Have you ever wondered about the origins of fairy tales that usually begin with “Once upon a time” and shape our “happily ever after”? The magical, adventurous, romantic stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow-White, The Little Mermaid, which used to be our bedtime stories, don’t have a colourful or dreamy beginning but contain horrible elements like rape, cannibalism, kidnapping, and physical abuse. Additionally, the familiar tropes in most of these stories are motherless girls, evil stepmothers or stepsisters fighting over a man, and sexual violence. These are the stories that were later sugarcoated by Disney and presented to us with a so-called “happy-ending”. Our beloved fairy tales aren’t as innocent as they sound.
Once upon a time, a princess lived in a castle beyond the sea. She was extremely beautiful with her blue eyes, rosy lips, tinted cheeks, and cascade-like hair; therefore, her evil stepmother locked her in the castle tower. Every night the princess looked at the moon through the window, hoping that someday someone would come and rescue her. One day, a handsome prince gets lost in the forest while hunting and finds that castle beyond the sea. He looks above the window and gets mesmerised by the princess’s beauty. He then defeats the evil witch (stepmother) and rescues the princess (as his so-called “prized possession”). They both get married and live happily ever after.
The above is the basic plotline of almost every fairy tale. These chronicles were our bedtime stories and happy escapes to a universe where the world begins with: “Once upon a time. The universe reminds us of a time when the world was magical, beautiful miserable princesses and handsome princes were found everywhere on land, and the princesses awaited men to come and change their lives so that they could live happily ever after”.
The creators of the first fairy tales were a coterie of 17th-century French female writers known as the conteuses (storytellers). These tales were passed down from generation to generation verbally until it was collected and written down. Two women, Countess d”Aulnoy and Countess de Murat, struck back at the misery of their failed marriage by telling fairy tales that didn’t have happy endings. Countess de Murat was a part of the Salon of Paris, where she used to tell stories on marriage and other topics. Baroness Marie Catherine d’Aulonoy coined the term Conte de fée, or ‘fairy-tale’ in 1697 after publishing her first collection of tales that critiqued the existing patriarchal norms by giving the women in her fictitious tales agency and freedom to choose her lover. When women had no choice and rights and were only expected to be good wives to their husbands and good mothers to their children, these fairy-tale stories allowed women to create strong female characters as they fantasised.
Later in the 19th century, the Grimm Brothers began collecting and publishing folktales. They dismissed the conteuses, modified old folktales created by women & claimed to have reframed the stories as children’s tales. In Grimms’ collected fairy tales, women were oppressed, silenced, and sexualised in the name of discipline and moral values. Many fairy tale stories with which we grew up trace their origins even before the 17th century, and most of these stories have evolved and changed over time. Our beloved stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, etc., have disturbing origins. Disney later sugarcoated with magic and romance by omitting the horrific elements of rape and cannibalism, torture, abduction, etc. The truth is, these fairy tales were never made for kids.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair” is the famous dialogue from the story of a girl who was locked in a tower in the woods by a cruel witch. The original version is much more disturbing, where the prince visits her every night to give her a silk handkerchief which she can sew into a long ladder. She had a sexual relationship with the prince and was pregnant as well. The wicked witch soon discovers it, cuts her hair, and banishes her into the wilderness. The wicked witch hauls him using severed hair when the prince comes to visit her. The prince jumps out of the window when the thorns below prick his eyes, and he goes blind. He wanders around and finally finds Rapunzel, who is now the mother of his children. They reunite, and when her tears fall on his face, his eyes heal automatically.
“The Sleeping Beauty“, where the prince rescues the princess Aurora from the curse of an evil witch after kissing her (without consent), has two original versions. In the alternate version, a married king, after finding the princess unconscious in an abandoned castle, rapes her and leaves. Raped by the king, the princess gives birth to twins. While playing, one of her twins sucks an enchanted splinter out of her finger and wakes her up. After finding children around her upon waking up, the princess begins to care for them. One day the lecherous king wishes to fulfil his carnal desires again, but he is shocked after finding the princess awake. Like a “good girl,” the princess forgives him and accepts him. The king’s first wife becomes suspicious, and after finding out that his husband is sleeping around, orders to bring the princess and her children. She then orders them to be cooked like food, but the Cook saves them. The king finally arrives, burns his first wife, and marries the princess. They then live “happily ever after” (or maybe until the king finds another unconscious woman and rapes her).
Similarly, in the other stories, like “Cinderella“, the stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit the slipper, and the prince was dumb enough to not notice it until the dove (not the fairy godmother) informs the prince twice. In the end, the dove pecks the eyes of stepsisters, and the prince and Cinderella live happily ever after. In “Snow White“, the prince pretty much kidnapped her when she was unconscious, and in the end, the wicked queen danced wearing glowing hot-iron shoes till she dropped dead. In “Little Red Riding Hood’‘, the wolf makes the protagonist eat her grandmother’s meat, and in another version, the little red riding hood consummates with the wolf in the end. In “The Frog Prince ”, the princess, instead of kissing the frog, throws him against the wall and beats him up until he transforms. In “The Little Mermaid‘, the prince marries another princess; therefore, the mermaid jumps into the sea and becomes foam. Later, the ending is modified, and the mermaid becomes “daughter of the air” instead of turning into the foam, waiting to go to heaven, which still means she is dead. In Rumpelstiltskin, which is considered one of the oldest fairy tales, the dwarf appears to help the young girl spin the straw and demands several creepy things, including a baby, in return for his work.
The sugar-coated stories of famous fairy tales and their blockbuster commercial reiterations conveniently mask the horrific elements they signify. These stories have fed us with tropes of women degrading and hating other women. We can observe them through countless instances of motherless girls being tortured by evil maternal figures or sinister witches and sisters fighting over a rich, handsome man, who, in the name of rescuing miserable girls, kisses them without consent or, worse, rapes and abducts them. Furthermore, fairy tales have played a significant role in romanticising sexual violence and teaching girls to rely on men for everything in life.
In the words of American fiction writer Theodora Goss, “I’m used to writing fairy tales that can be somewhat dark, and the truth is that in fairy tales, romances are always problematic. They may end happily ever after, but someone’s getting pushed into an oven or has blood in her shoe.”
Maria Aqdas is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee