We all think we know the story of Cinderella or the Frog Prince or any of the other sexist fairytales that continue to be passed down through the generations, but do we really? A newly discovered collection of fairytales from the 19th century shows that Brothers Grimm stories we think we know might have been far more edited — and their originals far less sexist — than we realize. Pretty cool, huh?
This treasure trove of more than 500 collected German folk tales was originally collected by Franz Xavier von Schonwerth, a 19th century folklorist who was collecting fairytales at around the same time that that the Brothers Grimm were putting together their own versions. But while the Grimms' fairytales have been a well-known part of Western culture for centuries, von Schonwerth's work faded into obscurity. Which is a real shame, given that his tales sound far more interesting — not to mention less sexist.
Schonwerth's work, which was recently recovered by retired teacher Erica Eichenseer and is slowly being translated, reveals that the Brothers Grimm probably didn't just collect folk stories, but also did some pretty serious editing to make them "family friendly," so to speak. For instance, in his recorded version of the Frog Prince, the prince is not kissed by a young maidan but by a young man; Hansel and Gretel wind up married after an "erotic encounter" with not a witch but a dwarf; and Cinderella isn't rescued by her prince but rather uses her magic slippers to save him when he gets trapped on the moon.
In fact, as The Guardian notes, "Many of the stories centre around surprisingly emancipated female characters." In other words, our idea of the real nature of fairytales is probably a far cry from the actual folk stories being passed around among common people. As Harvard professor Maria Tatar told The Guardian, "Suddenly we discover that the divide between passive princesses and dragon-slaying heroes may be little more than a figment of the Grimm imagination.”
As fond as I am of books, movies, and TV shows that reimagine "traditional" fairytales, especially in ways that give their female characters more agency, I have to admit that this is even cooler. Because finding out that original fairytales already had empowered female characters is just further evidence that the current portrayal of women in popular culture didn't just evolve that way naturally. Instead, the lack of women with meaningful subjectivity and agency is something that came about via selective editing and manipulation.
Real folk tales, the ones that evolved organically over generations of being told and retold, didn't have the same sexist dichotomies that the edited versions displayed. Which, if you continue the inference, means that the sexist world we find ourselves in today wasn't some natural phenomenon either. And that's really awesome to know.
Now I just need Once Upon a Time to do include a story line about that Hansel and Gretel and sexy dwarf thing.