When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, I was given a little book of fairy tales. Among them was “The Little Mermaid,” and I read it anticipating the perfect happy ending I’d come to expect from Disney.
Well, anyone who’s read Hans Christian Andersen’s version of “The Little Mermaid” knows where this story is going. There is no happy ending, at least, not one that involves kissing and wedding vows. And yet, this alternate, “true” version fascinated me. I wanted to know what other tricks Disney had pulled.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a peppy Disney movie as much as the next girl, but to this day, my favorite fairy tales tend to be the ones with secrets. The ones with dark symbolism and gory twists that have largely been forgotten in popular culture. And as I read and learned more about them, eventually taking a fairy tale literature course in college, their allure continued to grow.
“Cinderella,” which my first novel, Cinder, is based on, ranks among these, due to the horrific revenge inflicted upon the ugly stepsisters. First, when the prince comes calling with his glass slipper, the stepmother insists that her daughters mutilate themselves with a kitchen knife—one cutting off her heel and the other her toes—in order to fit the shoe. Then later, after the true bride (Cinderella) has been discovered and they’re all on their way to the wedding ceremony, a couple birds swoop down and peck out the sisters’ eyes, payment for their cruelty.
“Sleeping Beauty” is another favorite. This was a tale that I studied quite a bit in that fairy tale lit class, as it had been my favorite as a teenager, and I was stunned to discover that it’s rife with symbolism of sexual maturity. (Such as the needle drawing first blood… think about it.) But even weirder than that are the old, old versions of the tale—even pre-Grimm Brothers. In some of these old versions, the prince doesn’t awaken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, but rather sleeps with and impregnates her. She doesn’t awaken until nine months later when her newborn twins are breastfeeding. Seriously bizarre, right?
And then there’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” which has, of all things, hints of cannibalism about it. In some early versions, after killing the grandmother, the wolf puts her blood in a wine decanter and some of her flesh in the pantry. When Little Red shows up complaining of thirst and hunger… well, you can guess what he offers her. And she accepts. Eww.
The fairy tale genre is riddled with examples just like this. Maybe it’s peculiar that these morbid twists on the tales have for so long held my curiosity, but to me it’s like being let in on a secret that’s been forgotten over hundreds of years, painted over with sparkles and glitter and happily ever afters.
I like a happy ending. I do. But I always want to know the sinister layers lurking beneath it, too.