The Fascinating Histories Behind Your Favorite Fairy Tales

It’s a little disconcerting to know that the real stories behind the fairy tales that made your eyes go all sparkly as a child were originally tales of rape, self-injury and forced abandonment. But the inspiration behind these stories simply resonated more clearly and relevantly with audiences at the time they were created, and have since been adapted to please our morals and desire for happy endings today. Whether you’re a literature student or just interested in "real-life" accounts behind fictional tales, here are the fascinating histories behind your favorite fairy tales.

  • The Brothers Grimm adapted existing — darker — folk tales: Many of our favorite fairy tales are actually adapted folk tales that the Brothers Grimm re-appropriated from their Germanic neighbors and surrounding communities. Most of us know now that the Grimm’s tales were much darker and more sinister than our versions today, but even their stories were lighter than many of the original tales that had been passed down before them.
  • Snow White: A German scholar named Eckhard Sander published in 1994 his theory that the Grimm’s tale of Snow White was based on the real-life story of a countess named Margarete von Waldeck, who lived in the early 16th century. Raised in a mining town run by her brother, Margarete would have been surrounded by children who worked in the mines — and who became stunted because of their hard work and malnutrition. People in the town at that time referred to the miners as "dwarves," which, along with a real criminal who at that time was suspected of handing out poison apples to children, backs up Sander’s theory. And when Margarete was 16, she was sent away to Brussels, where she fell in love with the future Philip II of Spain, much to the fury of her stepmother. Sander and his fellow scholars believe her stepmother and Philip’s father hatched a plot to poison her.
  • Alice in Wonderland: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written by Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the name Lewis Carroll. Though it hasn’t been proven exactly, many scholars believe that Dodgson came up with the story after spending time with a friend’s three young daughters, Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell. Supposedly Dodgson told the girls a story to keep them entertained, and afterward, Alice asked him to write it down for her. Once he started writing, Dodgson realized the story had potential and completed an entire manuscript called Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, and which he had published after giving the original to little Alice Liddell. Other scholars believe Alice’s father and other real-life people could be inspirations for the story’s main characters, including the White Rabbit.
  • The Frog Prince: Today’s version of "The Frog Prince" may make young children squirm when they hear about the princess puckering up for a kiss with a frog, but the real version is much bleaker. The story, included in the Grimm brothers’ first collection of fairy tales, instead tells of a princess who hurls the frog against a wall, a traditional act from old folk tales to inspire shapeshifting.
  • Cinderella: The Brothers Grimm published their version of Cinderella in 1884, and as upsetting as the poor girl’s slavery is even today, their version is much bloodier. During the party scene, Cinderella wishes to leave after dancing with the Prince, but the Prince won’t have it. He "had caused the whole staircase to be smeared with pitch, and there, when she ran down, had the maiden’s left slipper remained sticking." The next day, the magician/prince goes to look for the slipper’s owner, and after Cinderella’s stepsister’s feet are proven too big, their mother — Cinderella’s wicked stepmother — forces her to slice off her heel with a knife. She does, and "forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s son. He took her on his horse as his bride, and rode away with her," until little pigeons adorably cooed that blood was filling up the shoe, staining the stepsister’s white stocking. After this graphic scene, the prince goes back and finds Cinderella.
  • Little Red Riding Hood: Called Little Red Cap by the Brothers Grimm and Little Red Hat in an Italian and Austrian fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood got the name we know her by today from the folk tale writer Charles Perrault. In his story, once Little Red Riding Hood figures out the wolf is hiding in her grandmother’s bed, the "wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up." Not much of a Disney ending, there.
  • Sleeping Beauty: One of the more shocking histories behind fairy tales is Sleeping Beauty’s. The Charles Perrault-penned story — published in 1697 — involves a king’s daughter named Talia, who (despite a warning from wise men) pricks her finger with a poison splinter and dies. Her father left her body in the palace and moved away, but a prince found Talia one day, had sex with her dead body, and impregnated her. Somehow, Talia was able to develop the fetuses and give birth to twins, who were then cared for by fairies. And one magical day, her son sucked her poison-pricked finger, and she came back to life. Of course the prince — who was actually married to someone else — returned, but his wife learned of his affair, and ordered Talia’s twins captured and cooked for supper. The cook couldn’t bear to kill the children, and when the wife found out, she tried to burn Talia at the stake. The prince saved her in the end.
  • Hansel and Gretel: There are many different versions of Hansel and Gretel (originally called Little Brother and Little Sister,) but one of the most surprising real-life histories behind the tale is the reason the siblings’ parents abandoned them in the first place. Now, the story blames an evil stepmother for banishing the children to the woods, as audiences today can’t imagine a birth mother abandoning her children. But during the time when the original folk tale was created, parents apparently used to abandon their kids semi-frequently, most likely in the story’s case because of famine.

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