Into The Enchanted Woods – A Brief History of Fairy Tales

Happy Sunday, readers! Having touched upon, briefly, one of my favourite topics last week, I figured I’d go further down the rabbit hole by providing a short history on fairy tales. I may also be drawing on current inspiration since I’ve been playing Age of Mythology all week.

As I mentioned last Sunday, I’ve always loved fairy tales. In high school, I centred many large assignments on the theme and in university, I took several literature courses based on and around the impact fairy tales have in the world and our culture.

For many people, their experience with fairy tales stops at Disney and pop literature. This can hardly be surprising, considering that Disney has been producing “princess movies” since 1937 (Snow White.) They since produced animated films for fairy tales such as “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “Cinderella”; among many others. For a lot of people, Disney and fairy tales are synonymous with beautiful women, talking animals, magic, and happy endings.

While fairy tales may be considered tales of lighthearted adventure now, in the beginning they were more like dark, twisted horror tales than anything.

Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit. This is a blog geared towards horror and writing but the original fairy tales were just mildly to moderately disturbing at most.

Fairy tales started out as an oral tradition, told by adults to other adults. They weren’t meant as lessons to children on morality, they were just meant for entertainment. These tales actually date back quite far: academics have found that some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.

Eventually though, they were written down. Many people will recognize these names: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Charles Perrault. The Grimm Brothers published their first collection in 1812: Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) while Perrault made his debut in 1697 with Tales of Olden Times.

However, even though the Grimms’ first book was called Children’s and Household Tales, the collection featured the oral stories in their more tradition sense and weren’t aimed at children at all. The brothers thought that this book could serve as an academic anthology. It was meant to be used as a history study for adults. But as the books became more popular, the Grimms faced some pretty harsh criticism — parents found the stories too twisted and dark and churches deemed the collection not Christian enough. So, the brothers were forced to make some heavy editing, in order to keep their books selling. As the fairy tales became more “kid-friendly” and conservative, they became more popular. Two hundred years later and we are still seeing them adapted and remade in mainstream media.

While the Grimm brothers held the market on German tales, Perrault is our champion for French fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Perrault published “Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé” (“Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals”) in 1697 – subtitled as “Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye” or “Tales of Mother Goose.” He edited his stories to always include a heavy morality theme. For example, “Little Red Riding Hood” ends with the statement:

“I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!”

But in the very earliest versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” appearing before the 17th century, the protagonist doesn’t need a woodsman to save her. After figuring out the wolf’s deceit, she tricks him into letting her go outside to pee. The wolf ties a string to her, but she slips away and escapes. It’s only in the later versions that they take Red Riding Hood’s cunning away from her and has a male hero come and save her.

For another example, take the tale of “Cinderella.” The Disney version: poor Cinderella is treated like a servant by her stepmother and two stepsisters, luckily she has a godmother on her side. A quick transformation into a pretty dress and some glass shoes and she is able to meet Prince Charming. At midnight, she makes her retreat, leaving behind a weird glass memento that the Prince uses to eventually track her ass down.

The original version has the same basic principals except the abusive stepsisters end up chopping bits off their feet to try and fit into the glass slipper. When that fails, they still try and attend Cinderella’s wedding only to have both their eyes pecked out.

Don’t get me started on “The Little Mermaid.” Perrault wrote this story as an illustration on the idea of having a soul. While Disney’s Ariel ends up with the Prince, Perrault’s mermaid’s new legs make it feel like she is walking on knives every day and her prince ends up marrying someone else.

I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you. – “The Little Mermaid”, 1836

Her sisters encourage her to murder the prince and his new bride so that she can return to the sea. Instead she decides to let them live, which results in her turning into sea foam. As punishment for loving some dude I guess, she is condemned to spend the next 300 years doing good deeds in order to get her soul back. So romantic!

And Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty?” In the original version, the prince is actually an old King and, well, he doesn’t know the meaning of consent. Aurora gives birth to twins in her sleep before finally waking up.

Eventually these fairy tales were sanitized to be more acceptable to the masses. They evolved and became the tales most people are familiar with today. Thanks to Disney and the various other adaptations, the fairy tales continue to survive the ages and are loved by the newer generations.

So, my dear readers, I encourage you to pick up an anthology or two of the original fairy tales. You might find that they have source material darker than you could have ever have imagined.

You’ll never look at Belle and Snow White the same way again!

Til next week everyone and don’t forget to like and share!

x P.L. McMillan

10 thoughts on “Into The Enchanted Woods – A Brief History of Fairy Tales

  1. A lot of newer media that seems to grow in popularity is often evolving around these old fairy tales, and it’s always fun to see people’s reactions when they find out the endings to the originals haha.

    Just curious, but have you ever read the comic book series Fables? They’re what the game ‘the wolf among us’ is based on and whilst there’s a new spin on all of the characters, they all have back stories that are very true to the original fairy tales. I’d recommend them to everyone, but especially someone like yourself who loves the genre. I’ve linked a place for you to read them below ^^

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually read the first few issues a while ago and loved them! I never finished the series so thank you so much to linking to them and reminding me of it!

      I didn’t know that the game was based on the comic series — I’ll have to check it out!


      1. Ah they’re brilliant, right? I haven’t completed them myself but they’re quite easy to get hooked on if you’re into the twisted fairytales genre haha.

        Great! Glad to help! I’ve gotten back into the comics recently after hearing wolf among us series 2 is coming out late 2018. Got on the hype train haha

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Have you ever read Wolflandby Tanith Lee? It’s a lovely, haunting re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood (probably one of the most versatile fairy tales for remakes and also my favourite fairy tale to boot)

        I found your fiction blog — love that write horror too, once I’m off work I’ll make sure to check out your writing!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I have not -but I’ll add it to my reading list! Got to love a good old fairytale retelling haha

        Oh great! Thank you so much that’s very kind of you 🙂 Let me know what you think of any of it haha

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, it was good to read this 🙂 Fairy tales were an anarchic realm – that was their profound allure – anything might happen!!!! Judging by this article, I think you may enjoy a modern tale that partakes in some small part of the old spirit. It only takes about half an hour to read and it’s illustrated too. It’s called Yelkouan Spell. Here’s the link if you have time:

    Liked by 1 person

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