Parents voice their disbelief as a poll shows young Brits think fairy tales are inappropriate

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

Nicholas Guber is the author of The Fairy Tellers: A Journey in the Secret History of Fairy Tales published 20 January 2023 by John Murray Press, priced at £20 and available online and in all good bookshops.

A witch lives in a hut on chicken legs surrounded by a hedge of human skulls.

A young mother takes her children and accuses them of eating them.

The mermaid’s tongue is cut out by the sea witch.

When we say “fairy tales” we might think of happy endings, princesses in pointed hats, and good-natured fairies.

But beneath the soft veil of our conventional fairy tales are sharp fangs dripping with blood, like a wolf waiting to devour Little Red Riding Hood.

We find this darkness in all of the classics, from stories by the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen, with a body count to rival any modern horror franchise.

On a journey through the history of fairy tales, I asked myself this question: What makes ancient fairy tales so dark? Not the watered down versions serving Disney dishes, but the traditional old versions.

They’ve thrown scientists into A Thousand and One Theories, but there’s a simple reason why it’s dark: The stories are dark because the lives of the original storytellers were dark.

The Brothers Grimm and Dorchen Wilde

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

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

Among the narrators who told the brothers stories such as

Among the storytellers who told the brothers stories such as “Rumpelstiltskin” and “The Elves and the Shoemaker” was Dortchen Wild (pictured), a pharmacist’s daughter who lives across the street. The Dorchens were so fed up with the French soldiers that her sister once exclaimed, “I want to kill that pig!” But things did not improve when Napoleon’s forces were overthrown. Cossack troops arrived from Russia, lay on straw mattresses in the Dorchin house and demanded hospitality. To make matters worse, Dorchen lived under a very strict father who disapproved of her friendship with the story-collecting brothers across the street.

The Brothers Grimm lived in a world at war.

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

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

The Dorchens were so fed up with French soldiers that her sister once exclaimed, “I want to kill that pig!” But things did not improve when Napoleon’s forces were overthrown.

Cossack troops arrived from Russia, lay on straw mattresses in the Dorchin house and demanded hospitality.

To make matters worse, Dorchen lived under a very strict father who disapproved of her friendship with the story-collecting brothers across the street.

No wonder their stories are dark. In one of the stories she tells, “Sweetheart Roland”, a girl is murdered in her sleep and her blood reveals the whereabouts of the runaway lovers.

In the famous story The Six Swans, a young mother takes her newborn children, smears blood on her lips, and accuses them of eating them.

She couldn’t even protest her innocence because she had vowed to be silent.

And the ever-famous “Hansel and Gretel,” another story told by Dortchen, isn’t quite as cute as the gingerbread house he’s famous for.

The witch intends to eat her two captured children, who are only there in her clutches because they were abandoned in the woods by their parents (and in the original version, the children’s mother—not their stepmother—insists on their expulsion!).

Ivan Chudyakov

The author is photographed by Nick Guber

The author is photographed by Nick Guber

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

But Russian fairy tales are hard to sanctify – it’s the darkness that makes them so compelling!

At its heart is Baba Yaga, a fearsome, iron-fanged witch who lives in a hut that moves on giant chicken legs, with a bathroom full of frogs and eels.

In one story, a girl appears in Baba Yaga’s house and must complete various tasks in order to be avoided.

Her housework is exemplary, so she is given a trunk full of money. But her half-sister shows up, eager to get her own treat. She does her duties poorly, so she gets burned instead of getting money.

This story was written by a Russian folklorist named Ivan Khudyakov after hearing it in a village near Moscow.

Almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world, Khudyakov was an extraordinary personality.

He roamed the villages of the Ryazan region, wrote down the stories he heard and published his first collection of fairy tales at the age of only eighteen.

But he saw the connection between these stories and the brutal lives of the serfs who told them.

To improve their conditions, he worked on literacy projects and joined a radical group that wanted to level the Russian class system.

Not a smart move if you want an easy life – he got involved in a failed plan to assassinate the Tsar, was arrested and sent to the coldest city in the world.

He disappeared in Siberia and ended up in a psychiatric institution.

“Everything black and gloomy clouded his once brilliant thoughts,” said one of his new visitors.

A few weeks later, his body was thrown into a grave reserved for criminals and vagabonds.

Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen began life in abject poverty, his mother was a laundress, his father was a shoemaker who died after an unfortunate service in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel

Hans Christian Andersen started out in extreme poverty, his mother worked as a washerwoman, his father was a cobbler who died after an unfortunate service in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel

Happy endings were out of reach for many ancient storytellers.

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

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

He began life in abject poverty, his mother working as a laundress, his father a cobbler who died after an ill-fated service in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel.

He left his birthplace of Odense for Copenhagen, where he was ridiculed for his provincial accent and slender frame, but as time went on his uncompromising determination won over people and the popularity of his stories won him the hospitality of the Duke of Weimar and the enjoyment of Carls. Dickens, among others.

As he said at the end of his life: “I drank chocolate with the queen, sitting opposite her and the king at the table.”

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

The sea witch’s withdrawal from The Little Mermaid’s tongue reflects Andersen’s feeling of being unable to speak when he immigrated to Copenhagen from the province of Odense.

The little match girl, dying of cold, could have been Andersen himself in Copenhagen in his early days; He compared his experiences of disdain for others to his story “The Ugly Duckling”.

Loss pervades many of Andersen’s stories.

One of my favorites is The Wood Nymph, where the forest soul longs for city lights and pursues its dream, can dance and visit the Paris fair before dissolving into a single drop of water.

Sacrifices are made, and happiness rarely comes without a cost.

Although many fairy tales are restored and promise to find a way out of the darkness, they warn us on a deeper level of loss and pain that may overtake us on the difficult path to a happy ending.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11469515/Parents-voice-disbelief-survey-reveals-young-Britons-think-fairy-tales-inapprof.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 They expressed their disbelief as a poll showed that British youth thought fairy tales were inappropriate