was in tortuous pain, feeling as though every step were coming down on a blade. And when the prince married a princess instead of her, the little mermaid was given a choice — murder the prince and become a mermaid again or die herself. In some versions, she simply turns into sea foam, as mermaids supposedly would have no soul. Andersen later changed the ending to have her join the “daughters of the air” and have an opportunity to earn a soul through good deeds.

As another example, some versions of the story of Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) end not with a kiss, but in the rape of a comatose heroine who is awakened by one of the twins she gives birth to while unconscious.

Also, some of the earliest versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story involve an ogre rather than a wolf. In those versions we sometimes see an introduction of cannibalism, where “Red” is fed her grandmother’s flesh and blood rather than having her rescued by a hunter.

One final example is Charles Perrault’s version of Bluebeard. In this tale, Bluebeard murders his wives and hangs their bodies from hooks in his cellar. When he takes a new bride, he leaves her in the home with strict instructions not to look in the cellar, although she may go anywhere else she pleases. Of course, the women always look in the cellar, and are then murdered. In this tale though, the final woman’s brothers come to her rescue and kill Bluebeard instead.

The Disney-fication of Fairy Tales

Murder, revenge, and even cannibalism were topics often covered in Grimms’ fairy tales. But the public mood changed over time, and parents found these tales less palatable for the next generation of impressionable minds. So more marketable retellings stole the spotlight.

Disney, and contemporaries, sanitized the stories to appease a new audience. Eliminate the murder and revenge and add some sing-alongs and friendly animal sidekicks (and that all-important “happily ever after”) and you have the modern fairy tale. But this “Disney-fication” of the tales isn’t actually new. Even the Grimm brothers toned down their collections when they wanted to make them more family-friendly to reach a wider audience. This often involved things like adding more Christian elements, turning evil mothers into step-mothers, and removing references to sex (like Rapunzel’s pregnancy from her rendezvous with the prince).

In fact, the brothers often released multiple versions or revisions of the same stories, making it difficult if not impossible to identify a “true original.” That issue is further complicated by the fact that they weren’t writing stories, but rather transcribing oral tales that had been passed down to them. On the plus side, that means that no matter what your taste in fairy tales is — from the dark tales of old to the Disney versions of today — you have plenty of options to choose from.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale passed down by the Grimm brothers? Do you remember any particularly disturbing tales that weren’t mentioned here? Tell us about them in the comments, and let us know how you like your fairy tales — dark or Disney-fied (or both).

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Written by A.J. Klein

A.J. Klein is a horror writer working on her first novel and short story collection. She blogs about the horror genre, and has worked as a professional blogger and freelance writer for more than ten years (under another name). She also writes mysteries as Aria Klein.

2 Comments

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  1. About 35 years ago I bought a “Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales” book for my kids without looking beyond the table of contents.

    Mistake. Big mistake.

    I tossed the book after my son questioned one of the stories.

    • When I first saw the original book when I was shocked.I feel I was deceived!
      The true face of the original fairy tale is dark tales!
      I think this book is really not suitable for small children to see.
      Perhaps the adults are afraid of this horror and dark story
      T_T

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