The Grimm Brothers weren’t edgy Bards, but they were Folklore nerds
It has become a bit of a cliché to bring up the Grimm Brothers when talking about fairy tales. There are plenty of articles and lists that explore these darker versions of the modern classics. Yeah, Cinderella is a sweet story, but do you know the Grimm version? It goes nicely, with the word ‘grim’ meaning dark and grotesque.
But the Grimm versions aren’t dark and grotesque because the brothers made them that way. The fairy tales were perfectly horrid before the brothers got their hands on them. They also sprinkled in some Christian imagery and took out all the sex, just for good measure.
Item 1 — Cinderella
Cinderella is one of the most famous fairy tales in human history. A young, impoverished woman suddenly rises through the social ranks thanks to some supernatural glamour and an advantageous marriage. Ye Xiam from Chinese lore was left in the care of her wicked stepmother. Apasia of Phocaea had a vision of a magical bird woman who taught her how to be beautiful, much like a fairy godmother. The earliest version is Rhodopis, a slave girl whose sandal is stolen by a bird, who drops it in the lap of the king of Egypt (you can guess what happens next). Major features of this story are magic, glamour, and a dead mum.
Credit where credit is due, the Grimm version has its own unique grisly features, like Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off bits of their feet to fit into the slipper. However, the magic in the Grimm version is not quite as free and pagan. There is lots of repetition of the number three, perhaps relating to the holy trinity.
The equivalent of the Fairy Godmother in the Grimm version is a flock of doves. They find Cinderella her dresses, and they also warn the prince of the stepsister’s bloody deception. In Christian iconography, Doves represent the holy spirit, who exclusively helps the good pious Cinderella and the (supposedly) good prince. Is the Grimm version dark? Sure. Are the doves lame? Kinda.
Item 2 — Snow White
The tale of Snow White is a mix of real-life women with some Roman mythology thrown in. Margaretha Von Waldeek was a German Countess born in 1533. She had an overbearing stepmother, fell in love with a charming prince, and died mysteriously at 21, presumably of poisoning. There was also Baroness Maria Catharina, whose stepmother was rumoured to have a magic mirror that always told the truth. Then there’s the roman legend of Chione, who was so beautiful that two Gods fell in love with her. Mercury put her to sleep to have his wicked way with her, and Apollo dressed as an old crone to achieve the same ends. For some reason, the Greek and Roman Gods really liked non-consensual sex.
Now here is where the Grimm brothers keep things (relatively) light and peachy. They make Snow White a child, possibly so they could leave out all the sexual undertones of the story. Much like Cinderella’s repetition of threes, in Snow White, there is a repetition of sevens. The number seven features heavily in the bible. The sins, the virtues, the demons pulled from Mary Magdalene, etc. It’s a pretty divine number. In a way, making Snow White seven years old makes her divine.
It’s also implied that Snow White was immaculately conceived after the queen makes a wish to have a beautiful child. Admittedly, it is weird that the prince becomes obsessed with a dead seven-year-old and has her carted about the palace until a servant dislodges the apple from her throat. I like to think that Snow White aged while she was in her deathly trance, but it doesn’t specifically say so. At least he didn’t rape her.
Item 3 — Rapunzel
Rapunzel stems from the Italian tale of Petrosinella. A pregnant woman steals parsley from an ogress’s garden, and when she is caught she is forced to give up her child. The ogress takes little Petrosinella and locks her in a tower, teaches her magic, and grows her hair long enough to use as a ladder. Then, of course, a handsome prince stumbles upon the tower, falls in love with her, and eventually rescues her. The French version Persinette is almost identical, except the ogre is a fairy, and the fairy finds out about the prince due to Persinettes swelling stomach (I wonder what that could mean?). The Fairy then whisks Persinette away, and the prince leaps from the tower in despair. He lives, but is blinded, and wanders the wilderness until he finds Persinette with twins. Her tears drop on his eyes and his sight is miraculously restored (Tangled kinda stole that bit).
Kudos to the Grimms, their version is almost exactly the same as the French version. However, there was a change, in a later edition of the tale. Instead of the fairy noticing Rapunzel’s swelling stomach, Rapunzel absentmindedly asks the enchantress why it is easier for the prince to climb her hair. Why did they always have to cut out all the fornication? At least this time around it was consensual!
What’s a bit stranger is what the prince does when he is blindly wandering the wilderness. He calls out for his wife, even though there was no wedding scene in the story. I suppose it lessens the blow to Christian readers when he eventually stumbles upon his lover and their little bastards. God forbid a happy ending to be in any way theologically imperfect!
So all in all, I suppose the Grimm brothers are still pretty grim in their own way. But we shouldn’t give them so much credit for the creation of the gore (except for the foot cutting in Cinderella). People had told ghastly tales long before these two decided to collate it.