Little Red Riding Hood
If you can believe it, the Brothers Grimm actually made this story a lot nicer than it was when they got their hands on it. In Charles Perrault’s version, included in his 1697 collection Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times: Tales of Mother Goose, there is no intrepid huntsman. Little Red simply strips naked, gets in bed, and then dies, eaten up by the big bad wolf, with no miraculous relief (in another version, she eats her own grandmother first, her flesh cooked up and her blood poured into a wine glass by our wolfish friend). Instead, Perrault gives us a little rhyming verse reminding us that not all wolves are wild beasts — some seduce with gentleness, sneak into our beds, and get us there. The sexual undertones are not lost on us — after all, the contemporary French idiom for a girl having lost her virginity was elle avoit vû le loup — she has seen the wolf.
Here, Perrault is much nicer than Grimm — in his version, the two cruel stepsisters get married off to members of the royal court after Cinderella is properly married to the prince. In the Grimm story, not only do the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the glass slippers (surprise, surprise, the blood pooling in their shoes gives them away), but at the end, they have their eyes pecked out by doves. Just for good measure.
First of all, in the original 1812 Grimm version of this tale, the evil Queen is Snow White’s actual mother, not her stepmother. We don’t know, but that makes it a lot more terrifying to us. The Disney version also left out the fact that the Queen sends the huntsman out to bring back Snow White’s liver and lungs, which she then means to eat. And the fact that she’s actually not in a deep sleep when the prince finds her — she’s dead, and he’s carting off her dead body to play with when his servant trips, jostles the coffin, and dislodges the poison apple from SW’s throat. Most notable, however, is the punishment the Grimms thought up for her. When the queen shows up at Snow White’s wedding, she’s forced to step into iron shoes that had been cooking in the fire, and then dances until she falls down dead.
Hansel and Gretel
The version of the story we know is already pretty gruesome — the evil stepmother abandons the children to die in the forest, they happen upon a cannibalistic witch’s cottage, she fattens them up to eat, they outwit and kill her and escape. The Grimm version is basically the same, but in an early French version, called The Lost Children, the witch is the Devil, and the Devil wants to bleed the children on a sawhorse. Of course, they pretend not to know how to get on, so the Devil has his wife (who tried to help the poor kids earlier in the story) show them. They promptly slit her throat, steal all the Devil’s money, and run off.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair. Well, in the Grimm version, she does, a little too often, to a prince, and winds up pregnant, innocently remarking to her jailer witch that her clothes feel too tight. The witch, not to have any competition, chops off Rapunzel’s hair and magically transports her far away, where she lives as a beggar with no money, no home, and after a few months, two hungry mouths to feed. As for the prince, the witch lures him up and then pushes him from the window. Some thorn bushes break his fall, but also poke out his eyes. For all this extra bloodshed, however, there’s still a happy ending.
The Little Mermaid
We all know the story of the little mermaid: she sells her voice for a pair of legs, flops around for a bit, then wins her prince’s heart, right? Well, not exactly. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, she trades tongue for legs all right, but part of the deal is that every step will be nearly unbearable, like walking on sharp swords, and the day after the prince marries someone else, she’ll die and turn into sea foam. Hoping to win the prince’s heart, she dances for him, even though it’s agony. He claps along, but eventually decides to marry another. The mermaid’s sisters sell their hair to bring her a dagger and urge her to kill the prince and let his blood drip onto her feet, which will then become fins again. She sneaks up on him, but can’t bring herself to do it. So she dies, and dissolves into foam. Later, Andersen changed the ending, so that the mermaid becomes a “daughter of the air” — if she does good deeds for 300 years, she can get a soul and go to heaven. Many scholars find this rubbish.
The Frog Prince
Traditionally the very first story in the Grimm Brothers’ collection (and so it is in Pullman’s), this story is simple enough: the princess kisses the frog, out of the goodness of her heart, and he turns into a prince. Or, if you’re reading the original version, the frog tricks the resentful princess into making a deal with him, follows her home, keeps pushing himself further and further onto her silken pillow, until finally she hurls him against the wall. Somehow, this action is rewarded by his transformation into a prince, but it’s not even the most violent. In other early versions, she has to cut off his head instead. That’s rather far off from the traditional kiss, don’t you think?