Stuff You Should Know | Podcast Review | November 8, 2015 | By

Stuff You Should Know: The Dark Origins of Fairy Tales

Interesting topic, but it just wasn’t as tight and focused this time out.

In the wake of Halloween, it seems fitting to get a chance to hear from Josh and Chuck about the origins and evolution of many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. There’s so much to look into, the dedicated two full episodes this week to the topic.

If you’ve ever visited or heard of, you know that most of these stories didn’t always have a happy ending. Originally, many were pretty fucked up. Seriously, do not read the original Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen stories to children. Copious amounts of violence (including sexual assault and rape) that have been sanitized from the original versions of stories like The Little Mermaid and Cinderella.

Unfortunately, some depth and complexity has been lost as well.  Josh and Chuck emphasize that fairy tales weren’t always required to beat you over the head with clear morals and lessons. The older iterations highlight the bad things that can happen (e.g. playing with knives might cause you to accidentally stab your brother to death) but you can infer your own meaning about the moral of the story. It wasn’t until the Disney-ization of many fairy tales that they became so scrubbed and clean and happy.

I was amazed to learn that many of the classic Grimm/Disney stories have hundreds of recorded variations that are much older than the popular modern versions. And it’s more than just swapping variables from a cookie cutting tale. I’d imagine each local version has some idiosyncratic spin that makes for better reception from the specific intended audience. Even the Grimms ended up editing the first editions of their story collection to better appeal to children.

While this isn’t a central focus of Josh and Chuck this week, I wish we had the chance for regional variations of stories from our other more modern forms of media. Today, the closest we get is having the Chinese version of the latest blockbuster edited to better suit the audience (including dubbing/subtitles, or including more Chinese buildings) and/or for censorship, but for the most part there isn’t room for artistic license or adding some different elements to a story depending on the region. Maybe this would/could be a new market. Think drunk history, but with works of literature—re-told orally. 1

Today, stories reach their final form once the author publishes them. It seems like we’re stopping in the first stage of the process that storytelling used to take. Maybe something special is added to the artistic process when audience then had a chance for a much more active part of passing along the tale. Stories used to mature and evolve like living organisms. Let me be clear, copyrights and protecting authors’ works is important. There are numerous risks, including pandering to fans and reducing the integrity of the original work, but I think there’s a large vacuum in the world of adapting modern stories via oral delivery and culture-dependent narrative.

One minor gripe this week—and something I think Josh and Chuck would cop to—is that this week’s two episodes probably could have been edited a little bit more tightly. I’d go so far as to say they could have been combined into one.

Still, the evolution of storytelling combined with the origins of many of the world’s most famous fairy tales fascinated me. The episodes could have been shorter, but I don’t regret giving them a listen.

  1. I can’t seem to envision it without alcohol, but the Grimm stories were of a highly adult nature. ^

About the Author

Nick Wade is a founding writer at Audiologue, where he writes about The Sporkful and Stuff  You Should Know. You can find him at

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