In the “Once upon a time” story, warnings foreshadowed what could occur when little girls and boys chose to go deep into the dark, eerie woods or talk to strange people on footpaths. Such memorable events described curses, or the immutable outcome of meeting a witch, werewolf, or other creature seeking the chance to enslave, harm, or gobble someone, anyone, up! Most stories labeled as fairytales aren’t your average happily-ever-after, where ordinary girls marry the prince and live in the great castle forevermore. Although children grow up reading the same stories as their parents and grandparents, and never forgetting them, either, the shocking tales were initially intended for adults—and for a good reason!
Little Red Riding Hood
Before the words come to life on a page, they begin as oral traditions, as one person takes a story to another town and retells it. Throughout the world, the wolf has been symbolic. American children connected it to evil, while Italian stories regarded the wolf as a good, loyal protector.
In the 11th Century, a Belgian poet wrote about a red-caped girl who encountered a wolf. French writer Charles Perrault, the author of Mother Goose Tales, first published the story. Its theme delved into cannibalism and pedophilia. Did we ever inquire how the wolf consumed grandma? Thankfully, contemporary publications did not describe how her flesh arrived in the pantry while her blood settled in wine bottles. Oh my! Red did, in fact, have a conversation with the wolf. Each time he made her discard an article of clothing, she’d ask, “What do you want me to do with my apron, or petticoat, or….?” His response was, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.” Then, she climbed into the bed.
Patterns are evident throughout the themes of fairytales, connecting starvation to cannibalism or murder. In the 14th century, many parents could not feed their children and decided to send them into the woods, sell them for livestock or money, or kill them. The stepmother often described through villainous acts is a jealous woman who often hurts the step-children through abuse or murder.
Readers may not recognize the title, but the story is familiar. There was Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine in the 1300s and, and Sun, Moon,Talia in 1636. In the traditional tale, a king finds the sleeping girl and, overwhelmed by her beauty, rapes her. It is unknown whether the two children wandered into her rooms or resulted from pregnancy. Once the fragment, sucked from its location, is removed, the king becomes angry that his Sleeping Beauty awakes. Tensions increase as the king’s wife arranges three deaths, two by stew pot and the other by burning. But, of course, it doesn’t happen. Despite the brutal acts and intentionally murderous behavior, the stepmother dies, and the king lives happily ever after with Sleeping Beauty and their two children; yet, readers are left wondering whether Talia ever forgave him, and found happiness, too?
The Little Mermaid
Remember Ariel, the adventure-seeking mermaid, who was curious to know about the land of men? Before Walt Disney’s animated movie in 1989, Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish writer, published the story in 1837. The girl without a name did not jump and leap, thrilled with her new land legs, but hobbled with each step in excruciating pain. She, like so many other heroines, makes a promise at the cost of her life. Rather than kill the prince, she chooses to die. In return for the selfless act, she is rewarded with 300 years to earn her soul and a chance for heaven. A far cry from the redheaded beauty who marries a prince and lives out her dream on land!
Once upon a time, Cinderella’s sister did indeed cut off her toes to squeeze into a glass slipper, and Snow White’s evil stepmother burned to death at her wedding. Yes, there are warnings to heed, and real monsters in the world. A cheer of gratitude goes to the protagonist, who lives another day and hopes that evil acts will stop. We know there are more significant threats to humanity than any creature described in a book labeled “fairy tales.” But through all stories, we reiterate to children the lessons of awareness when walking, making eye contact, or speaking to strangers, assuring a life of happily-ever-after!