We all grew up with fairy tales. These fantasies and adventures filled with colorful characters and indelible life lessons date back centuries, and were ingrained in us from an early age. However, you probably didn’t know about their surprising origins—some of which are downright dark—until now!
In anticipation of CBS All Access’ new series, Tell Me a Story, a modern-day reimagining of The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, here are six of the most memorable fairy tales from our collective childhoods, and the blend of historical fact and disturbing folklore that served as their source material.
THREE LITTLE PIGS
“Little pig, little pig, let me in!” The words of the big bad wolf still haunt our (bad) dreams. There are variations on this moralistic tale of three pigs attacked by a vicious wolf while trying to build their houses; some versions include a bunny, while in others, the wolf reforms his bad ways. But beyond the basic lesson of preparing for the worst, there is much more to this deceptively simple story.
For those who believe fairy tales can’t possibly be political, sorry—they are. In this case, the pigs serve as a symbol of the forests under siege by the British government, with the tale encouraging cooperation in the face of threats from outside the community. In addition, there’s commentary about the state of European housing in the 1800s. Seems like even back then it was tough to find an affordable one-bedroom.
For those that believe simple nursery rhymes can’t possibly be political, sorry; they all are.
HANSEL AND GRETEL
The bone-chilling tale of two intrepid young siblings who encounter a witch with a taste for human flesh and then wind up turning the tables on their would-be murderess has spawned many a retelling. But how could a story about a creepy, cannibalistic crone have historic roots?
This chilling cautionary tale teaches a lesson about wandering off without adult supervision. It was partly inspired by a 14th-century famine that took many young lives, as well as by the tragic death of 17th-century baker Katharina Schraderin, whose gingerbread was so good, it led to her being labeled a witch and burned in her own oven. That’s a pretty twisted Yelp review.
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
The poor girl who just wanted to visit her Grandma, but instead had to contend with a vicious, old-lady-eating wolf, may not have been based on any particular historical figure, but her harrowing adventure was even more frightening in its original form, and carried a powerful metaphorical message.
A 1697 French version had Red taking off all her clothes and being eaten by the wolf with no huntsman to save her, ending with a warning that some predators entice you to bed with charm. And how do the French refer to a girl that has lost her virginity? “Elle avoit vû le loup,” or “She has seen the wolf.” Ah, symbolism.
A 1697 French version had Red taking off all her clothes and being eaten by the wolf…
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
This 19th-century German fairy tale has it all: an evil witch queen, a beautiful damsel in distress, a poisoned apple, a magic mirror, a dashing prince, and of course, seven dwarves. (Fun fact: the dwarves didn’t acquire their infamous names until Walt Disney got ahold of the tale.) But did the beautiful damsel Snow White exist in real life?
Some scholars say Snow was based on Margaretha von Waldeck, a German countess born in 1533 who was poisoned by the King of Spain to prevent a strategic marriage. Others insist Snow was Bavarian Baroness von und zu Erthal, born in 1725. As far as we know, the Baroness wasn’t poisoned, but her domineering stepmother did own a mirror referred to as “The Talking Mirror” that always told the truth. The mirror can still be viewed today in the Spessart Museum in the family’s Lohr Castle.
It isn’t all splendid pumpkin coaches and delicate glass slippers when you look beyond the 17th-century story of a poor, subjugated girl and her dreams of a better life. Beginning with earlier Greek and Italian versions, Cinderella’s yearning for a better life was originally much darker.
For those fascinated by body modification, the trials that Cindy’s evil step-sisters put themselves through to thwart her romantic yearnings are quite extreme. In order to try to convince the prince that they were his destined bride, they slice off their own toes and heel to make the slipper fit. Later, they’re both blinded by doves as a final punishment for their wickedness. The things some people do for love!
The trials that Cindy’s evil step-sisters put themselves through to thwart her romantic yearnings are quite extreme.
THE PIED PIPER
This tale dates back to the Middle Ages, with the rat-catcher from the German town of Hamelin originally dressed in multicolored (“pied”) clothing. While the Pied Piper rid Hamelin residents of rats, he also rid them of their children after the townsfolk refused to pay him for his services. But was his act of revenge—leading the children away from homes forever—inspired by a creepy real-world event?
Believe it or not, there really is a town named Hamelin in Germany, and a 14th century stained-glass window in their church immortalizes the disappearance of Hamelin’s children circa the 1200s. Town records from 1384 state, “It is 100 years since our children left.” But where, exactly, did they go? And who—or what—took them? ::Cue the Pied Piper’s flute::