Are Grimm’s Fairy Tales too twisted for children?

Stephen Evans explores the twisted world of Grimm's Fairy Tales – bedtime stories complete with mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest.


On the covers are the most innocent of titles: Grimm’s Fairy Tales in their English version or Children’s and Household Tales in the original German editions published two hundred years ago. Nice tales for nice children.

But behind the safe titles lie dark stories of sex and violence – tales of murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest, as one academic puts it. They are far from anything we might imagine as acceptable today. If they were a video game, there would be calls to ban them.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were writing in a different world. They lived in the town of Kassel in Germany and studied law and language as well as writing more than 150 stories which they published in two volumes between 1812 and 1814.

Some stories have fallen out of favour but some – Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White – seem eternal. They have morphed into countless adaptations; Disney disneyfied them and new filmmakers and novelists continue to rework them. Comics from Japanese Manga to the erotic and ‘adult’ depict the characters of the Grimm brothers’ tales.

But even in their original, they are far from saccharine, according to Maria Tatar, professor of Germanic folklore and mythology at Harvard University: “These tales are not politically correct. They are full of sex and violence. In Snow White, the stepmother asks for the lungs and liver of the little girl. She's just seven years old and she's been taken into the woods by the huntsman. That’s pretty scary.

“And then the evil stepmother is made to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes. In Cinderella, you’ve got the stepsisters whose heels and toes are cut off.”

Adult themes

These tales of gore and sexuality – John Updike called them the pornography of an earlier age – are still going strong. “I can't even keep track of the number of new versions of Snow White,” says Professor Tatar. “And these aren't just Disney productions – you have film-makers making very adult versions of the fairy tales, drawing out the perverse sexuality of some of these tales.” Read more here.