Note: Originally taken from a post I put on my Tumblr, but with some added content.
It’s interesting how everyone thinks the Grimm Brothers portrayed fairy tales more realistically, when really, it was quite the opposite—at least with most of the stories.
You know how there’s a version of Sleeping Beauty that features the female protagonist being raped and impregnated in her sleep? The Grimms didn’t write that variant of the story; in theirs, the princess really is awoken from a sleeping curse with just a kiss from her prince.
No, that particular variant was written a few centuries earlier (in about the 14th century), and many of the variants afterward followed a similar pattern—except the Grimm version.
That version of Bluebeard featuring a Hare capturing a little girl (“The Hare’s Bride”), rather than being a serial killer husband with a bloody chamber filled with his dead ex-wives, was written by the Grimm brothers.
The version of Bluebeard that is often referenced today is the Charles Perrault version, and his wasn’t even the first. There’s a variant (titled “Mr. Fox”) that goes back as far as the sixteenth century—Shakespeare even references it in his play Much Ado About Nothing.
Little Red Riding Hood was originally a story that had plenty of sexual undertones, but it is also a story about maturation and growing up, at least in the case of the little girl (or young woman, in some versions). It also had a different title, “Grandmother’s Tale”; it was an oral story that had originated in Italy, or at least around there. This story also portrayed the Big Bad Wolf as a werewolf. In other words, to anyone who might be complaining about werewolves being portrayed as sexual creatures in modern day YA and Romance literature, rather than the monsters they are, chill out; they have always been portrayed in this manner (though not as romanticized). In fact, around the time of Charles Perrault (which would have been about the seventeenth century), male sexuality was viewed as predatory and borderline monstrous when uncontrolled, especially towards developing young girls.
Charles Perrault portrayed his variant of the story as sexual, but in his the little girl gets “eaten” at the end, rather than rescues herself, like how she did in “Grandmother’s Tale.” Through this story, Perrault also displayed an early view of what we now call victim blaming, and this is not the first time he has displayed this aspect in his fairy tale variants (his variant of Donkey-skin is also an example). Like I said, many people during Perrault’s time viewed male sexuality as borderline monstrous; that being said, Perrault placed the blame on Little Red Riding Hood for being eaten, as virtuous and innocent as she was (please note, this is a little girl we are talking about; she might not have been more than six in the story). He also displays a vast amount of misandry towards men and male sexuality, referring to them as all being Wolves, even the “nice ones” (who are apparently more dangerous).
As for the Woodsman or the Hunter, that figure was added into in the Grimm version of the tale. Though the reason for this addition is not explicitly said, it can be argued that the Woodsman was added to make the story seem more child friendly, by having him rescue Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother. It can also be argued that he was added to help dispel the misandry that was present in Perrault’s story, to show that not all men are Wolves who will “eat” you. Though one can argue that there is still a sexual undertone in the Brothers Grimm variant of Little Red Riding Hood, it is not as present as it is in the previous variants.
You know the story of Snow White? In one of the earlier and probably original variant of the tale, the antagonist of the story is Snow White’s biological mother, not her step-mother; there wasn’t even a step-mother. Not only did the Grimm brothers shift the role of antagonist to a wicked step-mother, but many other recorders of children’s folklore did this as well. No one wanted to portray a woman who would pervert the sanctity of motherhood by being abusive to the child she bore and raised. There was just no way such a woman existed. Making a step-mother a villain, however, now that was more acceptable.
To conclude, the Grimm brothers didn’t make fairy tales realistic, as many people have claimed. One can argue that the Brothers Grimm were basically the Walt Disney of their time. Many of the fairy tales were already “realistic”, or at least the earlier variants contain the realism you all think the Grimms added. In the Grimm variants of fairy tales (or at least some), many of the undertones having to do with sex, sexuality, violence, and domestic/child abuse were downplayed and morphed into something more suitable for children to hear. Were many of them dark? Sure, but still light enough to tell children by the fireplace. If you were to do some research into earlier variants of a fairy tale, you will realize that the earlier versions of certain stories were much darker.
Probably the only folk tales that the Grimm brothers really didn’t change were the blatantly anti-Semitic ones (one even featuring a Jewish peddler being killed for a Gentile’s crime), which were told often to children in Germany up until about 1945.