Not-So Fairy Tales

Most children love a good fairy story, and even us adults have been known to belt along to the songs from the Disney versions. Let It Go, am I right? But most of us only know the watered-down version of the original tales: the beginnings of these stories were much darker … and quite frankly, more than a little strange, they are downright dark.

Sleeping Beauty by Henry Meynell Rheam (1859 – 1920) via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, children’s books didn’t actually exist back when fairy tales started being written down, so they were clearly aimed at an adult audience when Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Madame d’Aulnoy, and even Hans Christian Andersen took up their pens. Want to hear some of the stories behind the stories? If you’re sure …

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Supposedly based on Margarete von Waldeck, a 16th century Bavarian noblewoman, whose tale inspired this well-known story. Living alongside her brother (other reports say her father) at his copper mine, the labor was provided by children, who became deformed at the result of the all the work in the mine. They were referred to as dwarves, and the brother was known to poison with apples anyone caught stealing. Margarete was also poisoned to death, after being sent away by her stepmother to live in Brussels. She became embroiled with Prince Philip II of Spain, to the chagrin and rage of his father, the King. Let’s just say she did not live happily ever after. When the Grimm brothers wrote their tale of Snow White, they likely pulled from this story, adding in their own bits that Disney and other children’s books later left out: the evil stepmother demanding and then eating what she believed were Snow White’s lungs and liver (eww!), and how Snow White was saved, not by a kiss, but by the prince tripping and dropping her casket, which dislodged the piece of apple in her throat (which, if you think about it, is a better lesson to teach the youngsters: if someone is choking or poisoned maybe kissing them isn’t the answer. Try the Heimlich maneuver, boys and girls).
  • The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, we find a much sadder and tragic ending for little Ariel. When she gets her new legs from the sea witch, the punishment is that walking around on them will be horribly painful, like knife wounds to her feet. She even leaves behind trails of blood when she walks. Naturally, she makes the deal anyway, determined to win the love of the prince. Sadly, while he finds her nice enough, he falls in love with someone else. The sea witch tells the mermaid if she stabs him to death, she’ll turn back into a mermaid and can forget all about this unfortunate teenage mistake. Unable to do so, she throws herself into the sea and becomes foam. Probably not the feel-good story of the year, Hans.
  • The Sleeping Beauty. Giambattista Basile’s tale is so weird and dark, it’s hard to know why Charles Perrault adapted it later, and why Disney liked it, too. In the original, a king wanders by a castle and enters it, only to find the sleeping beauty, who is in some sort of coma. He doesn’t wake her, and he doesn’t just kiss her either. That’s right, in this twisted tale, Sleeping Beauty wakes up nine months later to twins. The messed-up romance doesn’t stop there: the king is already married, and when the queen finds out about what’s happening, she tries to burn Sleeping Beauty at the stake and plans to feed the babies to the king. She is unsuccessful, which is about the only decent thing in this tale! We’ll stick to Walt’s version, thanks.
  • The Lion King. Shakespeare lovers figured it out pretty quickly, but the rest of us took some time to put two and two together: the Lion King is based on Hamlet. At least in the singing animal version, a few survive to tell the tale, not like the Bard’s original, where basically, the entire cast of characters dies.
  • Rapunzel. There are a few versions of this strange tale of the well-tressed girl in a tower, but one is based on the tale of a 3rd century A.D. woman. Sheltered by her father, who absolutely refused to allow her any suitors, she was locked up in a tower whenever he had to travel for business. Praying loudly throughout the window, annoyed Father Dear eventually decapitated her (later, he was struck and killed by lightning). She became the martyr, Saint Barbara, revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church. When the story morphed into a fairy tale, it got even stranger by adding in the long hair and some darker elements: having twins out of wedlock, the witch blinding the prince by plucking out his eyes, and Rapunzel wandering for years with her babies until the lovers meet again. Which, as we’re learning, is a surprisingly happy ending for these types of tales!
  • Hansel and Gretel. Most likely based off the story of Katharina Schraderin, a 16th-century baker. She made such a delicious gingerbread cookie house that her rival, a man who was a baker himself, accused her of witchcraft. The townspeople, loving a good mob and BYOP (bring your own pitchfork) party, burned her to death in her own oven. Feeling warm and fuzzy yet? Me neither.
  • Pinocchio. Carlo Collodi’s version of the tale of the walking, talking marionette, ends with Pinocchio accidently killing the wise cricket and himself being strung up and hung. Gulp.

Knowing all this makes me even more grateful for modern-day children’s books that are what they are, with most of them being downright wonderful, clever, and full of goodness and light. Have you read any good children’s books lately? You might want to try Something to Tell the Grandcows by Eileen Spinelli and Bill Slavin. Or, Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep by Joyce Dunbar. In the adult genre, Bill Gates said, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker is “my new favorite book of all time.”  Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise.

And there you have it! No need to throw yourself into the sea. We really have come a long way.

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Time to Read

Have you ever wished for more time to read?

Do you squeeze in a few lines of a good book before dozing off at night (then reread those lines the following night because you can’t recall what you read while falling asleep the night before)?

Well, I may have just tapped into some inspiration to help you rev up your reading habits.

As urban legend has it, someone once asked business mogul Warren Buffett about the secret of his success. Buffett purportedly pointed to a big stack of books and said, “I read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Photo by Auntie Ruth 55 via Wikimedia Commons

Sounds like a dare, Mr. Buffett.

Game on.

Science tells us that there are wondrous ways in which such a reading routine might influence our lives (check out the CNBC article here), so it’s tempting to take him up on the challenge.

But, wait, who—besides the average billionaire—has THAT much free time?

Okay, so let’s be reasonable (we farmgirls are good at that). While few busy women have the time to devour 500 pages each day, it’s not farfetched to consider reading that many pages per week. This would still be a significant success compared to the amount you’re reading now, right?

If you’re tempted but still trepidatious about the time commitment, let’s turn to some simple statistics:

First, how much time does it really take to read 500 pages?

Just the facts, ma’am:

  • According to, the average reading speed of an adult is about 300 words per minute.
  • As author Meg Cabot calculates, the average paperback book has about 300 words per page.

So, most of us can probably average about a page per minute, or 500 pages in 500 minutes (roughly eight hours).

Do you have eight spare hours to read each week? Before you answer, let’s crunch some more numbers (here’s where things get interesting):

How much time does the average American spend on social media and television each week?

  • says that an average American spends an average of 116 minutes on social media daily (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter combined—note, that doesn’t even count Web surfing, shopping, etc.).
  • reports that the average American watches five hours (300 minutes) of TV per day, equaling 1,500 minutes per week (roughly 25 hours!).

See what I’m getting at here?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect any of us to completely shun our social media or even turn away from a good TV program now and then. But, just look at how much time is jingling in our metaphorical pockets and slipping through a hole, virtually unnoticed.

The numbers don’t lie; we simply have to account for them and save them up a bit more conscientiously to spend on life-enhancing endeavors.

Like reading lots of great books.

On that note, what’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Photo by Bib Bornem via Pixabay

P.S. Just for fun …

Take a speed reading test online at

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