5 Ways Grimm's Fairy Tales Changed After the First Edition

Katalin Szegedi, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Katalin Szegedi, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

You probably know that the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales didn't have the same sort of kid-friendly happy endings as the Disney versions. But it’s not because Jacob and Wilhelm were a pair of deviants eager to write about child abuse. When they set out to produce their Kinder- und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales)—the first volume of which was published on December 20, 1812—the brothers viewed themselves not as authors or even really editors, but as collectors and literary historians.

The original intent of the project was to record and anthologize the oral tradition in German-speaking countries at the start of the 19th century. The Grimms were scholars, working primarily at their desks, who relied on friends and informants and the occasional written document to source the folklore that had been passed down for generations.

Although they added clear transitions where necessary to complete the tales, for the most part the Grimms stayed as true to the original sources as possible.

In 2014, Princeton University Press published The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, the first-ever English translation of the first edition of the Grimms' stories. In the introduction, translator Jack Zipes writes that "... the more they began gathering tales, the more they became totally devoted to uncovering the ‘natural poetry’—naturpoesie—of the German people, and all their research was geared toward exploring the epics, sagas, and tales that contained what they thought were essential truths about the German cultural heritage. Underlying their work was a pronounced romantic urge to excavate and preserve German cultural contributions made by the common people before the stories became extinct."

A portrait of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm by their brother Ludwig Emil GrimmHistorisches Museum Hanau zeno.org, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

These preservation efforts are seen most clearly in the first edition, with all its lewdness and violence. But once the stories started gaining popularity, the Grimm brothers found it too tempting to alter some of the more unsavory aspects to appeal to a wider audience.

"As soon as they published their first edition, they gradually became fairly famous, and not only in the German-speaking countries—remember, Germany is not united at that point," Zipes told Mental Floss,"Their name and their collection spread like wildfire."

The effect of this growing renown was twofold: At the same time as the Grimms were working, a literate middle class was just beginning to emerge in Europe as a result of public school becoming compulsory. With the traditionally oral stories now bound in a text, the literate middle and upper classes took an interest in the tales, but imposed their Victorian Puritan sentiments on some of the rougher aspects.

As Zipes writes in his book's introduction, “Although they did not abandon their basic notions about the ‘pure’ origins and significance of folk tales when they published the second edition in 1819, there are significant indications that they had been influenced by their critics to make the tales more accessible to a general public and more considerate of children and readers and listeners of the stories.”

This was made possible by the other impact of the first edition’s renown. Although the text was only moderately well-received, people from across Europe began sending the Grimms their own versions of the stories, as they were told in their families. The influx of new material gave the brothers options to compare and intentionally conflate in an effort to get at the essence of the tale, but also as a justification for sanitizing some of the less savory aspects.

We rounded up some of the more surprising aspects of the first edition that were later cleaned up or scrubbed from the text altogether.

1. The tales become much longer.

Through a mix of receiving different, more detailed versions to base their text on and adding their own literary flourishes, the Grimms' subsequent editions were all much longer than the first. Zipes says that there was "no real cohesion" to the first edition, and this is true particularly of the form and format—while are some fully-realized stories, others read more like ideas or outlines. This reflects the Grimms' dedication to reprinting only what they heard.

"Wilhelm could not control his desire to make the tales more artistic to appeal to middle-class reading audiences," Zipes wrote. "The result is that the essence of the tales is more vivid in the two volumes of the first edition, for it is here that the Grimms made the greatest effort to respect the voices of the original storytellers or collectors."

2. Biological mothers became stepmothers.

If you grew up watching Disney movies, you learned that stepmothers are all evil witches, jealous of their beautiful stepdaughters—largely because of the remakes of the Grimms' fairytales. But in the original versions, it was Hansel and Gretel's own mother who tried to abandon her children in the forest and Snow White's real mom who not only hired a huntsman to murder the 7-year-old girl but also planned to eat her organs. In an interview with The Guardian, Zipes said "that the Grimms made the change in later editions because they 'held motherhood sacred,'" but that there were sociological grounds for the change—beyond the fear of offending potential readers—because "many women died from childbirth in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there were numerous instances in which the father remarried a young woman, perhaps close in age to the father’s eldest daughter," of whom the new wife might feel jealous.

3. Rapunzel didn't get pregnant.

In the first version of Rapunzel, the evil fairy finds out about the Prince when her naive charge wonders aloud, "Tell me, Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming too tight? They don't fit me any more." The reader, or listener, is to infer from this that Rapunzel has become impregnated by the Prince during their "merry time" together.

By the 1857 seventh edition, this pregnancy has been cut out of the story entirely and instead, Rapunzel accidentally reveals that she's been seeing the Prince by asking Mother Gothel why she is so much more difficult to pull up than he is—foolish and insulting, but at least not sexually active.

4. The fairies were recast.

Zipes described the supernatural element of the stories as "Kafka-esque." But while much of the text is altered to be more in line with Christianity, some improbable plot developments remain. "There is a good deal of magic in the tales, and they didn’t really take away the magic too much in the following editions," he told Mental Floss. "This miraculous transformation that occurs in the tales was generally not deleted."

That said, the brothers made a particular change to the way they cast these more fantastical elements. In the first edition, the harbingers of magic were almost always fairies—unsurprising in the fairy tale genre. But during the time that the Grimms worked, the Napoleonic wars saw the French occupy of much of German-speaking Europe. Somewhere along the line, they decided to stop using the French term "fairy"—or sometimes "faerie"—and instead replace each instance with some other vaguely mystical being. For example, in Rapunzel, the fairy became a sorceress, and in Briar Rose, better known as Sleeping Beauty, the fairies are changed into wise women.

5. Some stories got cut altogether.

The first edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales was 156 tales, and the final edition was 210—but they didn't only add stories in the interim. The deluge of similar tales they received after the first publication drew widespread acclaim gave the brothers plenty of material to work with, but certain tales just couldn't be sufficiently amended to fit a less gruesome standard. One such story was the aptly-named "How Some Children Played At Slaughtering." In it, two children play as a pig and a butcher. As part of the game, the older brother slits his younger brother's throat, killing him. When their mother finds the scene, she becomes so enraged that she kills the older brother. While she was off doing this, the youngest son drowns in the bath. Now the mother is so despondent that she hangs herself. Eventually, the father returns. When he finds his whole family dead he, too, dies—of heartbreak. Even with a liberal approach to editing, it's unlikely such a story could be Disneyified.

This story originally ran in 2015.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
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The 12 Best Stephen King Movies and TV Shows You Can Stream Right Now

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 2017 Andy Muschietti's It—an adaptation of horror legend Stephen King’s 1986 novel—became the highest-grossing horror film of all time. It was a fitting badge of honor for King, the prolific horror novelist who has seen many of his books and stories transferred to film, often with only mixed success.

Fortunately, there's still plenty of King-inspired material that lives up to his name. Take a look at 12 movies and television shows currently streaming that capture the essence of King’s work.

1. Carrie (1976)

The first Hollywood adaptation of King’s work—from his very first novel published in 1974—is drenched in dread. As high school wallflower Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) struggles with an overbearing mother and vindictive mean-girl classmates, her latent telekinetic powers begin bubbling to the surface. When she's pushed too far, Carrie delivers a prom night no one will soon forget.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

2. Creepshow 2 (1987)

A macabre King vibe inspired this anthology, a sequel to 1982's Creepshow that the writer collaborated on with horror master George A. Romero. The standout: "The Raft," about a group of college kids who find a sentient sludge at a lake that makes their weekend getaway anything but relaxing.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

3. 11.22.63 (2016)

King’s revisionist take on the Kennedy assassination comes to life in this Hulu original series. James Franco stars as a professor who discovers he can travel back in time to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting at the motorcade in Dallas. Unfortunately, those heroics have consequences in the future.

Where to stream it: Hulu

4. Gerald’s Game (2017)

Carla Gugino’s weekend getaway with her husband turns into an endurance test when she finds herself alone and handcuffed to a bed. Slowly, creeping horrors both real and imagined begin to materialize. To keep her sanity—and her life—she’ll need to escape by any means necessary.

Where to stream it: Netflix

5. In the Tall Grass (2019)

King's 2012 novella—co-written with his son, Joe Hill—is a classic King conceit of taking the mundane and making it terrifying. After chasing a boy into a thick patch of farm land grass, two siblings realize that it harbors dangerous and mystifying entities. Patrick Wilson co-stars.

Where to stream it: Netflix

6. Christine (1983)

In what may be some kind of record, this 1983 adaptation of the King novel was released the same year as its source material. Teenage outcast Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury, a car that appears to have its own plans for Arnie and the high school bullies taunting him.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

7. The Shining (1980)

Widely regarded as the best King adaptation of all time, this Stanley Kubrick film is actually not all that well-liked by King himself: He felt it failed to capture key elements of his 1977 novel (in 1997, King remade it as a miniseries starring Steven Weber). But it’s an undeniably rich and evocative horror show, with writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly becoming unwound as he and his family settle in for an isolated winter at the Overlook Hotel.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

8. The Mist (2007)

King's 1980 novella casts a group of strangers who are trapped in a grocery store, a malevolent mist outside seemingly obscuring monstrous predators. As their peril increases, the danger inside becomes just as threatening. The ending, changed from King's own, remains one of the biggest gut-punch twists in film.

Where to watch it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

9. The Dark Half (1993)

King's 1989 novel about a writer who has to fend off a physical manifestation of his pseudonym is brought to eerie life by Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken has the weight of the world on his shoulders as Johnny Smith, a teacher who emerges from a coma with psychic powers. When he encounters a power-mad politician (Martin Sheen) with destructive tendencies, Johnny must decide whether to take drastic action. King's 1979 novel also inspired a USA Network television series starring Anthony Michael Hall, which is available on Amazon Prime.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

11. Children of the Corn (1984)

King's short story from 1978's Night Shift collection imagines a small town in which children are free to explore their most violent impulses without any parental supervision. Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are a couple who stumble upon their community and quickly come to regret it.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. Stephen King's A Good Marriage (2014)

When Joan Allen finds some incriminating evidence pointing to her perfect husband (played by Anthony LaPaglia) being a serial killer, she must decide between the love of her life and a monster who takes lives. The film is based on the novella of the same name in King's 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

This story has been updated for 2020.