Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of folktales contains some of the best-known children’s characters in literary history, from Snow White and Rapunzel to Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Yet the brothers originally filled their book, which became known as “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” with gruesome scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in an R-rated movie. The Grimms never even set out to entertain kids. The first edition of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” was scholarly in tone, with many footnotes and no illustrations. Only later, as children became their main audience, did they take out some of the more adult content. Their stories were then further sanitized as they were adapted by Walt Disney and others. Check out some of the surprisingly dark themes that appear in the Grimms’ work.
In the original version of “Rapunzel,” published in 1812, a prince impregnates the title character after the two spend many days together living in “joy and pleasure.” “Hans Dumm,” meanwhile, is about a man who impregnates a princess simply by wishing it, and in “The Frog King” a princess spends the night with her suitor once he turns into a handsome bachelor. The Grimms stripped the sex scenes from later versions of “Rapunzel” and “The Frog King” and eliminated “Hans Dumm” entirely.
But hidden sexual innuendos in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” remained, according to psychoanalysts, including Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm, who examined the book in the 20th century.
Although the brothers Grimm toned down the sex in later editions of their work, they actually ramped up the violence. A particularly horrific incident occurs in “The Robber Bridegroom,” when some bandits drag a maiden into their underground hideout, force her to drink wine until her heart bursts, rip off her clothes and then hack her body into pieces. Other tales have similarly gory episodes. In “Cinderella” the evil stepsisters cut off their toes and heels trying to make the slipper fit and later have their eyes pecked out by doves; in “The Six Swans” an evil mother-in-law is burned at the stake; in “The Goose Maid” a false bride is stripped naked, thrown into a barrel filled with nails and dragged through the streets; and in “Snow White” the wicked queen dies after being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes. Even the love stories contain violence. The princess in “The Frog King” turns her amphibian companion into a human not by kissing it, but instead by hurling it against a wall in frustration.
Even more shockingly, much of the violence in “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” is directed at children. Snow White is just 7 years old when the huntsman takes her into the forest with orders to bring back her liver and lungs. In “The Juniper Tree” a woman decapitates her stepson as he bends down to get an apple. She then chops up his body, cooks him in a stew and serves it to her husband, who enjoys the meal so much he asks for seconds. Snow White eventually wins the day, as does the boy in “The Juniper Tree,” who is brought back to life. But not every child in the Grimms’ book is so lucky. The title character in “Frau Trude” turns a disobedient girl into a block of wood and tosses her into a fire. And in “The Stubborn Child” a youngster dies after God lets him become sick.
The Grimms gathered over 200 tales for their collection, three of which contained Jewish characters. In “The Jew in the Brambles” the protagonist happily torments a Jew by forcing him to dance in a thicket of thorns. He also insults the Jew, calling him a “dirty dog,” among other things. Later on, a judge doubts that a Jew would ever voluntarily give away money. The Jew in the story turns out to be a thief and is hanged. In “The Good Bargain” a Jewish man is likewise portrayed as a penny-pinching swindler. During the Third Reich, the Nazis adopted the Grimms’ tales for propaganda purposes. They claimed, for instance, that Little Red Riding Hood symbolized the German people suffering at the hands of the Jewish wolf, and that Cinderella’s Aryan purity distinguished her from her mongrel stepsisters.
In “All-Kinds-of-Fur” a king promises his dying wife that he will only remarry if his new bride is as beautiful as her. Unfortunately, no such woman exists in the whole world except his daughter, who ends up escaping his clutches by fleeing into the wilderness. While interviewing sources, the Grimms likewise heard versions of a different story–“The Girl Without Hands”–with an incestuous father. Nonetheless, in all editions of their book they recast this father as the devil.
Evil stepparents are a dime a dozen in fairy tales, but the Grimms originally included some evil biological mothers as well. In the 1812 version of “Hansel and Gretel,” a wife persuades her husband to abandon their children in the woods because they don’t have enough food to feed them. Snow White also has an evil mother, who at first wishes for and then become infuriated by her daughter’s beauty. The Grimms turned both of these characters into stepmothers in subsequent editions, and mothers have essentially remained off the hook ever since in the retelling of these stories.