Nicholas Jubber is the author of The Fairy Tellers: A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales, published on 20 January 2022 by John Murray Press, priced at £20 and available online and from 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 may think of happy-ever-afters, princesses in pointy hats and fairy godmothers.
But under the gentle covers 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 to rival any modern horror franchise.
On a journey around the history of fairy tales, I found myself asking this question: what makes the old fairy tales so dark? Not the watered-down versions dished up by Disney, but the traditional early versions.
Scholars have tangled them up in a thousand and one theories, but there’s a simple reason for the darkness: the tales are dark because the lives of the original tellers 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 the army of Napoleon and the dictator’s brother, a dissolute bigamist, seized the throne
Amongst the storytellers who narrated tales to the brothers – stories such as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ – was Dortchen Wild (pictured) an apothecary’s daughter who lived across the street. Dortchen’s family was so fed up with the French soldiers, her sister once declared ‘I want to kill that swine!’ But when the Napoleonic troops were booted out, matters didn’t improve. Cossack troops from Russia arrived, bunking down on straw mattresses in Dortchen’s house, demanding hospitality. To make matters worse, Dortchen lived in the shadow of a very stern father, who disapproved of her friendship with the story-gathering brothers across the road.
The Brothers Grimm lived in a world at war.
The region where they lived, Hesse, in Germany, was occupied by the army of Napoleon and the dictator’s brother, a dissolute bigamist, seized the throne.
Amongst the storytellers who narrated tales to the brothers – stories such as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ – was Dortchen Wild, an apothecary’s daughter who lived across the street.
Dortchen’s family was so fed up with the French soldiers, her sister once declared: ‘I want to kill that swine!’ But when the Napoleonic troops were booted out, matters didn’t improve.
Cossack troops from Russia arrived, bunking down on straw mattresses in Dortchen’s house, demanding hospitality.
To make matters worse, Dortchen lived in the shadow of a very stern father, who disapproved of her friendship with the story-gathering brothers across the road.
No wonder darkness pervades her tales. 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 tale 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 can’t even protest her innocence, because she has taken a vow of silence.
Even the much-loved ‘Hansel and Gretel’, another tale narrated by Dortchen, is hardly as sweet as the gingerbread house for which it’s known.
The witch intends to eat her two child captives, and they are only in her clutches because their parents have abandoned them in the woods (and in the original version, it’s the children’s mother – not their stepmother – who insists on throwing them out!).
Author Nick Jubber is pictured
These stories have been sanitised over the centuries, so we can see them now as cheerful tales to share with our children.
But it’s hard to sanitise the Russian fairy tales – it’s the darkness that makes them so engrossing!
At their heart is Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch with iron teeth who lives in a hut that moves about on a pair of giant chicken legs, with a bathhouse full of frogs and eels.
In one of the tales, a girl turns up at Baba Yaga’s house and has to carry out various chores in order to be spared.
Her housework is exemplary, so she is given a chest full of money. But her step-sister turns up, eager for rewards of her own. She performs her tasks badly, so instead of being given money she is burned to death.
This story was written down by a Russian folklorist called Ivan Khudiakov, after hearing it narrated 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 tales at the age of just eighteen.
But he recognised the connection between these tales and the brutal lives of the serfs who narrated them.
Keen to improve their conditions, he worked on reading and writing projects and joined a radical outfit seeking to flatten the Russian class system.
Not a wise move if you want an easy life – embroiled in a failed plot to assassinate the Tsar, he was arrested and sent to the coldest town on earth.
He wasted away in Siberia, ending up in a psychiatric ward.
According to one of his last visitors, ‘Everything black, gloomy, flooded his once bright thoughts.’
A few weeks later, his body was tipped into a grave reserved for criminals and vagrants.
Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen started life in dire poverty, his mother working as a washerwoman, whilst his father was a cobbler who died after an ill-fated stint in the army, his grandfather was an inmate at the local asylum and his aunt ran a brothel
Happy ever after was out of reach for many of these old tellers of tales.
But one figure who bucked the trend was Hans Christian Andersen.
‘My life is a fairy tale,’ he declared.
He started life in dire poverty, his mother working as a washerwoman, whilst his father was a cobbler who died after an ill-fated 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 gangly figure, but over time his relentless determination won people over, and the popularity of his stories led him to enjoy the hospitality of the Duke of Weimar and Charles Dickens, amongst others.
As he put it towards the end of his life: ‘I have drunk my chocolate with the Queen, sitting opposite her and the King at the table’.
The misery of his early life, however, haunted his tales.
The sea-witch’s extraction of the Little Mermaid’s tongue echoed Andersen’s feeling of voicelessness when he emigrated from provincial Odense to Copenhagen.
The Little Match Girl, dying of the cold, could have been Andersen himself in his early days in Copenhagen; and he compared his experience of other people’s contempt to his tale of ‘The Ugly Duckling’.
Loss pervades many of Andersen’s tales.
One of my personal favourites is ‘The Wood Nymph’, in which a forest sprite yearns for the city lights and achieves her dream, dancing the can-can and visiting the Paris Exhibition, before dissolving to a single drop of water.
Sacrifices are made, and happiness rarely comes without a cost.
Redemptive as many fairy tales are, promising a way out of the dark, on a deeper level they warn us of the loss and pain likely to assail us on the difficult path to happily-ever-after.’