This is the Seventeenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVII: Folklore and Fable, Aesop, Grimm, Andersen
SPOILER ALERT: This posts contains spoilers for centuries-old fairytales.
Those raised on Disney films and picture books are likely to be shocked by the original versions of the fairytales that they learned growing up. The basic formula for so many of these stories are 1) witch causes magical transformation, 2) protagonist finds true love, 3) kiss breaks the spell, and 4) they live happily ever after. In the older versions, however, there is often another important plot point: brutal violence.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Sea-Maid, there is plenty of violence that got left out of the Disney version. In the first place, the transformation from mermaid to human is extremely painful, as if she were being run through with a sword. And her new feet bleed constantly, so that every step that she takes feels “as if [she] trod upon sharp knives.” This is compounded by the fact that the prince loves to see her dance, so, for his entertainment, “she danced again and again, although every time she touched the earth it seemed as if she were treading upon sharp knives.” But at least that wins his heart, leading to the kiss that would make her transformation complete, right? Wrong.
See, in Andersen’s version, the prince falls in love with a princess and marries her instead of the mermaid. The irony is that he thinks the princess, rather than the mermaid, saved him from his shipwreck. After the prince and princess marry, the mermaid takes a magical knife and prepares to stab the prince right in the heart. The plan is for his heart’s blood to fall on her feet and cause them to “grow together again into a fish-tail” so that she she can return to the sea. But she cannot bring herself to murder the prince (although she does get so far as to stand over the prince and his bride as they sleep, knife in hand.) Rather, she jumps back into the ocean and dissolves into sea-foam. There is, however, a sort of happily ever after for the little mermaid. She is given the chance to earn an immoral soul through good deeds. In a way, this is a much more positive message than the idea that being loved by the prince is the key to lasting happiness; her destiny is in her own hands rather than in his.
The Disney version of Cinderella is less markedly different from the source material, but there is still a good bit of violence left out. In the Bros. Grimm version, when the prince goes out looking for the owner of the lost slipper, the step-sisters go to terrible lengths to try to make it fit. The first sister cuts off her big toe and the second cuts a chunk off of her heel. The prince, evidently not one of the smartest characters in literature, is fooled by each in turn. Each time, talking birds save the day by telling the prince to look down at all of the blood that is positively streaming from the slipper. After he finds Cinderella and marries her, those same birds go and peck out the eyes of the step-sisters to punish them for their dishonesty, as if having mutilated feet is not bad enough.
It is constantly bemoaned how violent popular media has become, so how does one account for the softening of these violent stories? In part, it may be that the intended audience for Andersen and Grimm are not young children. Or at least not young children exclusively. Also, the violence serves the purpose of hammering home a moral lesson. The last line of Grimm’s Cinderella is not about the prince and Cinderella living happily ever after; it is about the step-sisters: “for their wickedness and falsehood they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.”
Next time you are shocked by how violent a movie is, remember the sea-maid hiking up a mountain as her shoes fill with blood, or the step-sisters being blinded by pigeons who are also total snitches.
Beer of the week: Blood of the Unicorn Hoppy Red Ale – Now, to transition from step-sister and mermaid blood to Blood of the Unicorn. Chicago’s Pipeworks Brewing Company makes this fantastic(al) red ale. In truth, the beer is dark brown with just a hint of red, which becomes more pronounced when the sediment is swirled from the bottom of the can and poured out. It comes with lots of smooth soft foam (not sea foam) and an aroma of herbal hops. Although it is plenty hoppy it also has some sourdough yeastiness and a bit of burnt caramel. Blood of the Unicorn is a very smooth, very deliciously brew.
Reading of the week: The Frog-King, or Iron Henry by The Bros. Grimm – Young king gets transformed into a frog, he finds a princess to break the spell, her kiss frees him. Right? Not quite. In this version, the princess finds the frog to be so odious that she “took him up and threw him with all her might against the wall.” Hurling a frog against a castle wall cannot be described as anything other than attempted amphibicide. Yet, somehow, that act of disgust and rage breaks the spell.
Question for the week: Why have fairytales been watered down and sweetened?