How the Last 300 Years Have Changed Fairy Tales

Movie Poster: Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters

In high school I remember having to sit through a Disney cartoon rendition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1994) for a unit we were doing on fairy tales. It told the usual story – Goldilocks comes to the bears’ house, tries the porridges, the chairs and the beds, falls asleep, and then runs away when the bears come home. Unfortunately, in this version they extended the story. Goldilocks and the three bears become friends. Then an evil circus man captures the bears and Goldilocks must save and free them. Oh, and since it’s Disney, they also add an obligatory annoying sidekick animal to provide some comic relief. I think it was a rabbit.

Suffice to say I felt like this cartoon took a fairy tale I knew and liked, smothered it in sickly sweet icing, tacked on some cheap candles, and then force fed it to me by the shovel-full. (If you feel like 50 minutes of torture, you can watch it on YouTube.)

Interestingly though, what I think of as the ‘proper version’ of Goldilocks that Disney ruined, is actually quite different to the original 19th Century version. It turns out that in early renditions of the tale, which was simply The Story of the Three Bears, ‘Goldilocks’ was a nosy, foul-mouthed, ugly old woman (called ‘Silver Hair’… only later did this figure become a young girl named Goldilocks). The bears were originally three male bears, not a mother-father-son family.

The Story of the Three Bears Illustration

This isn’t the only fairy tale that’s surprised me like this. In fact, that high school unit was pretty fascinating, because it opened my eyes to how many different versions of fairy tales there are, and how they change as they move into different cultures and time periods. I was recently reminded of this fact when a friend leant me their copy of the original Brothers Grimm Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I read through a few, and several were quite different to the versions I knew.

So, inspired by this experience I decided to pick three of my favourite fairy tales and investigate how they’ve changed in the last few centuries:

1. The Three Little Pigs

In modern versions, all three pigs tend to survive, because each one runs to the next house once its house gets blown over. In earlier versions the pigs aren’t so lucky… the first two pigs get eaten by the wolf. Similarly, modern versions sometimes give the wolf a kinder fate – i.e. he descends the chimney of the brick house, burns himself on the fire and runs away (as in the 1933 Disney cartoon version), whereas older renditions generally see the wolf cooked alive in a strategically-placed pot of boiling water. When he falls in the pig slams on the lid, cooks him up, and then eats him for dinner.

Also, as a child I never remember encountering the section at the end where the third pig repeatedly outsmarts the wolf (the wolf suggests the pig come out to collect apples and go to the fair etc., and the pig does, but is clever enough to avoid getting eaten each time). This part is present in the 19th Century version in The Nursery Rhymes of England (1886), but I think it may have been excluded from modern versions. Perhaps this is because it lengthens the tale, isn’t as interesting, and doesn’t make much sense (why would the clever pig leave the house at all?).

2. Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel seems to be one fairy tale that remains largely preserved over time, differing only in small ways. Most tales involve the breadcrumbs, the gingerbread house, the evil witch who locks Hansel in the cage, the chicken bone Hansel extends instead of his finger, and Gretel tricking the witch and pushing her into the oven.

Where the differences seem most notable are at the start of the tale, with the starving parents abandoning their children. Modern versions tend to have an evil stepmother either convincing the father to abandon the children in the forest, or simply enacting the plan without the father’s knowledge, or even just have the kids wandering into the forest of their own accord to collect berries (as in this vintage stop motion version from the 1950s). In older versions (such as the first version collected by the Brothers Grimm, which they later adapted) the mother and father are both the biological parents of the children, and both decide to abandon them in the forest.

Some say this fairy tale originated in the 1300s during the period of the Great Famine, during which people were desperate and starving enough to abandon their children (leaving them to fend for themselves), or even resort to cannibalism. In that context, the concept of parents wilfully abandoning their own children could seem quite believable… but obviously not so much in modern society. Nowadays I guess it it has to be an evil stepmother, or the mistakes of the children themselves, that land Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s forest.

3. Cinderella

The 1697 version of this tale by Charles Perrault, titled Cendrillon, is perhaps closest to the version that I grew up with. I’d argue it’s the version most people would recite today if asked. It contains the familiar elements of the fairy-godmother, the pumpkin carriage, and the glass slippers.

Illustration: Aschenputtel (Cinderella) with doves

Aschenputtel (19th Century illustration by Alexander Zick)

What I find fascinating, however, is the German version collected by the Brothers Grimm: Aschenputtel. It’s still the Cinderella story, but with some striking differences. In this version, a series of birds and a hazel tree on her mother’s grave help Cinderella in her time of need. When she asks to go to the ball, her evil stepmother says she can only come once she’s finished sorting through a pile of lentils. The birds help her achieve the task quickly, but the evil stepmother and stepsisters leave without her anyway. She cries out for help under the hazel tree and the bird in it throws down a beautiful dress and shoes. Three times she goes to the ball and dances with the prince, and three times she escapes before he can find out who she is (once by jumping into a pigeonry, of all things). The last time she leaves behind a golden slipper.

What really shocked me, however, is the ending. When the stepsisters try on the shoe and it doesn’t fit, the mother produces a knife and suggests the first sister cut of her toe, and the second cut off her heel, saying “when you’re princesses, you won’t need to go by foot anymore”. They do so, and the shoe fits. The prince is tricked, until two pigeons cry out “there’s blood in the shoe”, and he sees he was fooled. Finally Cinderella tries on the shoe, and the prince recognises her. They marry, and the stepsisters attend the wedding, trying to get back into Cinderella’s favour. Then two pigeons come and peck their eyes out (I’m not joking… this truly happens and is a focus of the ending)

Perrault’s Cendrillon predates this version, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this Grimm version bears more resemblance to the earlier oral versions of the tale. Regardless, I can see why the version with the fairy god mother, the midnight deadline and the glass slipper is the one that has endured. Those features are just more appealing… and the toe-cutting and eye-pecking aren’t.

Sanitising Fairy Tales

Some of the changes in fairy tales seem to me to be the result of the tales moving into different cultures and blending with other stories, so that elements of different fairy tales mix together. For example, the ending of one Brothers Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood is very similar to the ending of The Three Little Pigs (with the wolf falling into a pot when descending the chimney), and the ending of another Brothers Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood bears resemblance to the ending of the German fairy tale The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats (with them filling the wolf’s stomach with rocks and sewing it up).

However, one of the obvious differences is also that violence and death tend to get toned down in modern versions. In a previous post I marvelled at the disturbing content of some 19th Century German nursery rhymes, but fairy tales from the same period can be similarly dark. It seems that as a society, our consensus on what is and isn’t suitable for children has changed dramatically, and modern children’s books and film studios (like Disney) reflect these changes in the more sanitised versions of fairy tales that they present.

Hans Christian Andersen had some tales with pretty tragic endings that were later given a happier spin by Disney. As a friend of mine recently pointed out: if you think The Little Mermaid ends with the mermaid happily marrying the prince, think again!

A Change in the Wind?

All of that said, I do wonder if we’re now seeing a swing back in the opposite direction. Recently, film and TV adaptations of fairy tales seem to be all the rage, with productions like Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Once Upon a Time, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer and Maleficent all hitting screens in the last four years (and I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting).

From what I’ve seen, these films are generally aimed at adults and packed with violence and gore and dark gothic scenery (and in some cases, sex). They seem to be part of the more general trend in modern films toward a gritty, dark and more ‘realistic’ style. You only need to compare old and new renditions of Batman films, or of the James Bond films, to see how our tastes have changed, and I guess this has extended to fairy tale adaptations.

Even outside of film, it seems people are gravitating toward older versions of fairy tales, and even building on them to create more gritty ‘realistic’ versions that accent sexual subtexts or symbols. Even Disney seems to be changing the way it adapts fairy tales, with recent productions like Tangled and Frozen significantly modernising the tales (though they still steer clear of the blood and gore).

Suffice to say, I’d be curious to see where fairy tales were at in another 300 years!

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3 thoughts on “How the Last 300 Years Have Changed Fairy Tales

  1. Almost as if fairy tales are going full circle, from dark to fluffy to dark again. Speaking of Disney, there was a lot of complaining about how they were going to adapt the tale of the Snow Queen but they might have saved themselves by only making it ”loosely inspired”.

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    • Yes, it’s interesting with Frozen, I didnt even realise it was based on the Snow Queen till I was reading something about Hans Christan Andersen (haven’t seen the film yet). Seems Disney werent making a big deal of the association. Probably a smart move like you said. It seems interpreting people’s favourite fairy tales invites a lot of criticism, especially if you’re Disney!

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