What Tales Entail - Part IV
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“Once upon a time fairy tales were told to audiences of young and old alike. It is only in the last century that such tales were deemed fit only for small children, stripped off much of their original complexity, sensuality and power to frighten and delight.”
- Terri Windling, White as Snow
What we refer to as fairy tales today were not initially meant for children. These tales are age-old folklore that emerged among many ancient cultures across the globe. They were originally retold and enacted by adults as a form of entertainment. Hence many of these tales were very dramatic. They had many characteristics such as terror, romance, adventure, tragedy and excitement. Almost all these tales reveal the many moods of human psychology and behaviour. When these tales were written down by European writers during the last few centuries, they had to sanitise these tales, to make them look sweeter, romantic and suitable for children, removing many gruesome aspects.
Did you ever imagine that you were reading stories full of cold-blooded murder, revenge, child abandonment and even cannibalism, rape and necrophilia? In some of these tales women are portrayed as helpless and weak and unable to save themselves. They are raped and exploited, which makes these tales unacceptable to a modern feminist approach. Moreover, in a large number of these tales, women are stereotyped and sexually objectified. Let us explore some of the darkest truths that these tales reveal about the human mind and behaviour. We have selected three well-known tales and their variations to explore how dark, creepy and gruesome the original tales were. They are Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
The well-known tale of Hansel and Gretel is a tale that was originally conceived in 14th century Europe during the time of the Great Famine. These were also known as the Dark Ages of Europe. During the Great Famine people suffered due to lack of food. Food was so scarce that infant killing and child abandonment was common. Hansel and Gretel and its many variations are mainly of Northern European origin. The many versions of this tale are almost all from the Baltic region during the time of the Great Famine. Characteristics like the famine and witchcraft hint of its historical links to the Dark Ages of Europe. In the original story it is not the stepmother, but their biological mother who abandons the two children. In Romanian folklore, there is a story of a similar plot titled The Little Boy and the Wicked Stepmother. The names Hansel and Gretel were not in the original folktale and neither in the first draft of the Brothers’ Grimm. The names were invented by the Brothers Grimm in their later tales.
The two children were abandoned in the forest by their own parents due to poverty and were expected to survive on their own. In these tales the children were frightened by the dark forest and devastated by the feeling of abandonment by their parents. It is a primal human fear to be abandoned by loved ones. Children especially need the care and protection of their families. After many days of wandering in the forest the children find shelter in a cottage owned by a witch or an ogre or a giant.
Snow White is another tale that discusses the dark realities of child abandonment. Even in this tale, it is explained by folklorists that originally it was her biological mother that was jealous of her daughter’s beauty. Therefore she wants to get rid of the child. Jealousy is a primal human feeling that is common among people regardless of age and gender. The young child left alone in the dark forest and she wanders and wanders until she finds shelter in a little cottage that is occupied by dwarfs or as in some tales, by a prince.
Child cruelty and slavery
In the tale of Snow White, the seven dwarfs are actually deformed children, as suggested by scholars. In the tale the dwarfs worked in mines. Therefore scholars suggest that during 16th century Europe when they believe the story really took place, children were made to work in mines. These children led miserable lives and most of them were deformed and malnourished. Scholar Eckhard Sander believes that the story of the poison apple comes from a historical event in Germany in which an old man was accused of giving poison apples to children who he believed were stealing his fruits.
In Snow White, the mother out of jealousy sends her daughter away from the palace, letting her wander all by herself in the dark forest. Later she sends a huntsman to kill and bring her heart back. In Hansel and Gretel and its many variations, the children are exposed to cruelty by their parents and later at the house they find shelter. Such cruelties are far beyond our imagination.
In the Romanian story The Little Boy and the Wicked Stepmother, two children are abandoned and they find their way back following a trail of ashes. When they return home the stepmother kills the boy and forces the girl to cook the boy for a family meal. Out of fear she cooks her brother but she hides his heart inside a tree. Unknowingly the father eats his own son. Later the girl puts his bones in the place where she hid his heart. In the well-known version of Hansel and Gretel the witch eats children. She plans to eat the boy and therefore she feeds him well. Some historians suggest that cannibalism was common during the Great Famine. Records say that older people used to eat corpses and even their own infants. This was also a time when witchcraft was in practice and many women were accused of witchcraft and were brutally killed by burning them alive.
During medieval times in Europe, older women, especially if they were living alone, were denigrated by society. Such women were considered witches and they were not even allowed to enter the village and were forced to live on the boundaries, mostly in forests. They were hunted, tortured and burnt alive. Fairy tales that have a Northern European origin often portray an older woman who lives alone as a witch or an evil woman.
In tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White the lead character is depicted as weak, helpless and being controlled by others. This lead character is often portrayed as beautiful, immature and dumb. She has no say over her life and is vulnerable until she is ‘rescued’ by a male lead.
In all of these three tales, the antagonist is a female. She is portrayed as an older woman, often ugly and full of vengeance. This woman often gets jealous of the beauty of the younger female and attempts to get rid of her through murder. In modern versions of Sleeping Beauty, the wife of the prince is turned into the vicious older witch.
Rape, necrophilia and infidelity
Sleeping Beauty is a tale of a beautiful princess who is cursed and falls into a sleep or even in some of the earliest versions, dies. Unable to bear her untimely tragic death, her father puts her body in a glass coffin and places it in a palace and leaves it. In some tales, the entire palace household was put to sleep along with the princess. After many years, a prince wandering in the forest, comes across the abandoned palace, walks inside and sees the princess, who is dead or in a coma. He can’t get over her beauty, so he rapes her and leaves. He returns to his palace where his wife resides. Prince Charming is a cheating rapist or a necrophiliac. The sleeping princess gets pregnant and gives birth to twins.
While they are sucking milk from her breast, one baby accidently sucks the mother’s finger where the splinter was stuck and it comes out. Once the poisonous splinter is removed she wakes up only to find out that she has given birth to twins. When the prince visits her for the second time he is surprised to see the twins. She falls in love with Prince Charming who has actually raped her. His queen is suspicious of his secret visits to the forest and orders his secretary to reveal the truth. Out of rage for being betrayed, she brings the twins to the palace asks the cook to slaughter and cook them for the king. Later she manages to bring the princess to the palace too and plans to burn her alive. Somehow the prince finds this out and rescues the girl and burns his wife.
In Snow White and its many versions, Myrsina (Greek), Nourie Hadig (Armenian), Gold Tree and Silver Tree (Scottish), La petite Toute Belle (French), Bella Venezia (Italian) the young girl, who is lost in the forest, finds refuge in a cottage or a house owned by miners, a prince or forest dwellers. In Bella Venezia, the dead girl is buried and the prince finds her dead body and feels so attracted to it that he can’t stay away from it and he carries it to his kingdom. The prince’s mother is angry and wants to at least fix her hair and while doing so, the hair pin which caused her death, comes out. Once the girl awakens, the prince marries her.
In Myrsina, the dead body of the young girl is kept in a golden chest. A prince sees this, and desperately wants the chest. Once he opens it, he sees the dead girl wearing the ring that caused her death. The curious prince takes off the ring and she comes back to life. Nourie Hadig was killed by a cursed ring sent by her mother. The prince refuses to bury the body; instead he always keeps the body with him, taking care of it. This reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. In the Scottish tale, Gold Tree and Silver Tree, the girl is killed by a poisoned thorn. The prince feels so bad to bury her that he keeps the body in his palace and remarries. Once the thorn is pulled out by the second wife, she awakens. The prince, Gold tree and the second wife live happily ever after.
In La petite Toute Belle, the young girl who is killed after wearing a poisoned dress, is put in a casket and floated on a river. Once a king sees it, he opens it and he can’t let go of the body, thinking that it is too pretty to do so. He keeps the body in his castle and his mother sees the body and feels pity towards the dead girl. While attempting to awake her, they take off her dress and she comes back to life. Falling in love or being greatly attracted to a lifeless body and taking great care of it, is creepy.