Finding the earliest version of any given common fairy tale is an almost impossible endeavor. Before the Grimm Brothers gathered their collection of well-known German folk fairy tales into a single written volume, these stories followed an oral tradition, being passed on from grandmother to mother to children. What you may not know is that these earliest oral versions of our most popular fairy tales, and in some instances the earliest print version, are far from the clean-cut “good guy always wins” tales we use to lull our children to sleep at night. The earlier versions of our classic fairy tales included stories of murder, cannibalism, incest, rape, and various other despicable acts.
Early Fairy Tales Finally get Cleaned Up
Early collections of tales often bore some semblance to our modern fairy tales but it was not until 1634 that we find our first recorded fairy tales. Giambattista Basile wrote Il Pentamerone (the Tale of Tales), also known as Lo cunto de le cunti. It is written in the hard-to-translate Neapolitan dialect. Volumes 1-3 appeared in 1634, followed by volume 4 in 1635 and volume 5 in 1636. They were published posthumously – Basile had already died by 1632. Due to its obscure and difficult to translate dialect, the collection was not first published in Italian until 1747, German in 1846, and English in 1848. Il Pentamerone contains many tales that are directly related to many of today’s most popular tales, including Cenerentola (an early Cinderella tale), Sun, Moon, and Talia (like Sleeping Beauty), Petrosinella (much like Rapunzel), and Gagliuso (similar to Puss in Boots). Their existence in this collection, albeit in sometimes substantially different versions, shows that the tales did indeed exist in oral tradition and influenced Basile’s writing almost 400 years ago. Barring the few similar tales by Straparola, Basile provides the earliest known literary versions of many of today’s fairy tales.
Shortly after Basile’s Pentamerone was written, the Tales of Mother Goose was published in 1697 by Charles Perrault in France and contained The Story of Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and Tom Thumb. This was followed by Fairy Tales in 1705 which included several Basile stories including The Fair One with Golden Locks. By 1812, the Grimm brothers had assembled their famous collection of stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Grimm’s Tales went through seven editions as the brothers watered down the stories to make them more suitable for children. Early versions of Sleeping Beauty only bore a vague resemblance to our well known modern version. The story of Sleeping Beauty, representative of the harshness portrayed in early versions of our popular fairy tales, goes as follows:
Sleeping Beauty and her Rapist
Wise men warned the great King that his daughter Talia was in grave danger – there was poison in the palace’s flax. A ban was put on flax but as expected, Talia still ran across a splinter while spinning flax on the flax-spinning wheel. In great despair, the king placed her sleeping (or dead) body on a velvet cloth and left her in the forest.
Some time later, a rich nobleman was hunting in the woods when he ran across the abandoned body of Sleeping Beauty. Far from planting a kiss, the nobleman instead raped her sleeping body, from which resulted a pregnancy. Nine months later, Sleeping Beauty gave birth to two children (and named them Sun and Moon) and the forest fairies took care of them while Sleeping Beauty continued her slumber. Whilst placing the babes to Sleeping Beauty’s breasts, one of the children accidentally mistook her thumb for a nipple and sucked out the poison splinter. Talia awoke from her deep sleep.
Months later, the nobleman decided to return to the woods to have more sex with Sleeping Beauty’s body when to his surprise, he found her awake. The nobleman confesses that he raped her and they again had sex in the barn. The nobleman then returns home to his wife.
The nobleman’s wife found out about the sexual encounter and ordered the children be kidnapped and cooked alive. The cook prepared the fiendish disk and served it to the rich nobleman at his dinner. As the nobleman finished his meal, the wife boldly announced “you are eating what is your own!”. Alas, as it turns out, the cook had a soft heart and instead of killing and cooking the children, he substituted a goat instead. Talia and the children and her rapist new love interest lived happily ever after.