Who doesn’t love a great love story where the underdog overcomes evil, and wins the girl? Or guy, in some cases. But have you ever thought about the other side of the fairy tale?
Whether you’re talking Grimm’s Fairy Tales, like Cinderella and Rapunzel, or you’re thinking about Hans Christian Anderson’s tales of unwanted children, like the Ugly Duckling and the Little Matchgirl, there are some dark tales lurking beneath the stories Disney turned into light, warm-hearted animated films your little ones watch before bed.
What Is A Fairy Tale?
Nearly all fairy tales involve enchanted or mythical creatures like goblins, witches, elves, fairies, giants, dragons, or mermaids.
While most fairy tales are stories designed to pass along a moral message, and usually involve some form of magic entanglement or enchantment, some do come from stories rooted in actual history.
Disney Facts: The True Story Of Cinderella
The age old poor girl who’s spent her life in drudgery marries rich prince is a popular story told in many forms. And Cinderella finds her basis in reality, dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt.
A Greek woman named Rhodopis was a slave who ultimately married the king of Egypt. She’s said to have been a fellow-slave of Aesop, famous for his own fables and fairy tales, though he does not appear to have told the tale of this peasant turned royal.
Over all, there are something like 1,500 versions of the tale of Cinderella. The one we’re familiar with, however, from Disney’s delightful rendering in 1950, originated in France in 1697, by Charles Perrault, and was entitled Cendrillon.
After Perrault’s version in his Mother Goose tales – yes, that Mother Goose – the brothers Grimm recorded the oral tale in 1812 with some dark twists, like the step-sisters biting off their own toes and having their eyes pecked out by doves at Cinderella’s wedding.
Disney Facts: The Real Snow White
Famous for her beauty, Margarethe von Waldeck lived in Germany. She was the daughter of a count, and did, in fact, have a “wicked” stepmother who envied her beauty.
The young girl, only 16 years old at the time, was courted and wooed by the prince of Spain. Margarethe became lovers with the prince, but his father did not want the two to wed. The union would be “disadvantageous” militaristically speaking, and so was forbidden.
The young woman was murdered via poison when she was only 21 years old. Much like Snow White in the fairy tale, the suspects are Margarethe’s stepmother and the Spanish king.
Her will, which she wrote not that long before her death, showed signs of the poisoning through the weakened handwriting.
Interestingly enough, the young aristocrat grew up in a region where poor children worked in copper mines, and were called “dwarves” because their growth was stunted from poor nutrition and the intensive labor with heavy metal.
Disney Facts: The Real Rapunzel
While the real Rapunzel didn’t have enchanted locks that allowed lovers to climb to a door-less tower, the young woman believed to be the inspiration of this fairy tale was indeed locked in a tower by her father.
The young woman, now called Saint Barbara, was as beautiful as the girl in Tangled, and desired by many young suitors. Her father apparently didn’t like the idea of his girl being wooed, though, so he locked her away.
The second, and probably more likely reason she was locked away was a religious one. Christianity was spreading in the 3rd Century AD, and Barbara’s father was a staunch Greco-Roman religious man. He didn’t want his daughter to be exposed to the wiles of Christianity, and used the tower as a means of keeping her free from the influence of the followers of this mysterious faith.
Food was sent up the tower in baskets to the young Barbara, and apparently one day someone smuggled a Bible or other teachings on Christianity to the lonely girl. Barbara was convinced of the faith, and converted.
Upon hearing of his daughter’s conversion, Barbara’s father apparently removed her from the tower, had her tortured by Roman authorities, and then beheaded her when she refused to renounce her faith.
Real Life Fairy Tales Weren’t So Disney-Like
These three women inspired some gruesome tales. Thankfully, Disney has converted their horrifying stories into beautiful, enchanting, and mostly innocent stories that can help to inspire, and encourage young people, rather than terrify them as the old fairy tales used to do.
Many others are believed to have inspire fairy tales as well, including Katharina Schraderin, believed to be the inspiration for Hansel and Gretel, and Jenny Lind, believed to have inspired Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Nightengale.