Before I begin, I’d like you introduce you to a few reoccurring characters. While most of these tales bear the marks of countless storytellers, a few in particular had a especially large influence on the stories we know.
- Charles Perrault: A French collector who published most of his tales in 1697. His versions are generally less violent than others, but they also trend toward classism.
- Hans Christian Andersen: A Danish writer of many original fairytales. Most of his stories were published between 1830 and 1850. His works were very whimsical, and often had religious themes.
- Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: Known as the Brothers Grimm, these German nationalists tried – and largely failed – to collect stories that were exclusively Germanic in origin. They published multiple versions of their tales, the first in 1812. They continued to expand and revise their collection until 1857. The main reason for the revisions was to make the stories more “child friendly.” Their versions are generally more violent than other famous collections, and some of the stories are blatantly misogynistic.
But enough about dead people, let’s talk stories.
Content Notice: torture and self-mutilation feature in these stories.
Disney’s Snow White is based on the Grimms’ Snow White. In the earliest Grimm tale, the Queen was Snow White’s real mother. She wanted a beautiful daughter, but when her mirror tells her that Snow White is more beautiful than she is, she gets jealous and grows to hate her. For a later version, the Grimms had the first Queen die in childbirth, and then the King* marries a woman that’s “proud and haughty.” Again, the Queen tolerates Snow White until her mirror gives her the bad news.
The mirror reveals Snow White is the “fairest of them all” when she is only seven years old. I’d like to think that the Queen stews in jealousy for a few years, but there’s no indication that it takes that long. Then she orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her the girl’s lungs and liver (instead of her heart) so she can eat them. The huntsmen lets Snow White go mostly because he thinks the wild animals will kill her anyway.
After several days of wandering around outside, Snow White finds the dwarfs’ cottage, leading up to a scene that’s remarkably like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. While Snow White is staying with the dwarfs, the Queen tries to kill her not just once, but three times. First by binding the laces on her bodice too tight, then by putting a poisoned comb into her hair*, then finally the familiar apple. Each time the dwarfs tell Snow White not to talk to strangers because they could be the Queen in disguise, yet she does it anyway. But to be fair, she’s only seven years old.
The apple doesn’t have any curse that can be defeated by true love and kisses. It succeeds because it’s poisoned, and gets lodged in Snow White’s throat. The dwarfs previously saved the princess by unbinding her laces and taking the comb out of her hair, but they can’t see the piece of apple. They declare her dead. She’s so beautiful they can’t bear to bury her, so they put her in a glass coffin instead.
The tale states that Snow White lays in the coffin for a “long, long time.” Maybe some years pass and she gets older. While it is also specified in the later version that she doesn’t change, perhaps the Brothers Grimm just meant that her body doesn’t decay. I hope so, because otherwise she’s still seven when the creep-tastic prince comes along.
Disney was smart enough to have the prince and Snow White fall in love before tragedy strikes, but in the original, he first sees her when she is lying in her glass coffin. He becomes obsessed with her, and pleads with the dwarfs to give her to him, promising she’ll be his “dearest possession.” That somehow strikes a cord with them, and they agree to give her up.
At least there’s no nonconsensual kissing. In the later version, one of the bearers of the coffin stumbles on their way to his palace, and the apple chunk is dislodged from Snow White’s throat. In the earlier version, the prince takes her home and makes his servants carry her coffin around wherever he goes, because unless he’s staring at her, he gets super depressed and won’t eat. Finally, one of the servants gets pissed at this and hits her on the back out of spite, dislodging the apple chunk.*
Either way, she wakes up and marries the prince. The Queen is invited to the wedding, but when she comes, they put red-hot iron shoes on her feet, and she dances to death. As stupid as Disney’s ending is, with the Queen conveniently falling off a cliff, it was an improvement.
While the Disney version is based on a retelling by Perrault, Cinderella is probably one of the oldest and most widespread fairy tales in western culture. The earliest known version is from about 50 BCE, and it’s about a Greek slave girl named Rhodopis. She gets a nice pair of beautiful slippers from her master as a reward for her graceful dancing. Jealous, the other slave girls torment her. Then one day a falcon grabs one of her slippers and drops it in the lap of the visiting Pharaoh. He takes it as a sign from the gods, and declares he will marry whoever the slipper fits. After the slave girl tries it on and shows him that the other one is in her possession, he declares he will marry her.
What does it say about us that female jealousy and sexy footwear are the parts of this tale that survived for over two thousand years? At least we know why the Pharaoh/King/Prince can’t recognize her without the shoe, something that’s downright baffling in the Disney version. When the part about the shoe was created, the story didn’t include any prior meeting between Rhodopis and her royal love interest.
The girl we call Cinderella has supernatural help in every version I’ve found, but the nature of that help has changed dramatically over time. In the Rhodopis version, the falcon who stole her shoe was the god Horus. In later versions, she plants a tree, and a fairy that lives inside it gives her gifts as needed. Perrault made it a fairy godmother with no tree. In another European version, the tree was a representation of Cinderella’s dead mother. She planted it over her mother’s grave, and watered it with her tears. To get her dresses she would shake the tree, and a pair of doves would drop nuts that contained her clothing. The Grimm version is very similar, but God, and not the mother’s spirit, is given credit for these miracles.
In all the versions where Cinderella meets her royal admirer at a ball, she actively hides her identity from him. This is especially baffling in the Grimm version, where the ball lasts for three days and her dresses do not automatically turn into rags at midnight. When the prince tries to follow her home to find out who she is, she evades him by sneaking into a pigeon house, then later through the garden. Even in the Perrault version, the Prince only gets the shoe by putting tar on the staircase to hinder her flight. It’s never clear why she’s trying to get away. It can’t be because she doesn’t like the prince, otherwise she wouldn’t keep coming to the ball to dance with him. Whatever it is, once the Prince/King/Pharaoh finally manages to find her and get her to try on the shoe, all that unreasonable fear goes away.
While today we see Cinderella as a story about how a common girl can marry a prince, that’s not true in every version. Rhodopis may have been a slave, but in the Perrault version, she’s a noblewoman. Only eligible ladies were invited to the ball with the prince. The crime of her step-sisters was making her into a servant in her own home.
And of course, the Brothers Grimm couldn’t let that crime go without gruesome punishment. In their version, the step-sisters cut off part of their feet in order to fit into the shoe. It even works until the magic doves tell the prince that they are bleeding. Then when Cinderella gets married, the doves peck out their eyes – because they are mean but beautiful, and that can’t be allowed to continue.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is closest to the Grimms’ Little Briar Rose. That story was based on Perrault’s The Sleeping Beauty, which itself was inspired by an Italian story called Sun, Moon, and Talia by Giambattista Basile. I’m mostly going to relate this earliest version, but just as a cautionary note, it’s really messed up.
Content Notice: sexual assault features in this story.
In the Basile version, the heroine’s name is Talia. She’s not a princess, but the daughter of a rich lord. There are no fairies to curse and bless her – Perrault added those. Instead, the lord’s astrologers predict that a splinter of flax* will harm her. Like the later versions, the lord bans any hemp or flax. But when she is fifteen, Talia finds an isolated and innocent old woman who is spinning. Since she hasn’t seen spinning before, she is fascinated by it, and eager to try herself. But as soon as she does, she gets a splinter under her nail and “dies.”
There’s no fairy to make everyone fall sleep and grow big thorns around the mansion. Her father just props her up on a velvet throne and abandons the place out of grief.* That’s where Talia is when the King (who is already married) comes by with a hunting party. He sees Talia and tries to wake her up. Failing that, he carries her into a bedroom and rapes her while she sleeps. Then he leaves her there.
It might be a relief for you to know that in the Perrault version, the prince doesn’t even kiss Sleeping Beauty while she’s sleeping.* He kneels before her, and she wakes up. Then they have a wonderful four-hour conversation that is only interrupted when the hungry servants practically drag them down to dinner. I’m serious; that’s really how it goes.
Back to the horrible Basile version. Talia gives birth to a twin boy and girl, which are later named Sun and Moon. Two fairies enter the story to assist with the birth, only to disappear again. Unable to find their mother’s breasts, and without fairies to help them I guess, the babies start suckling her fingers. They suck out the splinter, and she wakes up.* Then the King returns (probably to assault Talia again) and finds her awake with his children. He tells her what he did, but somehow she isn’t bothered by it and they do some romantic bonding. Ew.
Now enter the actual villain of the story, the current Queen (of course).* She realizes her husband is cheating on her, and since she is jealous, she is also super evil. She summons Talia’s children to the castle under the pretense that the King wants to see them, then orders the cook to kill them and serve them as a meal to the King. The cook doesn’t want to do this, so he hides the children and kills a pair of lambs instead. The King eats the lambs and finds them very tasty. He doesn’t know why his wife is acting super creepy.
Then the Queen summons Talia and accuses her of stealing her husband. Talia explains the whole rape part, but the Queen doesn’t listen. Instead she orders the servants to throw Talia into a bonfire. Talia manages to delay her demise by, oddly enough, removing her clothes. She’s down to her last undergarment when the King arrives to save the day. His wife tells him that she fed his children to him, and he has her cast into the bonfire instead. He almost does the same to the Cook, but luckily the Cook’s wife is standing conveniently by with Sun and Moon and hands them over.
Then the King marries Talia and they live… happily ever after?
Join me next week when I talk about The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?