Severed Limbs and Vivisection: Those Gruesome Grimms

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Ségur

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Segur

Since most of us first encounter classic fairy tales as children, we are often fed a more palatable (as in one can still have dinner after reading) version of these tales. Folk-tales in general, and fairy stories are just a branch of these, were originally stories told by adults to each other, and as a result, the entertainment value often depended on a fair bit of gruesomeness to make the horror often associated with magic and moral lessons more interesting. The Grimm Brothers had originally meant their stories to be read by adults, but by the time of its original publication in 1812, “Children’s and Household Tales” had already undergone a transformation to make the stories more acceptable for a childhood audience. Notwithstanding that however, the stories retained much of their original gruesome folk story details.

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Cinderella by Maxfield Parrish

Most of us best recall the versions from Charles Perrault, and it is these versions that contain all the elements we are familiar with on film and in children’s books, making him (justifiably) the inventor of the modern fairy tale. His version of Cinderella, in particular, included elements he devised on his own such as the fairy godmother and her effects like the glass slipper and the pumpkin turning into a carriage. Of course the essential plot element of the prince searching for his mysterious dancing partner by looking for a girl whose foot would fit the slipper remains, and the irony of his finding a princess who had been abused by her step-family members is no less meaningful in his version where the stepsisters’ feet merely fail to fit the slipper.

The Grimms’ version is closer to its sources, thus certainly more adult, and in the process a more profound statement of human nature as the stepmother chops off one daughters big toe, and a portion of the heel of the other in order to make it possible for the shoe to fit; and in either case the prince is fooled momentarily until it is revealed to him that blood is flowing from the shoe.

Parallel versions of Red Riding Hood also share most elements between Perrault and Grimm. Perrault’s is still relatively violent by today’s standards; both the grandmother and the protagonist are eaten by the wolf, but does not delve into details and merely mentions these facts, almost in passing, which suited his purpose since he intended this story, like all his others, to contain a moral lesson.

Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble

Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble

The Grimms get a bit more explicit in their version “Little Red Cap” when it comes to the resolution once the additional character of the huntsman shows up and sees the sleeping wolf.

He took aim with his gun, and then it occurred to him that the wolf could have eaten the grandmother and that she could still be saved. So he did not shoot but took some scissors and started cutting open the sleeping wolf’s belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed. “Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s belly.”(1)

The grandmother is (of course) also saved as a result and the wolf’s belly filled with stones, and unable to get up, he eventually expires.

Despite the gruesome imagery, the Grimms’ versions of these stories seem more satisfying because while the moral focus of is still accomplished (if we don’t bemoan the torture of the stepsisters and the wolf) but with of a sense of justice; that evil is not only unrewarded, but eventually punished and the evil doer suffers. This is a truer sense of what both children and adults want in a story. The expurgation of morbid unpleasantness in order to avoid offence is always less satisfying than an attention to the reason for it in the first place.

Cinderella by Ann Anderson

Cinderella by Ann Anderson

Image Credits:
Adrienne Ségur
Maxfield Parrish
Warwick Goble
Ann Anderson
(1)  Zipes, Jack . Brothers Grimm The Complete Fairy Tales.  London: Vintage Books, 2007

1 Comment

Filed under Fairy Scholarship, folk tales, Grimms

One response to “Severed Limbs and Vivisection: Those Gruesome Grimms

  1. Wow! You have a blog! I am so glad. This is one of my all-time favorite sites. I teach a class on fairy tales at Indiana University South Bend. Your site has been vital to my teaching for years. I have a blog called was the first link I ever put on it.
    Thank you.

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