Several Horrifying Truths about Classic Fairytales

As I go through rewrites on my sleeping beauty retelling, I’ve started to have one of those quiet writer-debates with myself on whether or not to put in the bramble forest.

You know, this one:

I had the magical means to do it, and it was certainly in keeping with the traditional legend, but it just didn’t make sense for my story. In the legend, the forest serves as a proving grounds, and only the princess’s true love can fight through the forest to reach her. I didn’t need that sort of thing, and in fact for several dramatic moments I needed there to be easy access to the castle.

But I had this nagging feeling about it. Why did the original legend include an impenetrable forest of thorns? Why did it detail so many men struggling to pass through it, their bones entwining with the vines?

At the same time, I was struggling to establish a dynamic between my heroine and the village of men around her. Yes, that’s right… she’s the only female around for hundreds of miles, and she’s living fear-free among strangers and self-admitted criminals. It’s very important to me not to have fear of men in this story, and to never have rape or sexual assault, even the threat of it, be any sort of plot point.

But I do think about it. And that led to my first horrifying realization that sparked off a chain reaction of others. Here are my thoughts:

Sleeping Beauty: You really want to know why they needed that forest of thorns? Think about it for a second… beautiful girl laying on a bed, all alone in a remote place, and she can’t wake up no matter what? Look, the evil fairy might be vindictive, but she’s not that cruel!

It gets worse as you read several versions of the legend and in some of them the princess’s true love DOES take advantage of her situation, and she only wakes up when she gives birth and the baby sucks the splinter from the spindle wheel out of her finger! What??

Snow White: This one’s too easy. She’s ‘dead’, right? Been ‘dead’ for a while. But this prince still kisses her. Totally gross. I think Neil Gaiman already came to that same realization. If you haven’t read his short story SNOW, GLASS, APPLES, you definitely should. It’s beautiful and disturbing.

Cinderella: It’s the shoe. The prince says, ‘go and find the woman I was dancing with, but don’t identify her by her face, only by her feet! Make sure her feet fit this shoe she was wearing!’ And then Cinderella is the only one whose feet fit.

Umm… what?

Are you telling me she’s the only person in the entire kingdom with feet small enough to fit in that shoe? Is she a little person? Or is she a child? And even if she is a child, there would be thousands of other kids who could also fit that shoe. It just doesn’t make any sense.

So we’ll just call the prince a pedophile and go with that.

(I know it’s just a fairytale, but seriously).

Beauty and the Beast: On the whole, awesome concept. But I always wondered why the prince answers his own door when someone knocks? That’s not my complaint though.

My complaint is that this story is about bestiality. I know she fell in love with him on the inside or whatever, but come on.

Runner up for disturbingness is East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I loved the story, and even the movie, as a child, but in hindsight… she married a polar bear. And then had sex with a man she never saw.

I’m going to go ahead and call Sleeping Beauty the worst of the bunch. And yes, I did finally give in and put that forest of thorns in the story. And allude as to why. But my MC never thinks about it so she has no direct fears of being raped in her sleep.

And everyone lived happily ever after, THE END.

6 thoughts on “Several Horrifying Truths about Classic Fairytales

  1. Cassie says:

    Whoa. I had NO idea, and had never thought of why there were brambles. *Mind blown*

    You said that there was a movie about the Norwegian fairytale? I am Norwegian, so I am definitely interested and want to check it out.

    Thanks for the great post!!

    • I think this is the one… The Polar Bear King, from 1992. Now that I’m thinking about it I may just buy it to watch it again! In my memory it was really awesome. I wonder how it’ll hold up.

      I’m Swedish, and I grew up reading lots of troll legends so I feel connected to this story, too! :-)

  2. Great post! There’s a book that came out some years ago (I think it’s called An Underground Education) that talks about the original fairy tales. It is quite… enlightening. Anywho, it’s always tickled me muchly how Disney watered down those original tales. I mean, they’re supposed to SCARE children into behaving. I don’t read my daughter the R-rated versions of the fairy tales, but neither do I subject her to the doe-eyed heroines who have their own Barbie dolls.

  3. I have “The Polar Bear King” and loved it as a child. Even though I haven’t watched it for a few years, I do recall it was just as awesome as I remembered. ^_^

    And speaking of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” it’s a somewhat sort of retelling of Eros & Psyche. A beautiful girl is married to someone that she can never see and assumes to be a monster and when she does listen to her sisters and looks upon the face her husband, he goes away and she has to work really hard to get him back…

    …but I digress. I think that it’s important to remember where the true sources of these fairy tales come from and good for you for alluding to the origins without letting your character be consumed by that fear.

  4. I always love hearing about how scary and dark and disturbing fairy tales were originally! (Even though I’m a wuss and like the happy versions better, haha. :P)

  5. So true…and so many early versions had sexual elements to them that eventually got cleaned out until you *think* about it. In some ways the overt sexuality is less weird than the remnants are! I think kids were probably a lot more aware of sex than we give them credit for–living on farms and watching the bulls rut and all that jazz. We tend to blame Disney but I think the cleanup started earlier–those Victorians. And let’s give Sleeping Beauty’s forest of thorns some credit for pragmatism beyond preventing assault–I mean, there was probably some decent gold and jewels in that castle’s stash. Not to mention I bet it was a killer fortification…if you needed that kind of thing.

    Angelica is right–East of the Sun, West of the Moon is derived from Cupid and Psyche…in which there’s no straight-up “normal” bestiality per se but she does think she’s married to a demonic beast. So much better. And if you’ve never read CS Lewis’ version, Til We Have Faces, do it now–really interesting retelling.

    Isn’t there a theory that Cinderella is derived (waaaay down the line) from a Chinese folk tale, in which the small foot makes a lot more sense because it alludes to bound feet? Of course, then the *dancing all night* doesn’t make a whole lot of sense…though it never really did with those glass slippers, anyway.

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