12 Famous Fairytale Princesses, And The Real Stories, Folktales, And Actual History That Inspired Them
Disney’s big screen adaptations of fairy tales and folk stories have become as well-known as the original stories on which they’re based — and, in many cases, the Disney versions of the plots are even more well-known than their older counterparts. How familiar are you with the real stories behind your favorite princesses? Did you know that some of these Disney favorites aren’t just based on fairy tales, but also on the lives of people who actually existed? It’s true — and sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.
Although the Disney Princess line wouldn’t officially be branded as such until the early 2000s, the very first Disney Princess movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was released in 1938. Like many of Disney’s animated films, it was based on a German fairy tale popularized by the Brothers Grimm — but the Grimms weren’t the only ones who served as inspiration for the movies. The stories as told by Frenchman Charles Perrault have made an appearance here and there, as have the Danish fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, as the decades move on, Disney began including sources beyond the standard white European ones: Folktales from China, episodes from world history, and even some clever modern riffs on classic tales.
If you look a little closer, there’s much more to these seemingly familiar tales than meets the eye — and to the often remarkable women who star in them. Here are the real stories behind 12 beloved princesses.
Belle is only called Belle in the Disney versions of Beauty and the Beast; she’s just straight-up Beauty in the original. Then again, given that Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Belle et La Bête,” which published in 1740 in La Jeune Américaine et les Contes Marins, was written in French, the character’s name probably would have been Belle anyway, so… do with that what you will.
Anyway, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast actually cleaves pretty closely to de Villeneuve’s tale. There are a few differences — Gaston doesn’t exist, for example, although Beauty has several sisters who are equally awful to act as antagonists instead — but the core of the story is the same: A father shelters from a storm in a beautiful castle; he transgresses in some way (in the Disney movies, it’s merely his presence that’s the transgression, while in the fairy tale, it’s because he takes a rose from the castle’s rose garden to bring to Beauty); the Beast says he’ll release him if one of his daughters takes his place; Beauty/Belle does so; her life in the castle is pretty rad, but eventually she needs to go home for some reason (to take care of her sick father in the movies, or simply because she’s homesick in the fairy tale); while she’s away, the Beast begins to sicken and die; she rushes back to him; he is redeemed by her love, which breaks the curse that made him look like a Beast; they marry; and they live happily ever after.
But there’s a real-life story behind this one, too. We’re pretty sure that “Belle et La Bête” was inspired by the life of Petrus Gonsalvus (née Pedro Gonzalez), a man with hypertrichosis born in 1537 in the Canary Islands. Because people are terrible, he was captured as a child and treated like an animal — he was kept in an iron cage and fed a diet of raw meat and animal feed — until he was “gifted” (say it with me: PEOPLE ARE NOT GIFTS) to King Henry II of France at the age of 10. Henry educated him as a nobleman, calling him “Petrus Gonsalvus” — the Latin version of his Spanish name — and raising him in court. After Henry died, his wife, Catherine de Medici married Gonsalvus off to the daughter of a court servant who was incidentally also named Catherine.
Catherine de Medici viewed Gonsalvus mostly as an “experiment,” which is, uh, not great (so much about the way Gonsalvus was treated throughout his life was incredibly not great); however, Catherine and Gonsalvus were married for 40 years and had seven children together. Voila: Beauty and the Beast.
The history of “Rapunzel” as a story is actually quite convoluted. Although the world is generally the most familiar with the version published by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 collection Children’s and Household Tales, author and editor Terri Windling (who is wonderful, and you should absolutely read her stuff) traced it back much farther in her essay “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair”: The Grimms took it from Friedrich Schulz’s version, which was published in 1790; Schulz had taken his version from the 1698 French tale “Persinette” by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force; and she had taken it from “Petrosinella,” a 1634 Italian story by Giambattista Basile.
In Basile’s version, the pregnant woman with the craving for greens (who appears to be a single mother — there’s no mention of a father in the picture) climbs into the forbidden garden herself, instead of making her husband do it; what’s more, the garden is an ogre’s, not a witch’s, and the woman craves parsley, rather than the type of lettuce known as rapunzel. The ogre catches her just as the witch does the husband in the Grimms’ story, though, and makes the same deal with her: She can have the greens if she gives the ogre the child. The woman agrees.
She names her daughter Petrosinella — a play on the word for “parsley” in the Neopolitan dialect — but interestingly, the ogre doesn’t claim the girl immediately. She’s seven when, passing the ogre’s house, the ogre tells her to remind her mother of her promise; she does so, and the woman, terrified, says, “Tell that woman my answer is: ‘Take her!’” So the ogre snatches up Petrosinella and hides her away in a tower with no doors and only one window.
From there, the story develops the same way as always — a prince finds her, he climbs up her hair, they have sex — but then it turns into more of an adventure than a tragic romance: Petrosinella tells the prince to bring a rope with him the next time he comes; then she drug the ogre, steals three magical acorns from her, and escapes. When the ogre awakens and chases after them, Petrosinella throws down the acorns one by one, which turn into a fierce dog (the ogre stops it by throwing it a crust of bread), a lion (dressed as a donkey, the ogre charges it down), and a wolf. The wolf eats the ogre, and the prince and Petrosinella get away scott-free. They marry and live happily ever after.
It’s possible that the heroine in this tale might be inspired by Saint Barbara, a Christian Greek Saint and martyr from around the third century. According to the lore, her father, a pagan, had locked her up in a tower to prevent the outside world from getting to her; however, unbeknownst to him, she had become a Christian, and so rejected the non-Christian marriages he arranged for her. Eventually he found out she was a Christian and tried to kill her, but her prayers literally opened a wall in the tower through which she escaped. She was eventually caught, tortured, and killed, however — but she maintained her faith the entire time. Ergo: Saint Barbara.
However, there’s some doubt about whether Barbara actually existed, so it’s not totally clear whether or not we can really consider this a “historic” basis for the “Rapunzel” tale.
So, here’s something interesting: Although most of us are probably aware that Disney’s Aladdin was based off of the The One Thousand And One Nights story of the same name, that story was actually not part of the original Arabic text. Rather, it was added in the 18th century by Antoine Galland, who wrote and published the French translation of The One Thousand And One Nights, Les Mille et Une Nuits, between 1704 and 1717. According to Galland’s diaries, he heard “The Story Of The Lamp” and 15 other tales from a storyteller from Aleppo named Ḥannā Diyāb in 1709 — something we’ve recently been able to corroborate due to the discovery of Diyāb’s autobiography in the Vatican Library. (Historically, there have been huge issues surrounding forged manuscripts purporting to tell the original stories of The One Thousand And One Nights).
The story as Galland told it is surprisingly similar to what ended up on the screen courtesy of Disney; the basic beats—an evil sorcerer convinces impoverished Aladdin to steal a magic lamp; Aladdin escapes from the sorcerer’s trap and discovers he now has a powerful genie at his beck and call; he uses the genie to become rich and powerful and subsequently marries the sultan’s daughter; the sorcerer tries to take back the power of the genie; and in the end, Aladdin defeats all the people trying to acquire the lamp and its genie. Disney streamlined the story somewhat—there are actually two genies in the story, one in the lamp and a less powerful one in a magic ring the sorcerer originally gave Aladdin to help him steal the lamp in the first place, and the sorcerer’s even more evil brother makes an appearance as the final baddie of the tale — but overall, the story is still recognizable.
The princess, however, isn’t named Jasmine. She’s called Badroulbadour. Word on the street is that her name was changed make her more “relatable” — and that the inspiration for the final choice was actor Jasmine Guy — although I’ve been unable to verify that as fact, so consider it a rumor only. The character was also originally quite vain, which was changed for the Disney incarnation.
There isn’t a historical personage on whom Ariel, aka the Little Mermaid, was based — but Disney’s version of the tale is quite different from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 Danish fairytale. The setup is similar: The Little Mermaid (who doesn’t have a name in the original story) sees a young prince partying on a boat, falls instantly in love with him, and saves him from a shipwreck; however, she has to dash off back to the ocean again before he wakes, so he doesn’t know that she saved him. She’s sad about that and grows increasingly melancholy, developing not just a wish to be with him, but a wish to live among the humans. There’s a problem, though — and it’s not just the lack of legs: Mermaids don’t have immortal souls like humans do, so her desire cannot be. Her grandmother tells her she can only gain an immortal soul if a human man falls in love with her and marries her.
Aha! She thinks. That’s her in. She goes to a Sea Witch for help, who offers to give her legs in exchange for her voice. If she can make the prince fall in love with her and marry her, she will gain an immortal soul and gets her “happily ever after.”
But this is also where the story starts to diverge pretty dramatically: Once she’s human, she can’t turn back into a mermaid; what’s more, if she fails in her mission and the prince marries someone else, not only will she never be able to have an immortal soul, but — worse — she’ll turn into seafoam (that is, she’ll die). Also, the process of gaining legs is immensely painful, feeling as if she’s being run through with a sword — and, every step she takes with her new legs feels as though she’s treading on knives. And, oh, by the way, by “in exchange for her voice,” what I really mean is, “in exchange for her tongue.” She’s actually required to hack out her tongue with a knife.
She goes through with it anyway.
And she fails. The prince marries someone else, and the mermaid prepares to meet her doom.
Before she does so, though, her sisters emerge from the ocean and present her with a knife. They traded their hair to the Sea Witch for the knife; if she uses it to kill the prince, she can be a mermaid again. She can’t go through with it, though, and hurls both the knife and herself into the sea. She turns into seafoam — and then she joins up with the “daughters of the air,” who tell her that if she keeps “suffering and enduring” for another 300 years, she can finally earn an immortal soul and enter into Heaven. Also, those 300 years are flexible: She can also fly around into the homes of families, and for every good child she finds, her sentence lessens by a day. For every bad child, though, a day is added.
New mission at hand, she goes. Aaaand… that’s it. Kind of a downer, no?
Although there wasn’t a real-life Cinderella, there are “Cinderella”-esque stories in cultures all over the world: “Le Fresne” from 12th century Normandy; “Ye Xian” from Tang dynasty China; an Algonquian version from the Micmac or M'ikmaq tribe; Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” from France, published in 1697; the Brothers Grimms’ “Aschenputtel” from Germany, published in 1812; and on and on and on.
The oldest “Cinderella” story we know of is the story of Rhodopis, which appeared in the Geographica, an encyclopedia of geography written by the Greek geographer, historian, and philosopher Strabo and published around 7 BCE. The bulk of what we know as “Cinderella” is missing from this version; there are no stepsisters, no stepmother, and no ball. What we do have, though, is the story of a woman who loses a shoe which is then found by a man of royal blood, eventually leading him to the woman to whom the shoe belongs. It ends, of course, in marriage.
Here’s the story as it appears in Book 17 of the Geographic (and yes, it’s very, very short):
“They tell the fabulous story that, when [Rhodopis] was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from her maid and carried it to Memphis; and while the king was administering justice in the open air, the eagle, when it arrived above his head, flung the sandal into his lap; and the king, stirred both by the beautiful shape of the sandal and by the strangeness of the occurrence, sent men in all directions into the country in quest of the woman who wore the sandal; and when she was found in the city of Naucratis, she was brought up to Memphis, became the wife of the king, and when she died was honored with the above-mentioned tomb.”
It's… actually kind of cute. I think. Maybe.
Although it’s debated whether Hua Mulan existed in real life — she might have, but she’s generally treated more as a folk hero than a historical personage — her story goes back a long, long way. The oldest known version is a folk song from the North Wei dynasty, which covers the years 368 to 557 AD; called “The Ballad of Mulan,” it tells the bare-bones version of Mulan’s heroic tale.
When her elderly father is called up for the draft, she goes in his place to protect him and spends around 10 or 12 years fighting. She’s an excellent warrior, but when, after all her years of fighting, she meets the emperor and he tries to reward her for her service, she says that she has no use for a title; all she wants is a pack animal — a camel in some translations and horse in others — so she can go home and see her family. The emperor grants her what she asks for, and she makes the journey home. When she arrives, she puts on her old clothes, does her hair and makeup, and then goes outside to meet her fellow soldiers, who are all super surprised that Mulan is a woman. (And, I mean, that’s fair — 10 to 12 years is a long, long time to successfully carry of that kind of subterfuge.) Everyone’s cool with it, though, because, as the poem puts it as it closes:
“Male hares like to kick and stomp,
female hares have eyes misty and glazed.
But if the hares are running side-by-side,
who can tell which is he or she?”
The love story and the conflict with Shan Yu were added by Disney; additionally, Mulan’s animated counterpart is a lot more conflicted about joining up with the army than the version of her in “The Ballad of Mulan” is. The setup is roughly the same, though, and I mean, hey — Mulan is badass either way.
7. Sleeping Beauty
There’s a familiar chain at work in the origins of “Sleeping Beauty”: The version told by the Brothers Grimm was an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s, which was in turn adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s, which originally came from folktales. Before even Basile’s version, though, which was published in the 1630s as “Sun, Moon, and Talia” in the Pentamarone, there was Perceforest — a prose romance written in French sometime around 1330 to 1344 that we think holds the first version of “Sleeping Beauty.” The story is called “Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine,” or “The History of Troylus and Zellandine,” and it’s… a doozy.
Much of the story is actually the same as the versions most of us are familiar with; when Zellandine — the Aurora/Briar Rose/Beauty in the Sleeping Wood of this story — is born, three goddesses — Lucina, Themis, and Venus — are invited to celebrate, but one of them perceives a slight and curses the baby: The first time she touches flax, she’ll prick her finger and drop into a magical sleep. Later, the curse comes to pass.
Meanwhile, after Zellandine has fallen asleep, the knight Troylus is taken to her by the god Zephyros. He tries to wake her up, but fails — so he rapes her in her sleep anyway.
Nine months later, she gives birth (while she’s still asleep, mind) — and then the baby, trying to nurse, sucks out the flax, thus breaking the curse.
I hate this story.
This is also pretty much what happens in Basile’s version, so hey, at least Perrault and the Grimms removed the rape.
8. Snow White
The plot of Disney’s Snow White actually follows the Brothers Grimm’s 1812 version of the story, which we mostly take to be the original, pretty closely. It’s all more or less the same up until the prince wakes Snow up from her deathly sleep: It’s not a kiss that wakes her; when he picks up the coffin to carry it back to his castle (because apparently that is a thing princes did when they stumbled upon glass coffins holding beautiful women once upon a time? Just, y’know, pick them up and take them away?), the bite of apple dislodges from her throat and falls out of her mouth, thereby releasing her from its poison.
Oh, and the end is a little different, too: The evil queen attends Snow White’s wedding to the prince — where she’s made to dance in red-hot shoes until she falls down dead. Revenge is a dish best served by your in-laws, apparently.
The historical truth about Snow White, meanwhile, is a little hazy. Two theories have been put forth concerning real-life people on whom she might have been based, but that’s all they are — theories. They haven’t been definitively proven. They’re interesting all the same, though, so let’s take a look, shall we?
First, we have Margaretha von Waldeck. According to German historian Eckhard Sander, who published Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?) in 1994, it’s possible that this German countess could have been the inspiration for Snow White. Born in 1533 to Philip IV, von Waldeck, like Snow White, had a stepmother who didn’t like her much — who also might have killed her as a result. The stepmother, Katharina of Hatzfeld, made her move to Brussels when she was a teenager, at which point she began a romance with Philip II of Spain. It’s known that Philip IV and Katharina of Hatzfeld didn’t approve of the romance — but it ceased to be an issue when von Waldeck died quite suddenly. It’s thought that she was poisoned. She was only 21 at the time of her death.
The other possibility is Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina Freifräulein von Erthal. A a noblewoman born in 1729, she, too, had a stepmother who wasn’t super fond of her; additionally, von Erthal’s father had apparently given the stepmother a mirror as a gift — but not an ordinary mirror; this on was supposedly a “talking mirror” made by the Mirror Manufacture of the Electorate of Mainz — an “acoustical [toy] that seemed to speak,” according to io9. As with the von Waldeck theory, the von Erthal one is a little weak; a group of researchers in Bavaria, however, maintain that it’s a strong possibility.
It’s no secret that the movie version of Pocahontas is far, far from historically accurate. In an extensive piece for Indian Country Media Network, Vincent Schilling, an author, photojournalist, and public speaker who is an enrolled Akwesasne Mohawk, laid out the true story of Pocahontas’ life — starting with the fact that the name she was given when she was born wasn’t Pocahontas. She had two Powhatan names: Matoaka, which can be translated as “flower between two streams” or “bright stream between the hills,” and Amonute, the translation of which isn’t known. “Pocahontas” has been cited variously as a nickname meaning “playful one,” the name of her mother, and the name she chose for herself during a coming-of-age ceremony she would have participated in at around the age of 14. She also wasn’t nearly as old as she appears to be in the Disney film at the time that English colonists established Jamestown and John Smith arrived on the scene; she was probably between the ages of 10 and 12, not in her 20s or even a teenager.
The differences between the many myths told about Pocahontas and what actually happened are many, but one of the biggest is the whole thing about her saving John Smith’s life by throwing herself across his body at the moment he was about to be executed. This story comes from Smith himself — but historians think that Smith either misinterpreted a ceremony that was actually meant to honor him and make him part of the community, or that he just plain made the whole thing up. It’s also unlikely that whatever was going on, Pocahontas likely wouldn’t have been present; she would have been too young to be allowed.
Pocahontas also didn’t marry Smith. She was kidnapped and forced to marry John Rolfe, a colonist who was a key figure in establishing the American tobacco trade. She was then brought to England in 1617, where she became ill and died. She was only around 21 years old at the time.
Why have all these myths been so pervasive? Historian Camilla Townsend, a professor at Rutgers University and author of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, suspects that “the reason it’s been so popular — not among Native Americans, but among people of the dominant culture is that it’s very flattering to us.” Speaking to Smithsonian.com in 2017, she said:
“The idea is that this is a ‘good Indian.’ She admires the white man, admires Christianity, admires the culture, wants to have peace with these people, is willing to live with these people rather than her own people, marry him rather than one of her own. That whole idea makes people in white American culture feel good about our history. That we were not doing anything wrong to the Indians but really were helping them and the ‘good’ ones appreciated it.”
We can’t look to real life for Tiana’s inspiration; however, Disney’s The Princess And The Frog does have an interesting genealogy: It was loosely based on the 2002 children’s novel The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker, which is itself a sort of riff on the fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” The main conceit is the point of similarity in both stories: A frog asks a young woman to kiss him in order to free him from the curse under which he’s been put; she does so; but instead of breaking the curse, it turns her into a frog instead. However, the setting and the conflict in Disney’s version is dramatically different from what it is in the novel.
Baker’s heroine, Emerelda, or Emma for short, actually is a princess from the get-go (whereas the whole point of Tiana is that she wasn’t royally include; she was an entrepreneur, leaving the princessing to her friend Lottie): She’s the heir of the Greater Greensward. She doesn’t behave in classically princess-like manner, though, and she’s not thrilled when her mother, Queen Chartreuse, tells her that she has to marry the prince from a neighboring kingdom she really, really doesn’t like. She heads to the swamp to escape her fate, where she meets Eadric, the prince of Upper Montevista, in frog form; he’s been cursed by a witch and can only be turned human again with a kiss. Emma isn’t totally down with the whole kissing thing, but she obliges in an effort to help… and winds up a frog herself. They spend the rest of the novel trying to figure out how to reverse the curse. The whole thing is much more a comedy of errors than the Disney film is; it even ends with a pair of couples put to rights, just like another comedy of errors I could name.
In contrast, there isn’t actually much to “The Frog Prince” the way the Brothers Grimm tell it: A princess is playing with a golden bauble, which she loses in a well or river; it’s rescued by a talking frog; she asks what she can give him in return; he says he just wants to hang out with her; she reluctantly agrees; and eventually, she performs some kind of action that reveals him to be a prince who had been transformed into a frog, after which they marry and live happily ever after. That action, however, isn’t always a kiss; as Sur La Lune Fairy Tales notes, in the story's oldest version, the princess got so fed up with her amphibian companion that she literally threw the frog against the wall. Instead of killing him, though, it breaks the curse. Love... hurts? Or... something.
Frozen was based only loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 fairytale “The Snow Queen”; while the center of Frozen is the two sisters, Anna and Elsa, the original story focuses on two friends, a little girl named Gerda and a little boy named Kai (or Kay, as it's sometimes spelled); the bulk of the narrative is spent on Kai becoming cold and mean after a splinter of troll-mirror gets in his eye, the Snow Queen abducting him, and Gerda’s quest to bring her friend back to himself. Both Frozen and “The Snow Queen” impart lessons about love and kindness, though, with love being the thing that thaws out both Elsa and Kai — literally and figuratively.
Anna is ostensibly the Gerda of Frozen, although there are a lot of differences between the two characters — mainly with regards to their ages and their lots in life: Anna is around 18, according to Frozen writer and director Jennifer Lee, and a princess; meanwhile, Gerda’s age isn’t specified, but given that she’s referred to as a “little girl” and a “child,” my guess is that she’s no older than 13 (if that). Also, she’s very much not a princess; in fact, she and Kai are both described as “poor.” Disposition-wise, though, Anna and Gerda do seem to match each other; both are generally sunny and cheerful.
Elsa, of course, is based on the titular Snow Queen in Andersen’s tale — but I’d that she’s also sort of the Kai of Frozen, too. Both her heart and Kai’s metaphorically freeze during the story; the difference, though, is that for Kai, it means he becomes mean-spirited, while for Elsa, it means she pulls away from the people who love her.
However, there’s a real-life analog for Elsa, as well: Andersen is said to have modeled her on Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Andersen met and fell in love with Lind in 1840, but she wasn’t interested — so after she rejected him, he made her into a literal Snow Queen. Whomp, whomp.
Bustle’s Royally Fascinated series is all about owning our obsession with princesses — and exploring why that's an empowering thing.