Fairy tales grew out of the oral folklore tradition, with the oldest known written examples appearing in ancient Egypt around 1300 BC. Throughout history, every culture has passed down their own fairy tales, which served as cautionary stories and moral warnings, with common elements like plot, characters and motif appearing across different cultures.
This might be due to the fact that the stories are often derived from universal human experiences such as choosing the right path while walking through the woods or dreaming of a better life.
It wasn’t until the literary fairy tales of the 19th century that the intended audience became children and much of the violence and sexual content was removed from the stories. When the Brothers Grimm published the first volumes of the foundation of the genre, they were criticized for their inclusion of sexual content and certain character choices, only to have their popularity jump when they reworked the tales in later editions to be more child-friendly.
Today, I present to you the versions your parents never told you:
Little Red Riding Hood
First published by French folklorist Charles Perrault in his seminal 1697 work Histoires ou contes du temps passé, Little Red Riding Hood warns against taking the advice of strangers and grandmothers with menacing-looking teeth. It has often been interpreted as a metaphor for sexual maturity, with the titular red cloak symbolizing menstruation and the Big Bad Wolf serving as a stand-in for the smooth-talking lothario hell bent on taking the young girl’s virginity.
A French phase of the time period, ‘elle avoit vu le loup’ (she’d seen the wolf) is even slang for a girl losing her virginity. The sexual overtones are much more implicit in early versions of the tale that featured plucky young Red unafraid of using her sexuality to her own benefit by stripping for the wolf and fleeing while he is distracted.
The most significant change to the story made by Perrault and echoed by the Brothers Grimm just over a century later was the ending, where the brave Woodsman bursts in to save the day, or at least hack a surprisingly still whole Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s stomach. Even back then it was fashionable to tack a ‘happily ever after’ ending on to stories, as original versions ended the story with the girl’s death.
Finally, Perrault and Grimm spared countless generations of children from horrific nightmares when they left this juicy detail out of their versions: the wolf feeds the oblivious Little Red the flesh of her dead grandmother before devouring her for dessert.
Of all the Disney princesses, Sleeping Beauty is certainly the most boring. Not only does she spend the majority of her story asleep, but she also plays into that whole ‘damsel-in-distress being recused by a man’ stereotype when it is the kiss of a prince that wakes her from her titular slumber.
In his retelling of the story, Perrault borrowed aspects from Sun, Moon and Talia (Sole, Luna, e Talia), an Italian fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile about fifty years earlier. What Perrault and Disney both left out of their versions was that it was a traveling king who happened upon the sleeping beauty one day and could not resist the urge to help himself to her powerless loins. This comatose copulation resulted in twins, one of which suckled on their sleeping mother’s finger, dislodging the splinter of flax that has caused her slumber in the first place.
Another story first published by Perrault, the name Cinderella has become synonymous with the rags-to-riches journey of its heroine. Cinderella’s transformation is brought to life by her fairy godmother, a character added to the tale by Perrault. Previous versions have the young girl praying on the grave of her dead mother.
One of the most famous images from the Cinderella story is the glass slipper. There is some disagreement amongst fairy tale scholars about whether or not Perrault’s translation of the word is apt, as the tale was passed down through the oral tradition and the French words for glass and fur are strikingly similar, verre and vair. Ah I see, now it makes more sense… of course the prince would be looking for the fur slipper with the perfect fit.
One gory detail passed over by Perrault but resuscitated by the Brothers Grimm also involved the iconic glass slipper. In an effort to cram their greedy fat feet into that tiny, perfect shoe, Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters hacked off pieces of their heels and toes, nearly fooling the prince. In true Germanic Brothers Grimm fashion, the stepsisters got what was coming to them as a pack of birds came along and pecked out their eyes.
If something here piques your interest, local burlesque troupe Glam Gam Productions, of which I am a proud member, is presenting our demented and ridiculous take on fairy tales and kids’ stories with The Little Beau Peep Show. It takes place Friday March 23rd-Sunday March 25th at the historical Café Cleopatre (1230 St-Laurent), right in the heart of Montreal’s former red light district. For more information, visit glamgam.com or look us up on Facebook.
Here’s a sneak peek of what you can expect at the show: