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.

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

8 Facts About Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Bloomsbury Children's Books via Amazon
Bloomsbury Children's Books via Amazon

Longtime Harry Potter fans who feel like first-years at heart may find it hard to believe, but the books have been around for decades. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series, which follows Harry as he faces Dementors, investigates the mysterious Sirius Black, and gets through his third year at Hogwarts.

From Rowling’s writing process to how it changed The New York Times Best Sellers list, here are some facts you should know about the wildly popular book.

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was J.K. Rowling’s "best writing experience."

In a 2004 interview with USA Today, Rowling described the creation of Prisoner of Azkaban as “the best writing experience I ever had.” This had more to do with where Rowling was at in her professional life than the content of the actual story. By book three, she was successful enough where she didn’t have to worry about finances, but not yet so famous that the she felt the stress of being in the public eye.

2. The Dementors represent depression.

Readers who live with depression may see something familiar in Prisoner of Azkaban’s soul-sucking Dementors. According to the book, “Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself ... soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

Rowling has stated that she based the Dementor’s effects on her own experiences with depression. "[Depression] is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again," she told The Times in 2000. "The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it's a healthy feeling. It's a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different."

3. Rowling regretted giving Harry the Marauder’s Map.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Marauder’s Map is introduced as a way for Harry to track Sirius Black and learn of the survival of Peter Pettigrew. But this plot device proved problematic for Rowling later on this series. In Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide, she wrote, “The Marauder’s Map subsequently became something of a bane to its true originator (me), because it allowed Harry a little too much freedom of information.” She went on to say that she sometimes wished she had made Harry lose the map for good in the later books.

4. Rowling was excited to introduce Remus Lupin.

One of the aspects Rowling most enjoyed about writing Prisoner of Azkaban was introducing Remus Lupin. The Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and secret werewolf is one of the author's favorite characters in the series, and as she told Barnes & Noble in 1999, “I was looking forward to writing the third book from the start of the first because that's when Professor Lupin appears.”

5. Crookshanks is based on a real cat.

Harry had Hedwig the owl, Ron had his pet rat Scabbers, and in book three, Hermione got a pet of her own: an intelligent half-Kneazle cat named Crookshanks. J.K. Rowling is allergic to cats, and she admits on her website that she prefers dogs, but she does have fond memories of a cat that roamed the London neighborhood where she worked in the 1980s. When writing Crookshanks, she gave him that cat’s haughty attitude and smushed-face appearance.

6. Prisoner of Azkaban was the last Harry Potter book Americans had to wait for.

Harry Potter fans based in America will no doubt remember waiting months after a book’s initial release in England to buy it from their local bookstore. Prisoner of Azkaban was the last Harry Potter book with a staggered publication date: Beginning with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the rest of the books in the series were published in both markets on the same date.

7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban broke sales records.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sold 68,000 copies in the UK within three days of its release, making it the fastest-selling British book of all time in 1999. The book has since gone on to sell more than 65 million copies worldwide and helped make Harry Potter the bestselling book series ever.

8. It changed The New York Times Best Sellers List.

For part of 1999, the first three Harry Potter books—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (which is known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone pretty much everywhere besides America), Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban—occupied the top three slots on The New York Times Best Sellers list. It didn’t stay that way for long, though: Prisoner of Azkaban was the book that pushed the paper to create a separate list just for children’s literature, leaving more room on the original list for books aimed at adults. That’s why Harry Potter is missing from the famous bestsellers roundup during the 2000s, despite dominating book sales at this time.

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