And they lived happily never after: Were the original versions of classic fairytales more dark and bloodthirsty than what we know today?

“Sleeping Beauty” first saw print about 375 years ago. And, I guess it is sort of creepy, if you’re the kind of person who finds necrophilia and cannibalism creepy.

The story comes from a ground-breaking collection of folktales now known as the Pentameron, assembled in the early 1600s by the Neapolitan courtier Giambattista Basile; like its namesake, Boccaccio’s Decameron, it’s structured within a framing narrative of people sitting around telling stories. Among tales of torture and bestiality we find one about a young noblewoman named Talia, who gets some lethal flax jammed under a fingernail and drops dead. Soon enough a king, out hawking, spies her inert body, feels “his blood course hotly through his veins,” and decides to make his move. Fine, he seems to believe he’s getting off not with a cadaver but with a delightful young woman who happens to be out cold, but that’s hardly an excuse.

Anyhow, he zips up and rides away. Nine months later, the still-stationary Talia gives birth to twins; while attempting to nurse they accidentally suck the sliver out of her finger and so restore her to life. On his eventual return the king resolves to bring Talia and the kids home with him. Unsurprisingly, his wife (yup, this charmer is married) doesn’t like the idea and attempts to have the twins cooked and fed to their dad, but she gets caught and is burned alive as punishment.

You can already hear studio execs saying, “I like it, but can we lose the rape?” Subsequent versions would oblige. A different Pentameron translation whistles right past the mechanics of procreation – the king goes no further than ogling Talia, after which some twins stroll in sans explanation. Fairy tale pioneer Charles Perrault tidied things up considerably in his 1696 version: (1) his title, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” makes clear up front that the ingenue isn’t dead but merely taking a curse-induced nap, (2) her leading man is now an unattached prince who (3) gets no chance even to cop a feel, as the sleep spell wears off right away, and (4) they secretly marry before having children, whom (5) the prince’s mom, ethnically an ogre, is ultimately prevented from eating. It was the Grimm brothers, in 1812, who added the crowd-pleasing wake-up kiss and thought to end the action there.

And that’s often what happens (as numerous commentators have suggested) when a folktale catches on: it starts out laden with the cruel gravitas of mythology but is gradually shorn of any elements that seem too gruesome or kinky, and next thing you know you’re taking your kids to see it on ice.

Thus, in Perrault’s original “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf eats the grandmother and the girl, and that’s it: they’re dead. (Later adapters, seeing a serious flow problem in act three, would rewrite to include a woodsman.) The plot of “Snow White” hasn’t changed much, really, but the evil queen’s comeuppance no longer requires her to don a pair of red-hot iron shoes and dance till she dies.

Some fairy tales made it into the modern era with their inherent darkness intact. “Hansel and Gretel” did pretty well considering it’s about impoverished parents who try to balance the household food budget by leaving their kids to expire in the forest. But as times grew increasingly enlightened, other stories never had a chance. Skim some of the Grimm boys’ more obscure numbers – say, the one where the father, having made a deal with the devil, is forced to chop off his young daughter’s hands – and you’re liable to think (as did many of the Grimms’ contemporaries): You call this a kids’ book? Are you crazy?

But stories like these also serve as a vehicle for the feelings of terror preadolescents have always wanted to experiment with. As the fairy tale canon gets Disneyfied beyond recognition, new fear delivery systems emerge. So before we start congratulating ourselves for phasing out such tales as Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” about a homicidal control freak who fills a broom closet with the women he’s married and murdered, let’s remember a couple things: One, famed child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (who knew a thing or two about cruelty) argued that the seemingly arbitrary violence of fairy tales is in fact tailored to help children make sense of trauma in their own development. And two, if you’ve got a TV, the kids are likely watching something with that very same plot even as we speak.

— Cecil Adams


Sun, Moon, and Talia (Sole, Luna, e Talia) is an Italian literary fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work, The Pentamerone. Charles Perrault retold this fairy tale in 1697 as Sleeping Beauty.



There once lived a great lord who was blessed with the birth of a beautiful infant daughter, whom he named Talia. The lord sent for wise men and astrologers to foretell what fate had in store for his daughter, and after they had consulted together and cast her horoscope, they told the lord that Talia would be put in great danger by a splinter of flax. The lord then decreed that no flax or hemp, or anything of the kind, should be brought into the house; he thought that by doing so he could protect his daughter from her fate.

One day, after Talia had grown up into a beautiful young girl, she was looking out the window when she saw an old woman pass by, spinning on a spindle. Talia was so curious about the implement, having never seen one, that she called out to the old woman to stop and let her see it. Talia begged to be allowed to stretch the flax, but as soon as she did so, a splinter of flax went under her nail, and she dropped down dead. When the frightened old woman saw what had happened, she ran quickly out of the house.

When the unhappy father heard about this disastrous turn of events, he was devastated. He had Talia’s body laid out in her most beautiful clothes, and placed upon a brocade-covered dais. Unable to bear the thought of committing her body to the ground, he had the throne placed in a palatial room in one of his country estates, and then abandoned the estate forever.

After some time had passed, a king was one day hunting in the forest near the estate, and his falcon escaped from him and flew in the window of the palace. It would not return when he called for it, so the king sent a servant to knock at the palace door, intending to ask for the bird’s return. There was no answer at the door, and the house was locked fast, so the young king at last told his servants he himself would scale the wall and climb in at the window in order to retrieve the bird. So he climbed in and wandered the palace from room to room, but he found nothing and no one. At last he came to a large, beautiful drawing room, where he found an enchanting girl who seemed to be sleeping. He called to her, but she would not wake. As he looked at her, and tried to wake her, she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.

But Talia, who was not dead, but merely unconscious, had become pregnant, and after nine months she gave birth to twins, as beautiful a boy and girl as ever were born. Kindly fairies attended the birth, and put the babies to suck at their mother’s breast. One day, one of the infants, not being able to find the nipple, began to suck at his mother’s finger. He sucked with such force that he drew out the splinter of flax, and Talia awoke, just as if from a long sleep. When she saw the babies, she did not know what had happened or how they had come to her, but she embraced them with love, and nursed them until they were satisfied. She named the infants Sun and Moon. The kindly fairies continued to attend her, providing her with food and drink, which appeared as if delivered by unseen servants.

The king at last remembered Talia, and thought to himself that he would go again to the palace in the wood, to see if the lovely lady was still sleeping there. Saying he was going hunting, he journeyed to the place, and was overjoyed to find her awake, and with two charming little toddlers. He told Talia who he was, and what had happened, and how she had come to be a mother all unknowing. As they conversed, they both realized they were forming a stronger bond of friendship and love, and after a few days, when it came time for the young king to leave, he promised to return for her soon, and bring her to his kingdom. As he journeyed back, he found he was indeed desperately in love with Talia and his two children, and he could hardly sleep for thinking of them, and when he did sleep he called out their names in his dreams.

Now the young king already had a wife, who had become suspicious when he did not return for several days from the hunt, and hearing him call strange names in his sleep, she was overcome with anger and jealousy. She called the king’s secretary to her, and said, “You are between a rock and a hard place, young man. If you will betray your king, and tell me who his lover is, I will give you riches beyond your wildest dreams. But if you do not tell me, your life will be worth nothing, for I will have you killed.” The secretary was filled with fear, but in the end he valued his own life above honor, and he told her what the king had told him in confidence. The queen, once she had heard it, sent the secretary to Talia, with a supposed message from the king, saying, “Send the children to me now, for I miss them and want to see them.” Talia, overjoyed that her lover loved his children so much, obeyed the summons, and sent the little ones back with the young man.

The queen, hating the children even more when she saw how beautiful they were, took them to the kitchen and told the cook to kill them, and to prepare them as tasty dishes for the king’s supper. The cook was horrified at the suggestion, and though he agreed to it, he secretly took the children to his wife, and told her to hide them. Then he killed two newborn lambs and cooked them in a number of delicious ways. When the king came to the dinner table, the queen with great pleasure asked that the dishes be served to her husband, and when he ate with evident relish, her joy knew no bounds, and she kept pressing him to eat more, saying, “You are eating what is your own.” After she had said this several times, the king began to get annoyed with her, not knowing her insinuation, and he finally said angrily, “I know very well I am eating what is my own, because you brought nothing with you into this house!” And he got up and stormed out, staying for several days in a nearby villa to get over his anger.

The queen meanwhile dispatched the secretary to fetch Talia herself, sending along a false message from the king that he longed for her and could no longer bear to be parted from her. Talia obeyed with pleasure, and she herself felt a great longing to be with her lord, who was so loving and kind to her, but imagine her horror when she was brought to the queen, whose very face was burning with passionate hatred. The queen said to her, “Are you the whore who has been enjoying my husband? Get ready to be welcomed in hell, because you will soon be going there.” Talia tried to reason with her, telling her how it had come to pass that she had become the king’s lover, while she was asleep, but the queen merely laughed in desbelief, and commanded that a huge fire be lit in the palace courtyard, and that Talia be cast into it.

Talia, stalling for time, knelt before the queen, and asked as a last request that she be allowed to take off her rich garments before she was cast into the fire. The queen felt no pity for poor Talia, but she had noticed that Talia’s dress was very beautiful, and encrusted with jewels, so she agreed that Talia should be allowed to disrobe, thinking that she would keep the garments for herself afterward. Talia began very slowly to take off her clothes. As she removed each garment, she screamed, and tears rolled down her cheeks, thinking of the horrors she was about to endure, and with each garment, her screams grew louder and more heartrending. The king was just returning to the palace after his absence, and he heard the screaming. Following the sound, he came upon the queen and the weeping Talia, who had now removed all but her shift. He demanded an explanation, whereupon the queen reported that he had unknowingly eaten his own children, and that his mistress was about to be burned for a whore.

When the wretched king heard what had transpired, he was beside himself with grief, crying, “How could I have eaten my own sweet babes? Why didn’t my very veins cry out in recognition? You venomous, evil woman! How could you have done such a dreadful thing?” Saying this, he commanded that the queen herself should be cast into the fire that she had prepared for the innocent Talia, and his secretary with her, for his part in the wicked plot. The last to be burned was to be the cook, whom the king believed had willingly slaughtered his children, but when the cook was dragged forth, he protested, crying out, “Do not reward my faithfulness with this horrible punishment, Sire. I saved your children. They are not dead, for I hid them with my wife.” The joyful king replied, “If what you say is true, you will be rewarded as no man has ever been rewarded before.” The cook then called his wife to bring Sun and Moon to the king, who covered them with kisses and caresses; in fact, he could not get enough of kissing and embracing both the children and their mother, as he gathered them all into his arms. He gave the cook a rich reward, and made him a gentlemen. And of course he married Talia, who lived a long and happy life with her husband and children, always knowing full well that “The person who is favored by fortune has good luck even while sleeping.”

2 thoughts on “And they lived happily never after: Were the original versions of classic fairytales more dark and bloodthirsty than what we know today?

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