5 Ways Grimm's Fairy Tales Changed After the First Edition

Katalin Szegedi, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Katalin Szegedi, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

You probably know that the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales didn't have the same sort of kid-friendly happy endings as the Disney versions. But it’s not because Jacob and Wilhelm were a pair of deviants eager to write about child abuse. When they set out to produce their Kinder- und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales)—the first volume of which was published on December 20, 1812—the brothers viewed themselves not as authors or even really editors, but as collectors and literary historians.

The original intent of the project was to record and anthologize the oral tradition in German-speaking countries at the start of the 19th century. The Grimms were scholars, working primarily at their desks, who relied on friends and informants and the occasional written document to source the folklore that had been passed down for generations.

Although they added clear transitions where necessary to complete the tales, for the most part the Grimms stayed as true to the original sources as possible.

In 2014, Princeton University Press published The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, the first-ever English translation of the first edition of the Grimms' stories. In the introduction, translator Jack Zipes writes that "... the more they began gathering tales, the more they became totally devoted to uncovering the ‘natural poetry’—naturpoesie—of the German people, and all their research was geared toward exploring the epics, sagas, and tales that contained what they thought were essential truths about the German cultural heritage. Underlying their work was a pronounced romantic urge to excavate and preserve German cultural contributions made by the common people before the stories became extinct."

A drawn portrait of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
A portrait of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm by their brother Ludwig Emil Grimm
Historisches Museum Hanau zeno.org, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

These preservation efforts are seen most clearly in the first edition, with all its lewdness and violence. But once the stories started gaining popularity, the Grimm brothers found it too tempting to alter some of the more unsavory aspects to appeal to a wider audience.

"As soon as they published their first edition, they gradually became fairly famous, and not only in the German-speaking countries—remember, Germany is not united at that point," Zipes told Mental Floss,"Their name and their collection spread like wildfire."

The effect of this growing renown was twofold: At the same time as the Grimms were working, a literate middle class was just beginning to emerge in Europe as a result of public school becoming compulsory. With the traditionally oral stories now bound in a text, the literate middle and upper classes took an interest in the tales, but imposed their Victorian Puritan sentiments on some of the rougher aspects.

As Zipes writes in his book's introduction, “Although they did not abandon their basic notions about the ‘pure’ origins and significance of folk tales when they published the second edition in 1819, there are significant indications that they had been influenced by their critics to make the tales more accessible to a general public and more considerate of children and readers and listeners of the stories.”

This was made possible by the other impact of the first edition’s renown. Although the text was only moderately well-received, people from across Europe began sending the Grimms their own versions of the stories, as they were told in their families. The influx of new material gave the brothers options to compare and intentionally conflate in an effort to get at the essence of the tale, but also as a justification for sanitizing some of the less savory aspects.

We rounded up some of the more surprising aspects of the first edition that were later cleaned up or scrubbed from the text altogether.

1. The tales become much longer.

Through a mix of receiving different, more detailed versions to base their text on and adding their own literary flourishes, the Grimms' subsequent editions were all much longer than the first. Zipes says that there was "no real cohesion" to the first edition, and this is true particularly of the form and format—while are some fully-realized stories, others read more like ideas or outlines. This reflects the Grimms' dedication to reprinting only what they heard.

"Wilhelm could not control his desire to make the tales more artistic to appeal to middle-class reading audiences," Zipes wrote. "The result is that the essence of the tales is more vivid in the two volumes of the first edition, for it is here that the Grimms made the greatest effort to respect the voices of the original storytellers or collectors."

2. Biological mothers became stepmothers.

If you grew up watching Disney movies, you learned that stepmothers are all evil witches, jealous of their beautiful stepdaughters—largely because of the remakes of the Grimms' fairytales. But in the original versions, it was Hansel and Gretel's own mother who tried to abandon her children in the forest and Snow White's real mom who not only hired a huntsman to murder the 7-year-old girl but also planned to eat her organs. In an interview with The Guardian, Zipes said "that the Grimms made the change in later editions because they 'held motherhood sacred,'" but that there were sociological grounds for the change—beyond the fear of offending potential readers—because "many women died from childbirth in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there were numerous instances in which the father remarried a young woman, perhaps close in age to the father’s eldest daughter," of whom the new wife might feel jealous.

3. Rapunzel didn't get pregnant.

In the first version of Rapunzel, the evil fairy finds out about the Prince when her naive charge wonders aloud, "Tell me, Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming too tight? They don't fit me any more." The reader, or listener, is to infer from this that Rapunzel has become impregnated by the Prince during their "merry time" together.

By the 1857 seventh edition, this pregnancy has been cut out of the story entirely and instead, Rapunzel accidentally reveals that she's been seeing the Prince by asking Mother Gothel why she is so much more difficult to pull up than he is—foolish and insulting, but at least not sexually active.

4. The fairies were recast.

Zipes described the supernatural element of the stories as "Kafka-esque." But while much of the text is altered to be more in line with Christianity, some improbable plot developments remain. "There is a good deal of magic in the tales, and they didn’t really take away the magic too much in the following editions," he told Mental Floss. "This miraculous transformation that occurs in the tales was generally not deleted."

That said, the brothers made a particular change to the way they cast these more fantastical elements. In the first edition, the harbingers of magic were almost always fairies—unsurprising in the fairy tale genre. But during the time that the Grimms worked, the Napoleonic wars saw the French occupy of much of German-speaking Europe. Somewhere along the line, they decided to stop using the French term "fairy"—or sometimes "faerie"—and instead replace each instance with some other vaguely mystical being. For example, in Rapunzel, the fairy became a sorceress, and in Briar Rose, better known as Sleeping Beauty, the fairies are changed into wise women.

5. Some stories got cut altogether.

The first edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales was 156 tales, and the final edition was 210—but they didn't only add stories in the interim. The deluge of similar tales they received after the first publication drew widespread acclaim gave the brothers plenty of material to work with, but certain tales just couldn't be sufficiently amended to fit a less gruesome standard. One such story was the aptly-named "How Some Children Played At Slaughtering." In it, two children play as a pig and a butcher. As part of the game, the older brother slits his younger brother's throat, killing him. When their mother finds the scene, she becomes so enraged that she kills the older brother. While she was off doing this, the youngest son drowns in the bath. Now the mother is so despondent that she hangs herself. Eventually, the father returns. When he finds his whole family dead he, too, dies—of heartbreak. Even with a liberal approach to editing, it's unlikely such a story could be Disneyified.

This story originally ran in 2015.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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