Dark Fairy Tales: Changes Through Retellings


Going into this, I was very excited to get into some fictional stories (FINALLY!) as we only did Oedipus The King and The Tempest thus far. I’m so happy to finally focus on other stories and see how these stories are told and why they are told.

During our lecture, I was a little surprised when I heard someone saying that the Grimm’s version of Snow White was a lot darker than they thought it would be. The reason as to why I was surprised was because in my case, I already know about many of the darker, original versions of these fairy tales. Not just through my curiosity bringing me to look up these stories’s origins as a teenager, but also through my own experience of reading them as a child.

There are two instances in particular that I vividly remember, first of which is Snow White. The picture book that I found in particular was pretty much the same as the version that we read except that the prince and Snow White lived happily ever after on horseback and omitting the wedding scene with the death of Snow White’s stepmother. Again, since I was just a little kid and it was a bright, happy, cute little picture book, I didn’t think anything of it since it ended happily.

The second instance, which is a lot more vivid for me, was the Hans Christan Anderson fairytale The Little Mermaid. The version I read as a child as part of an anthology of fairy tales was pretty much close to the original story, except for one bit which I’ll talk about in a bit.

In the original story of the Little Mermaid, she ends up mute with the loss of her tongue in exchange for human legs from the sea witch in order to find the prince whose life she saves from a violent storm. However, walking and dancing are extremely painful to her as it is akin to walking on sharp knives. However, the prince ends up falling in love with another princess and plans to marry her believing that it was her who saved him from the shipwreck. The little mermaid was heartbroken due to all she sacrificed to have a chance to be with him. Suddenly, the little mermaid’s older sisters find her, explaining that they made a deal with the sea witch in which they cut off their long hair in exchange for a magic dagger. Giving it to the little mermaid, they explained that if she were to kill the prince with the knife and let the blood drip unto her feet, she would be able to grow back her tail and return to the sea a mermaid. However, when she sees the couple together in their bed happily sleeping, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She throws herself an the dagger into the sea and she dies turning into sea foam.

Now, I’m not sure if this part in particular was only in the book I read or was in the original ending of the story, but this what also also in the ending that I read. After the little mermaid turns into sea foam, instead of ceasing to exist like what would normally happen, she becomes a spirit and is greeted by several other female spirits. The say that because of her selflessness in not killing the prince out of jealousy, she has the opportunity to be a spirit that will go up into heaven. Again, I’m not sure if this is what happens in the original tale, but this was from the story I had read.

What I find fascinating is how even through different generations, people tend to change and even add material to these stories, yet how they managed to endure after centuries of tellings and retellings.

If anyone else wants to check more on this subject, here are links to two videos out of so many online to get you started:

(Keep in mind that the stories may vary depending on what aspects the video makers decide to focus on, as they both talk about the same fairytales, but explain the stories differently. Because of this, I highly recommend looking up these stories yourselves to see how even one story could have different versions of it depending on the time period.)

2 thoughts on “Dark Fairy Tales: Changes Through Retellings

  1. Cara Meyers

    Hey Venessa,

    I find the version of “The Little Mermaid” that you recount here to be very interesting, partially because the only version of “The Little Mermaid” I know is the Disney rendition that I watched on VHS when I was little. Of course, we are all aware that Disney cartoons of fairy tales tend to be more child friendly and “lighter” than their originals (which contain things like Princes with weird fetishes for dead girls). Though it has been a long time since I watched “The Little Mermaid”, I think that what you describe here has some notable differences to the Disney version. The most obvious of these differences is that, in the original story, Ariel doesn’t get to live happily ever after with the prince. However, if I remember correctly, in the Disney version, Ariel isn’t able to talk either. However, I don’t think it is because she got her tongue cut out (I think the sea witch sealed her voice inside a shell). Even though I can’t remember how Ariel finally gets her voice back (I remember that she can talk in “The Little Mermaid Two”), I find it interesting how the Disney version, in spite of its significant differences, retains this mute aspect of the original story. As I have not read the original, I do not think I am in any state to analyze the significance of this. Thus, I have to ask, why do you think that this part of the story was featured in the Disney original?

  2. This is really interesting stuff, Vanessa–thanks for pointing us to this very different version of the Little Mermaid than many of us know from the movie. I have often wondered why so many fairy tales are so dark, remembering as a child hearing about Hansel and Gretel and how the witch wanted to cook them (and being very scared about that as a kid). It’s interesting that fairy tales are, at least now, thought to be for kids, but when you read some of the originals you might think they could be too scary for kids (depending on the version). At least, my own son would probably be freaked about by some of these! it would be interesting to look into the history of fairy tales in various places and whether people just thought stories for kids could be darker than many people do today, or whether these were not necessarily for kids in the first place (I really don’t know!).

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