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Parents promise to read fairy tales to children because young Britons think they are inappropriate

Nicholas Jubber is the author of The Fairy Tellers: A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales, published 20th January 2022 by John Murray Press, priced at £20 and available online in all good bookshops.

‘A witch lives in a hut on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human skulls.

A young mother has her babies taken away and is accused of eating them.

A mermaid’s tongue is cut out by a sea witch.

When we say “fairy tale,” we might think of happily ever after, princesses with pointed hats, and fairy godmothers.

But beneath the soft shells of our traditional fairy tales are sharp fangs dripping with blood, like the wolf waiting to gobble up Little Red Riding Hood.

We find this darkness in all the classics, from the tales of the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen, with body counts that rival any modern horror franchise.

While traveling through the history of fairy tales, I asked myself this question: what makes the old fairy tales so dark? Not the watered-down versions that Disney serves up, but the traditional early versions.

Scholars have entangled them in a thousand and one theories, but there’s a simple reason for the darkness: the stories are dark because the lives of the original narrators were.

The Brothers Grimm and Dortchen Wild

The Brothers Grimm (pictured) lived in a world at war.  The region where they lived, Hesse, in Germany, was occupied by Napoleon's army and the dictator's brother, a dissolute bigamist, seized the throne

The Brothers Grimm (pictured) lived in a world at war.  The region where they lived, Hesse, in Germany, was occupied by Napoleon's army and the dictator's brother, a dissolute bigamist, seized the throne

The Brothers Grimm (pictured) lived in a world at war. The region where they lived, Hesse, in Germany, was occupied by Napoleon’s army and the dictator’s brother, a dissolute bigamist, seized the throne

Among the storytellers who told the brothers stories—stories like “Rumpelstiltskin” and “The Elves and the Shoemaker”—was Dortchen Wild (pictured), a pharmacist’s daughter who lived across the street. Dortchen’s family was so fed up with the French soldiers that her sister once said, “I want to kill that swine!” But when the Napoleonic troops were launched, things did not improve. Cossack troops from Russia arrived, slept on straw mattresses in Dortchen’s house and demanded hospitality. To make matters worse, Dortchen lived in the shadow of a very strict father, who disapproved of her friendship with the story-gathering brothers across the street.

The Brothers Grimm lived in a world at war.

The region where they lived, Hesse, in Germany, was occupied by Napoleon’s army and the dictator’s brother, a dissolute bigamist, seized the throne.

Among the narrators who told the brothers stories—stories like “Rumpelstiltskin” and “The Elves and the Shoemaker”—was Dortchen Wild, a pharmacist’s daughter who lived across the street.

Dortchen’s family was so fed up with the French soldiers that her sister once declared, “I want to kill that swine!” But when the Napoleonic troops were launched, things did not improve.

Cossack troops from Russia arrived, slept on straw mattresses in Dortchen’s house and demanded hospitality.

To make matters worse, Dortchen lived in the shadow of a very strict father, who disapproved of her friendship with the story-gathering brothers across the street.

No wonder darkness pervades her stories. In one of the stories she told, Sweetheart Roland, a girl is murdered in her sleep and her blood betrays the whereabouts of the escaping lovers.

In the popular story of “The Six Swans,” a young mother’s newborn babies are taken away from her, her lips are smeared with blood, and she is accused of eating them.

She cannot even protest her innocence, for she has taken a vow of silence.

Even the beloved ‘Hansel and Gretel’, another tale told by Dortchen, is hardly as sweet as the gingerbread house it is known for.

The witch intends to eat her two captive children, and they are only in her grasp because their parents left them in the woods (and in the original version, it is the children’s mother – not their stepmother – who insists throw them out!).

Ivan Khudiakov

Pictured is author Nick Jubber

Pictured is author Nick Jubber

Pictured is author Nick Jubber

These stories have been cleaned up over the centuries, so we can now think of them as happy stories to share with our children.

But it’s hard to purify Russian fairy tales – it’s the darkness that makes them so captivating!

At the center of their hearts is Baba Yaga, a terrifying iron-toothed witch who lives in a hut that moves on a pair of giant chicken legs, with a bathhouse full of frogs and eels.

In one of the stories, a girl turns up at Baba Yaga’s house and has to do several odd jobs to be spared.

Her housework is exemplary, so she gets a chest full of money. But her stepsister shows up, eager for her own rewards. She performs her duties poorly, so instead of getting money, she gets burned.

This story was written down by a Russian folklorist, Ivan Khudiakov, after hearing it told in a village near Moscow.

Almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world, Khudiakov was an extraordinary character.

He roamed the villages of the Ryazan region, wrote down the stories he heard and published his first collection of short stories when he was only eighteen.

But he recognized the connection between these stories and the brutal life of the serfs who told them.

Eager to improve their conditions, he worked on reading and writing projects and joined a radical group trying to flatten the Russian class system.

Not a wise move if you want an easy life – caught up in a failed plot to assassinate the Tsar, he was arrested and sent to the coldest city on Earth.

He languished in Siberia and ended up in a psychiatric ward.

According to one of his last visitors, “All black, gloomy, engulfed his once clear thoughts.”

A few weeks later, his body was placed in a grave reserved for criminals and hobos.

Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen started life in abject poverty, his mother worked as a washerwoman, while his father was a cobbler who died after a disastrous stint in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel

Hans Christian Andersen started life in abject poverty, his mother worked as a washerwoman, while his father was a cobbler who died after a disastrous stint in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel

Hans Christian Andersen started life in abject poverty, his mother worked as a washerwoman, while his father was a cobbler who died after a disastrous stint in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel

Happily ever after was out of reach for many of these old storytellers.

But one figure who bucked the trend was Hans Christian Andersen.

“My life is a fairy tale,” he declared.

He started life in abject poverty, his mother worked as a washerwoman, while his father was a cobbler who died after a disastrous stint in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel.

He left his hometown of Odense for Copenhagen, where he was mocked for his provincial accent and lanky figure. Dickens, among others.

As he said towards the end of his life, ‘I drank my chocolate with the Queen, sitting opposite her and the King at the table’.

However, the misery of his early life haunted his stories.

The sea witch’s extraction of the little sea witch’s tongue echoed Andersen’s sense of voicelessness as he emigrated from provincial Odense to Copenhagen.

The Little Match Girl, dying of cold, could have been Andersen herself in his early days in Copenhagen; and he compared his experience of the contempt of others to his story of “The Ugly Duckling.”

Loss pervades many of Andersen’s stories.

One of my personal favorites is “The Wood Nymph,” in which a forest spirit yearns for the city lights and achieves her dream by dancing the can-can and visiting the Paris Exhibition, before dissolving into a single drop of water.

Sacrifices are made and happiness rarely comes without a cost.

As liberating as many fairy tales are, they promise a way out of the dark, at a deeper level they warn us of the loss and pain that will likely overtake us on the difficult path to happily ever after.’

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