Somewhere along the way fairy tales got a good name. In the old days, back when fairy tales were first being written down, they were dark, and there weren’t a lot of heroes and heroines. The princesses definitely weren’t bad-asses who knew how to fight. The newer female heroines with battle skills are excellent and I’m all for them—we need more princesses like Merida from “Brave” and fewer like the original Disney “Snow White.” But we’ve also lost some of the cruelty and weirdness of those old fairy tales. Since my novel, The Beast Is an Animal [Read an extended excerpt now through March 13!], was very much inspired by them, I thought I’d make a list of the 5 most surprisingly freaky fairy tales.
In the Disney version, the step-sisters can’t fit their feet into the glass slipper because their feet are too large (let’s not even get into how insulting that is). In the original story, they didn’t just try to wedge their feet into the too-small shoe. They actually use a knife to cut off parts of their feet. One of them cuts off a toe, and the other cuts off part of her heel. The prince realizes neither of them is Cinderella only because he sees…wait for it…a trail of blood. Also, after the wedding, the two step-sisters are blinded. Nice.
You probably think of a pretty girl up in a tower who lets down her long hair so her boyfriend can climb up to see her. True, it’s a little weird that she was imprisoned there by a witch, but still: kind of romantic. How’s this version: When the witch sees what Rapunzel and her boyfriend are up to in that tower room (hint: it’s not knitting), she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and drops her into the wilderness to wander around alone. Then the witch sneaks up on the boyfriend, he jumps out of the tower window in fright, and blinds himself on thorn bushes. There is a lot of blinding in fairy tales.
3. Hansel and Gretel
You may already know the very weird part of this story: A witch wants to fatten up a little boy to eat him. But to me, the really horrifying part is that these two children are tricked and sent off into the woods by their own parents because they can’t afford to feed them anymore. In the story, this is all blamed on the step-mother (of course), but I’ve always wondered about the ending. The step-mother has since died, and the kids return home to their father, with a fortune they’ve taken from the incinerated witch. And they forgive him. Personally, I wouldn’t turn my back on him and I’d keep that fortune to myself.
4. Snow White
All the stuff about the wicked queen and her poison apples and combs and Snow White’s cluelessness are true to the original. In the Disney version, the evil queen dies by falling from a precipice. The queen’s death in the old story is a lot more graphic and it’s not at all quick. The queen is invited to the prince’s wedding apparently by accident, and when she discovers the prince’s new bride is Snow White she’s so surprised she can’t move. So she’s forced into a pair of red-hot iron shoes (which apparently is something the palace keeps on hand?), and she has to dance in them until she’s dead. I guess Snow White wasn’t all sweetness and light after all.
I saved the best for last. This is my all-time favorite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?
That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.