The Grimmest of Tales

Most fairy stories have a dark side. The good ones put the protagonists in genuine jeopardy with a true threat of violence. The original Grimm Brothers stories are truly grim and very, very bloody. A while back I bought a collection called “Grimm’s Grimmest” with the bloodiest and scariest stories you NEVER heard as a child. It included stories from the 1812 and 1822 editions that never made it into the fairy story collections we all grew up with.
(Chronicle Books, 1997 with illustrations by Tracy Arah Dockray and an introduction by Maria Tatar)

I thought about those fairy tales when I went to see “Snow White and the Huntsman.” I didn’t expect to like the movie, but I enjoyed it. The exploration of the evil queen — her back-story, her addiction to magic and her almost successful quest for eternal youth and beauty — added a deeper dimension to the character. She wasn’t just vain and jealous; she was pathological.

Good fairy tales also impart lessons. That part of the equation has also gotten soft and mushy in most contemporary retellings. There are exceptions. I recently read a new collection of stories — true contemporary fairy tales — “The Wishing Eel” by Gil Macdonald. You can find it on Amazon. I recommend it.

I also recommend that we all try writing Grimm Brother inspired tales. Not every story needs to have an obvious lesson, but the idea that something is at stake — safety, sanity, love, pride, status… even a dream — is at the heart of all the really good fairy tales, and it is a wonderful ingredient in exciting fiction.


  1. I’ve started on a screenplay of the fairy story of Puss in Boots (not the Shrek spin-off), which I might adapt to be in traditional pantomime format. Not as dark as some stories, but a ttiumpg against an ogre is involved!

    • Candy

      The possibility of the traditional pantomime format is intriguing.

      I’ll admit enjoying Shrek (the first one, I shy away from sequels) but we to tend to turn all the grim, scary, true-fear based fairy stories into soft comedy for kids. A Puss ‘n Boots with jeopardy and a little drama sounds fabulous.

  2. I’ve always been interested in fairy tales and even collect fairies. I write mostly fantasy stories and have three novels out on Amazon. All of them contain a bit of magic.

    I am working on a collection of short fairy tale stories that are all over the board as far as characters go, but all have an issue to deal with and how to overcome it, etc. I’m not sure when that will be in book form because I’ve got several things in the works at the same time, as usual.

    • Candy

      The short story collection sounds like a great idea. Keep me posted on when it comes out.

      I’m always working on multiple project too. Keeps me hopping from one to another.

  3. Metan

    I’ve got Grimm’s Grimmest too!! I love the bloody ‘Grimmest’ on the cover 🙂

    I bought it for when I was expecting number 1, of course once the child was actually born I thought I might hold off for a while. The illustrations are terrible and great at the same aren’t they?

    My childhood was spent reading those old fashioned fairy stories, I much prefer the ‘and everyone died horribly ever after’ endings!

    • Candy

      Isn’t it amazing how — they all died horribly — got transformed into — and they lived happily ever after?

      Happily ever after is infuriating. It means nothing. Yes, Grimm’s grimmest is not for really little kids, but all good children’s stories follow the paradigm of a child in jeopardy rescuing him or herself with little adult intervention. At least that’s what I remember from reading Bruno Bettelheim. He was a bit nuts when it came to his theories about the cause(s) of Autism (now totally discredited) but his riff on the importance of a danger in fairy tales is right on target. When I read the first Harry Potter, I said to myself — this is exactly what Bettelheim was talking about. (An orphan, finding his own way…)

      • Metan

        I think what I learned from fairy tales was; save yourself without help, never promise anything to a stranger you have never met before (it always ends badly), don’t be a princess (it always ends badly), and think through your wishes before you make them (otherwise it will end badly!)

        Kids much prefer the ‘and they all died horribly’ endings. Obviously the generation who started the trend towards expecting eternal happiness didn’t think things through. I wonder how much different society would be if everyone had been bought up with the ‘it usually goes badly’ ending to their stories rather then the ‘you will always get what you want’ ending?

          • Candy

            I suspect that plan backfired with expectations of everything going well all the time. I know that I was never attracted to those stories as a child and that I suspected that happily ever after was going to be a bit dull. But that’s me. I write mysteries… LOL

          • Metan

            I agree, but don’t most kids invent the worst endings ever just for their own amusement? I know mine do 🙂

        • Candy

          You learned EXACTLY the right lessons! Self-reliance, suspicion of the motives of others, think before you jump at the too-good-to-be-true offer and don’t be a princess!

          I often wonder why that happily ever after thing ever took hold. It never happens that way. The handsome prince always has a down side — if not a dark side — and life in the castle is boring without intrigue. The original versions of fairy tales, classical myths, legends of King Arthur & Merlin and just about every kind of folk tale I’ve read leans toward the they all died horribly or terrible things happened or be careful what you wish for and NEVER they lived happily ever after.

          • Metan

            It’s funny, my boys have never been into fairy tales but I have sneakily trained them anyway. If I say ‘and they lived happily ever after’ I am given a suspicious look and a ‘really?’ I generally say something like ‘ok, no, they all died when the monkeys came over the wall and bit their heads off’. That is the kind of ending all boys want!

          • Candy

            I’m having dinner later this week with two friends who have sons. I will ask about that. I don’t have kids and it was just me and my sister. I KNOW that girls have evil imaginations. We just put them toward less outwardly gruesome scenarios. Maybe more horrifying, but a bit less violent. Of course, my sister ‘burned me in effigy’ so, maybe I was the gentler of the two?

          • Metan

            🙂 I suppose it depends on what the kids find funny. Over the weekend the boys had a sleepover in number 1’s room. An hour later they were still bouncing around and giggling so instead of telling them off I slid a note under the door demanding quiet or I would send in monkeys to bite off their toes. (killer monkeys seems to be a theme!). Of course this made them even noisier so the next note was cartoon monkey heads with chainsaw teeth. Naturally that helped even less. Oh, the joy of little boys 🙂

    • Candy

      Do check it out. It’s very well-written. Some of the stories have obvious connections to existing tales, others are a little farther off the old turf. Both are very worth reading.


  4. “Snow White & The Huntsman,” is not a film I’ve seen, but I like the premise of exploring the “Evil Queen,” to her roots, similarly to the wicked witch from Oz in “Wicked.” Provides glimpses that “evil,” or “scary personas” stem from complicated layers not grown overnight.
    Disney has watered down the “Grimm Realty” in the fairy tale business and heavily profited, that’s for sure. I’d love to see a rendition of the time period of the fairy tale, mopped in the grimm fluidity it deserves.

    Harry Potter- smashing success as it was, a pandemic hybrid crossing from children to adults brilliantly. I never read it.

  5. Spot-on, Candy! You might want to check out the new Spider Man (just attended an IMAX press screening). In its own way, it’s something of a fairy tale, complete with multiple morality issues.

  6. I think the ‘happy ever after’ endings were a kind of wish fulfillment on the part of adults not children and that attitude goes way beyond childrens books and fairytales. I mean when was the last time anyone read a romance novel where the heroine doesn’t get her man and realises that she’s better off without him????

    • Candy

      Romance novels do tend to rely on happily ever or, at least, going off into the sunset together or something in that vein. I know there are stories that end with her going off on her own but I’m drawing a blank. Maybe because I flashed to Thelma and Louise driving off a cliff? LOL…

      I agree that some happily ever afters are wishes — or even delusions — of adults, but I think that ‘everything ends well’ (Alls Well that Ends Well) is deeply imbedded in us. We want that even if we know it’s ridiculous, just as we want to be the people who walk off into the sunset together, the girl the glass slipper fits, the surprise winner of the talent contest, the lottery winner, etc.

      A lot of the more interesting stories are the ones that start after the false ending of happily ever after. That’s where the stories get complicated and are really about adults.

  7. lmao – I love the driving off the cliff reference. I know what you mean about us all wanting the happy ending but I in books and movies I prefer endings that are… appropriate? Two movies that spring to mind are My Best Friend’s Wedding where Julia Roberts didn’t get her man and The Crying Game where Dill found affection and friendship instead. And acceptance. Now why is it that my brain is just not coming up with any book titles?

    • Candy

      I think we’re torn between wanting a real ending and wanting a ‘fairy tale.’ And that’s what makes writing THE END so fascinating.