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Fairy Tales Are Dark For a Reason—They’re Trying to Warn Us About Danger


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Once upon a time. In a deep, dark wood. In a kingdom far away.

These fairy tale beginnings and so much more speak to a place and time very long ago. How many of us ever wonder if these places and those stories were real? Were there inklings of nonfiction embedded into the words of fairy tales we have come to know so dearly?

The last lines in “Cinderella” are not “And they lived happily ever after.” The last lines in “Cinderella” are:

“And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness all their days.” This punishment was of course applied to the wicked sisters, and shortly before the tale ended we learned that “pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.” The wicked sisters did not have a happily ever after.

The Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, spent years collecting oral histories throughout Germany which they would compile into an academically based work, Kinder-und Hausmärchen. The first edition only sold around one hundred copies. It was the later, second edition, that most of us are more familiar with.

However, the brothers extensively edited and revised the stories contained in the final product, and this is curious because if so much of the original violence was left in—of parents who abandoned their children in the woods, of wolves that stalk young girls, and of witches and trolls whose aim is to destroy the innocent—then what was left out?

It’s thought that the brothers kept much of the grim and gore, even heightening it a bit, because it stoked reader’s interests. Murder and mayhem sells. It’s also thought then that situations like mentions of pre-marital sex, like in Rapunzel, where her young suitor climbs into her tower, was omitted—or quickly glossed over.

So why did the brothers leave in so much terror, and I suppose why did Walt Disney find these tales suitable to adapt into childhood fantasy? Perhaps the horrible things were left in as a warning. That is all that most of us can assume right now, because in many fairy tales it is clear to interpret who is the protagonist and who is the villain. The lines are usually clearly drawn between good and evil, and in fairy tales, very often that evil is by chance—just like in life.

Why then did Walt Disney find some of these tales appropriate to adapt into film? Likely because of the popularity of these stories, and perhaps even because of some unintended psychic thinking in believing that these characters would have a long-lasting effect on our culture and identity.

I would argue Cinderella is as iconic as Superman. Each are victims of their circumstances, and each persevere, challenging their rivals for the ultimate goal, and the ultimate goal really isn’t fame and fortune for these two characters. The ultimate goal for these two characters is to simply have a peaceful and happy life. 

One also cannot separate that there are hints of historical and cultural realities between the lines of these fairy tales. Dangers are laid out quite clearly, or at least alarm bells ring loud when our protagonist takes a turn toward something sinister. For example, in “The Robber Bridegroom,” we are told about a beautiful young woman whose father is anxious that she be married. A suitor enters the picture. The woman’s father is pleased, but within those first few lines of the tale we are told “she had no trust in him. As often as she looked at him or thought about him, she felt a chill in her heart.” Our protagonist, like many people in life, had a feeling about someone that was unsettling. Although, she did not listen to her internal warning to please those in her life. Against her intuition the young woman set off to her soon-to-be-husband’s home and discovers secrets and death that she ultimately survives. A fairy tale final girl.

So what can fairy tales tell us about tales with a line of darkness, or tales wrapped in mystery? Fairy tales are not complex. They are a solid blueprint to turn to when thinking about a story of good versus evil. Rarely do we have names, or exquisite details of the clothing the characters are wearing or the sweeping landscapes they live in. These lush details of dresses and gowns, banquets and dances, have come to us from cartoons. What fairy tales do give us is a structure, a flat structure, but a structure, nonetheless. We are given a protagonist. We are given a problem. We are given a villain, and we are given a conclusion. Now, unlike those tales from the Magic Kingdom, not all fairy tales end with lovers kissing and trumpets blaring. For example, in “The Juniper Tree,” a stepmother decapitates and cooks her stepson in a soup which she deceitfully serves to her husband, the boy’s father. The stepmother in this tale eventually is killed, but still, that is certainly not a happy fairy tale, nor a happy ending. And in life, not everyone has a truly happy ending.

Much of what fairy tales give us are warnings about the people we encounter and the world we live in. We are told in fairy tales to be cautious of strangers, to be wary of those that may want to intrude into our lives, because we can never truly know what motives they may have. And this is what we see repeatedly in literature dealing with dark and horrific subject matter. It’s not the mythological monster that is truly scary, but the human being next door, the human being you encounter at the check-out lane at the grocery store who then follows you too closely as you exit, and then when you arrive at your car you notice them watching you.

These very real dangers, of strangers and of things that are unknown, are much of what the Brothers Grimm were exploring when they set about to rural communities in their country to learn these stories. These were tales that were only shared from person to person for perhaps hundreds of years, if not more. Some of these stories sounded wondrous, fantastic, but many of them do have some line of real world warning. For example, while the story of “Little Red-Cap” may sound preposterous, it really doesn’t:

“Good-day, Little Red-Cap,” said he.

“Thank you kindly, wolf.”

“Wither away so early, Little Red-Cap?”

“To my grandmother’s.”

“What have you got in your apron?”

“Cake and wine; yesterday was baking-day, so poor sick grandmother is to have something good, to make her stronger.”

“Where does your grandmother live, Little Red-Cap?”

“A good quarter of a league farther in the wood; her house stands under the three large oak-trees, the nut trees are just below; you surely must know it,” replied Little Red-Cap.

The wolf thought to himself: “What a tender young creature! What a nice plump – mouthful  – she will be better to eat than the old woman.

It’s an exchange we have seen in film and cartoons, and various adaptations of literature for hundreds of years, but what do those lines really tell us?

We can replace the wolf with the character of a human, and the interaction would be much more troublesome, something along the lines of what you would read in a mystery or thriller, or a tale of true crime.

What we know from true crime, mystery, thrillers, horror, and the news, is that there are strangers out there who aim to gain your trust so that they can then, in many ways, consume you. They will violate you. They will kill you and yes, there are instances out there of criminals that have killed and eaten people. It sounds ghastly. It sounds impossible, but there’s Ed Gein and there’s Jeffrey Dahmer, and there are many more monsters as humans that have done wicked things.

And fairy tales have been warning us about these beasts for a long time.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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