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.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

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.

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