11 Lesser-Known Fairy Tales
By Tasia Bass
Generations of parents have told their children fairy tales—stories imparting moral lessons that are easier to remember when a princess or evil ogre is involved. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and other folklorists dedicated their lives to collecting these tales. Some of these stories became common household names, like Snow White and Cinderella. But there are many weird, quirky, and sometimes incredibly dark stories you may not know. Here are 11 of the lesser-known ones.
1. The Three Spinning Women
This Brothers Grimm tale stars a lazy girl who doesn’t want to work on her spinning wheel. Her mother punishes her. The queen happens to be passing by their home and asks why the girl is crying. The mother says it's because she actually loves spinning but is too poor to afford flax. The queen, who happens to have a houseful of flax, says the girl can marry her oldest son if she can spin it all in three days. Three old crones decide to help the girl, who still refuses to work, and in exchange, she invites them to the wedding. This lighthearted tale shows that, sometimes, laziness does pay off.
A couple wants a child so badly they'd settle for a hedgehog in this Grimm tale. They soon learn to be careful what they wish for: They have a half-human, half-hedgehog son they name Hans-My-Hedgehog, and, disturbed by his appearance, make him sleep behind the stove for years. One day, the child asks for bagpipes and a rooster, promising he will leave and never return if he can have them. When his father acquiesces, the boy goes to live in the forest, playing his bagpipes and tending to his animals. Soon a king, who is lost, comes across the boy; Hans-My-Hedgehog promises to show the king his way back home in exchange for his daughter. The king agrees, but has no intention of following through on the promise. Eventually, Hans-My-Hedgehog takes bloody revenge on the deceitful king. Then another king comes across the boy and the same offer is given. This king is honorable and sends his daughter, who is frightened by the boy’s appearance. But on their wedding night, Hans sheds his hedgehog skin and becomes a handsome prince.
3. The Ungrateful Son
This short Grimm story teaches the dangers of selfishness when a man decides to hide a giant roasted chicken from view when his elderly father visits his house. After his father departs, the man attempts to resume eating the chicken, but it turns into a giant toad and latches onto his head. He spends the rest of his days feeding the toad so it won't devour his face.
4. Cat and Mouse in Partnership
An extremely dark Grimm tale in which a cat and a mouse decide to live together for the winter. They buy a pot of fat to share and leave it in a safe place—behind the alter of a church. But throughout the winter, the cat lies to the mouse and claims that he must attend to his godchildren. He goes to the church and eats the fat. The mouse finally realizes the cat's game, and just as she is about to reprimand him, the cat eats the mouse—for that is how nature works.
5. The Girl Without Hands
This truly Grimm story is, um, a handful, so stay with us. The devil, apparently feeling super-bored, decides to trick a poor miller. He offers him riches for the whatever is behind his mill. The miller, thinking he means a large apple tree, agrees to the request. However, the devil actually means the miller’s daughter, who's sweeping the floor there. Three years later, the devil comes to collect the daughter—but because she's so pious, he can’t appropriate her.
So, he demands that she stop washing herself, to reach a state of filth suitable for the devil's girlfriend, but she cries in her hands, keeping them too clean. The devil tells the miller to put a stop to this by chopping off her hands. The miller, not wanting to be further harassed, chops them off. The girl leaves home (who can blame her) and soon comes across the king, who marries her even though she doesn’t have hands. They have a child, and the devil, annoyed at her good fortune, makes everyone think the king wants her and the son dead. The king’s mother sends them away for their own safety. She finds a small house and lives there for seven years, and her piety causes her hands to grow back. Eventually, the king finds them again, and they live happily ever after.
6. Hans, Who Made the Princess Laugh
In this Norwegian tale recorded by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, a beautiful princess never laughs and is uninterested in every man who asks for her hand. The king declares that anyone who can make his daughter laugh will get her hand in marriage and half of the kingdom. Many try and fail. A man who lives near the castle decides that his three sons will try their luck, but the first two strike out. Hans, the youngest, then goes to the castle, but instead of attempting to make the princess laugh, he obtains a golden goose. If anyone touches the goose, they stick to it. Numerous passers-by get stuck, and finally Hans arrives at the princess's window with a trail of unfortunate hangers-on covered in goose feathers. The princess laughs for the first time and Hans inherits half the kingdom.
7. The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear
A man has two sons, according to the Grimms. The older one is smart and skilled; the younger is a burden and unable to learn anything. The father sends his younger son out to learn a trade. He decides to learn how to shudder because he has never been afraid before. As people try to scare him, he gets more annoyed, complaining that no one is teaching him how to shudder. The king of the land has a haunted castle and promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who stays in the castle for three nights. The boy takes him up on it, hoping to get the heebie- jeebies, but just gets upset that his sleep is being interrupted. After the third night, the king lets him marry the princess. At this point the poor guy still is fixated on learning fear, so a maid pours a bucket of cold water and wriggling minnows over him while he sleeps. He wakes up, shuddering for the first time in his life.
8. The Death of the Little Red Hen
In this Grimmly depressing tale, a hen is choking on a nut and her rooster friend goes to a well to get her a drink of water. But the well demands that the rooster get a piece of red silk from a young woman. The woman will only give up the silk if the rooster gets her a wreath from a willow. Thanks to this convoluted quest, the hen dies waiting for the water. Sad at the lost of his friend, the rooster sobs and all the nearby animals hear it. They try to help the rooster bury her across the river. Then everyone but the rooster dies trying to cross the river. And once the rooster buries the hen, he is alone and cries until he too dies. But hey, the well got its red silk and lived happily ever after, we guess.
9. The Shadow
Imagine if, one day, your shadow asks you to take its place and then convinces the whole world that you’ve lost your marbles. That’s exactly what happens in this whirlwind Hans Christian Andersen tale. A man’s shadow disappears, and he begins to grow a new one. Then years later, his old shadow shows up as an actual person of flesh and blood. The shadow is the opposite of the man, only seeing the bad in the world instead of the good. After a while the man begins to fall ill and the shadow offers to send him to a pond that will cure him, but only if the man becomes the shadow’s shadow for some time. The man agrees, but then the shadow meets a princess and becomes engaged. The man is upset and the shadow tries to bribe him into being the shadow forever. The man refuses, so the shadow convinces everyone that the man is a shadow that has gone crazy believing he is actually a real man. The princess executes the man, thinking he is really a shadow, and the shadow marries the princess. Moral of the story? Never be a shadow of yourself.
10. The Red Shoes
In this Hans Christian Andersen story, a little girl named Karen is so poor she walks around barefoot. One day a lady in the village gives Karen a pair of red shoes. Soon, Karen’s mother dies and another villager takes Karen in; she assumes it's because of her red shoes. Instead, she learns the lady hates them and has them destroyed. Years later, the lady buys Karen new red shoes, thinking they are black thanks to her poor eyesight. Karen becomes obsessed with her bright red shoes, continuously wearing them to church even thought she isn’t supposed to. A mysterious old soldier calls them “pretty dancing shoes,” and forever after, Karen cannot stop dancing when she wears them. But eventually, Karen becomes desperate to escape the red shoes, which cleave to her feet and can't be removed. An angel tells Karen that she’s a lesson for other vain children. At wit's end, Karen convinces the town executioner to cut off her feet. She spends the rest of her life repenting her vanity, while working as a servant for a clergyman. Right before she dies, the angel returns to let her know she’s been forgiven.
11. The Enchanted Maiden
This Portuguese story from Zófimo Consiglieri Pedroso involves three beautiful daughters. The first two marry rich princes, but the youngest marries a poor man, and the older sisters shun her because of it. As the youngest daughter is giving birth, fairies in the vicinity bless her baby with beauty and riches. The child grows up, and her beauty catches the eye of a prince who's already engaged to a daughter of the mean older sisters. His fiancée, in a fit of rage, blinds the enchanted maiden and assumes her identity. But she gives her rival her eyes back in exchange for flowers for the wedding. The enchanted maiden visits the prince and begs him not to go through with the marriage. The prince weighs his options and puts the question to his wedding guests. “I lost something, and instead I bought another. I have now recovered that which I lost. Which ought I to make use of—that which I lost, or what I bought?” When all the guest vote for that which he's recovered, he marries the enchanted maiden.