C.J. Marshall: Significa: Once upon an (earlier) time...
Back when I was in grade school, an incident occurred which was a big shock in my then-young life.
In those days, I was an avid reader of fairy tales, and had just finished a story from a book I had obtained at the school library. At the end, I recall closing the book, and then going to my mother and saying: "Hey Mom, do you know there are some fairy tales that end sadly?"
My mom said "Oh yes," and proceeded to explain the facts of life to me. It was really startling, because up until that point I thought a prerequisite for every fairy tale was that it should end with "And they lived happily ever after."
Not so, as I discovered that day, and found when I read even more fairy tales in that particular book, as well as other publications. But that day was the first time I discovered an important lesson in life - namely that things don't always work out the way you expect.
OK, recently I was surfing on the Internet and came across an article on fairy tales that caught my interest. The author spoke about how many of our most cherished fairy tales that we've grown up with through the years have had their messages "softened" through the years in an attempt to make them less upsetting to children.
I was such a voracious reader of fairy tales in my youth that the information presented on the website actually didn't surprise me. I'd come across some of those stories in their original forms through the years, and so what I read on the Internet was actually a confirmation of what I already knew.
Still, it has been a while since I thought of such things, and I'm intrigued enough about the subject matter to use it as the subject of today's column.
To start, I'm going to provide information about those fairy tales, including their original endings. If you're unfamiliar with the subject matter, you may find some of this a bit shocking.
Little Red Riding Hood
This one is so well known I'm not going to provide a synopsis. Many of the versions don't actually call the girl by that name, they only refer to her as "A little girl wearing a red riding hood." But what many of you may not know is that in the original versions no huntsman or woodsman made a last minute appearance to save the girl and her grandmother from the wolf. All that happened was the wolf killed (and sometimes ate) the grandmother, took her place in bed, and then tricked the girl into coming close enough so he could kill and eat her as well. That's it, there's nothing further.
It's evident that in its original form, "Little Red Riding Hood" was supposed to serve as a cautionary tale to children not to talk to strangers or to attempt to have contact with wild animals. As time went on though, many publishers were no doubt concerned that some children may find the ending of the story too upsetting, and added the bit about the girl and her grandmother being rescued at the last minute.
We all know that Cinderella put on the glass slipper, then went off and married the prince, right? But the original versions were a bit more bloody. The story goes that before she tried it on, Cinderella's step-sisters, at the urging of the step-mother, cut off their toes or other sections of their feet so that they would fit into the small glass slipper. But the ruse is discovered because both step-sisters are bleeding profusely, and of course are rejected by the prince. In some versions, birds who were cared for by Cinderella peck out the step-sisters' eyes during the wedding ceremony, leaving them blind beggars.
I have to commend Walt Disney for giving the wicked queen - Snow White's step-mother - such a dramatic death. Having her crushed by a boulder after falling into a chasm is a satisfying alternative to the original way she died. What you originally read was, the wicked queen attended Snow White's wedding, in which the prince ordered her seized and fitted with red hot iron shoes, then she was forced to dance until she dropped down dead.
The Little Mermaid
I found this tale by Hans Christian Anderson to be very depressing when I first read it, and I'll confess I actually enjoyed the Disney version better. Still, the original contains a powerful message. The mermaid (who is unnamed in the original story) gives her tongue to the Sea Witch to obtain a potion to change her tail into legs. She does this because she had fallen in love with a human prince, and becomes human herself in an attempt to woo him. In addition to her voice, the mermaid also pays a terrible price in that every step she takes on land is like knives coursing through her body. But despite all this sacrifice, the prince ultimately rejects her to marry another, and the mermaid turns into sea foam (dies) because of the rejection. (Note: In some versions, the mermaid is transformed into an air spirit with a chance for life; but I think this is another case of publishers adding to the story because they found the original ending too sad.)
The Little Mermaid, which is one of those "sad ending" fairy tales I mentioned, is actually a cautionary tale, warning people to be happy with what they have, and to be very, very careful in deciding what they want in life. In this case, the mermaid had no indication that the prince would love her, and had to deal with tragic and bitter disappointment when things did not work out the way she wanted despite her tremendous sacrifice.
That's an important lesson. In fact, I think it's a lesson we don't often teach our children enough in our often misguided attempts to shield them from life's trials and tribulations. Because it's a sad fact that - many times in life - "good" does not always triumph, and many are doomed to failure, no matter how much sacrifice and effort they put into something. While I am not advocating "doom and gloom" I do think that it might be a good idea to tell children a sad tale occasionally, just to demonstrate that things will not always come out the way they expect in life.
C.J. Marshall is a writer and columnist for The Daily Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.