Not so happily ever after — the dark and disturbing side of fairy tales at Nottingham Lakeside Arts

Witch cropped
21 Jun 2018 14:56:55.203

From cannibalism and decapitated toes to sinister sexual overtones, the earliest versions of some of the classic fairy tales, were definitely not for children and far from the Disney versions we know and love today.

These tawdry tales are brought to life in the exhibition From Rags to Witches: The Grim Tale of Children’s Stories, at Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ Weston Gallery which runs until Sunday 26 August.

Using original archives and rare books from the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections, the exhibition traces the origin and development of children’s literature through the generations from dark bloodthirsty forgotten tales that never got a happily ever after, to benign bedtime stories. Some of the highlights of the exhibition include a 16th century volume on display containing some of the earliest surviving written versions of fairy tales, and an 18th century volume by French author Charles Perrault.

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Kathryn Steenson, Academic and Public Engagement Archivist and curator of Rags to Witches, said: “This exhibition has been a wonderful opportunity to discover the darkness in some of the classic fairy tales, and uncover some Victorian stories that have been forgotten.

“Told and retold by countless storytellers, the versions we are familiar with today can be very different from the ones that entertained our ancestors by the fireside.”

For at least 1,000 years, traditional tales of magic, enchantment, beasts and beauties have been told and retold by the lower classes. The melodramatic stories, driven by the characters’ actions and not their personalities, were full of sex, death and violence, which would have livened up the long winter nights or the hours of tedious, repetitive work.

By the time many of these fairy stories were written down, most were already very old, and recent analysis suggests the possibility that one tale, The Blacksmith and the Devil, dates back as far as the Bronze Age.

In fact, the phrase ‘fairy tale’ — the term that is now generally used for the genre — was coined in the 17th century by French writer Countess d’Aulnoy, Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville (1650/1651-1705). She published two fairy tale collections in the 1690s, Les Contes des Fées (Tales of Fairies) and Contes Nouveaux ou Le Fées à la Mode (New Tales or The Fancy of the Fairies).

Her stories, which were not for children, were written in a more controversial style than her contemporary, Charles Perrault (1628-1703), who is renowned for laying the foundations for the new literary genre, the fairy tale, with his works derived from pre-existing folk tales.

Little Red Riding Hood

On display in the exhibition is an 18th century book by Perrault containing his beloved tale Little Red Riding Hood.

As with most fairy tales, there are several versions of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which is probably the most gruesome and shocking in its origin. In each of the versions, the premise remains the same: a girl who typically wears a red hooded cape (as in Perrault’s version, which was first written down in the late 1600s) or cap (hence Little Red-Cap in the Brothers Grimm’s 19th century version) encounters a wolf on her way to visit her grandmother. She naively tells the wolf where she is going, who then races to the grandmother’s house, eats her, and then waits for the girl to arrive and eat her as well.

The Italian version, known as Little Red Hat (El Cappelin Rosso) replaces the wolf with an ogre who, before eating the girl, tricks her into cannibalising the remains of her grandmother. The same element is included in The Story of Grandmother, where the villainous character is a bzou — a werewolf-like creature who was originally human but devolved into a bestial form due to its perverted desires, and cannot change back until those desires are satisfied.

Perrault’s tale, although far tamer than some of the earlier versions, was very clear that the story was a cautionary tale about charming men — predatory ‘wolves’ — who would lure innocent women to bed and ruin them. The sexual overtones of the story were once the more prevalent moral than the typical modern interpretation ‘do not talk to strangers.’ Instead, if a girl was said to have ‘seen the wolf’ it was a reference to her promiscuity and loss of virginity.

Sleeping Beauty

The 18th century volume on display also contains Perrault’s classic tale The Sleeping Beauty. Popularised and retold by the Parisian writer in 1697, Sleeping Beauty existed in other versions before this, most notably as the story of Troylus and Zellandine in 14th century medieval romance Perceforest; and Sun, Moon and Talia by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile in his 1634 work the Pentamerone.

These stories share the same origin: the King assaults and impregnates the cursed Sleeping Beauty, who only awakens when the baby hungrily suckles on her finger and draws out the flax splinter keeping her asleep. Talia, Basile’s beauty, awakens to discover that not only has everyone she knows died, but that the jealous Queen is also plotting her murder.

Charles Perrault’s version The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood includes the placement of a curse by an evil fairy, although he retained aspects of infanticide and cannibalism, when the Prince’s mother — an ogress — decides that she will eat her grandchildren as well as Sleeping Beauty herself.


The tale of Cinderella is one of the oldest and most varied of the fairy tales and some 700 versions have been found across the world. Whilst the names and circumstances of the characters have changed over time, the key elements of a lost possession and a quest for its owner, as well as a marriage to rise above one’s class-station remain the same.

The earliest written tale resembles the story of Yeh-hsien or Ye Xian which originates from China c850 AD. Perrault’s version, Cendrillon which was written in 1697, was the first to introduce a glass slipper. The clear material allows the Prince to see if the shoe fitted. This is significant because previous versions had Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heel to make the shoe fit. Perrault was also writing the story at a time when stepfamilies were very common, with 80 per cent of widowers remarrying within a year, in 17th century France.

The Brothers Grimm’s version, known as Aschenputtel and published in 1812, still follows the grisly narrative of toes cut off, and bloodied stockings. Far from Perrault’s version selected for use by Disney.

Not always as good as she is beautiful; Giambattista Basile’s Zezolla includes the heroine plotting for her stepmother’s murder. In other versions, the stepfamily suffer gruesome fates — death by flying stones or boiling alive makes the Brothers Grimm’s punishment of having their eyes pecked out comparatively merciful.

Nottinghamshire and children’s stories

From the earliest pioneers to some of the most significant authors and illustrators, Nottinghamshire has a strong connection to children’s literature which continues today.

The 19th century was when children’s books became truly beautiful and by the end of the century it was possible to earn a living from children’s illustrations and for them to be mass produced.

Catherine ‘Kate’ Greenaway was a Victorian children’s book illustrator and writer. Her pictures of cherubic children romping through idyllic countryside were extremely popular. Greenaway had fond memories of spending part of her childhood with relatives in Rolleston, Nottinghamshire.

A volume, the ‘Kate Greenaway Album’ (1933) was given to the University of Nottingham by her brother John, after her death. The album contains a selection of proof copies, original pencil sketches and practice drawings can be seen in the exhibition.

Items are also on show from Mary Howitt (1799-1888) and her husband William (1792-1879), prolific and popular authors who lived in Nottingham from 1822-1836. Mary’s poem The Spider and The Fly and her translation of the stories of Hans Christian Anderson are among their best-known works.

The exhibition has been curated by staff from Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham, and runs until Sunday 26 August 2018. Admission is free and opening times can be found here.

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Story credits

More information is available from Mária Konyelicska, Marketing and Communications Manager, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, on +44 (0)115 748 4155,

Liz Goodwin - Media Officer

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 95 15798 Location: University Park

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From Rags to Witches – the grim tale of children's stories

Published Date
Thursday 19th April 2018

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