Updated: Feb 28
Most of us probably grew up hearing fairy tales, or at least watching their animated movie counterparts. Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood…these are all classics most of us know and love. And there are plenty of fairy tales out there that aren’t as well known and are just as interesting as their more popular counterparts. I don’t think it’s a secret that early fairy tales were much darker than Disney made them out to be, and there are tons of videos about the original versions of some of the more well known ones. But today, let’s talk about some lesser known, super dark fairy tales.
the dead mother
I’m not sure how well known this story is known outside or even inside Russia, the land where it originated. But it does have some universal themes about things like maternal instinct.
A husband and wife live in a village, and seem to have a pretty good life…until the wife dies giving birth to their son. The husband is panicked about being a single dad, so he hires a nanny for the baby. But there’s one problem: the kid won’t eat. All he does is cry and cry all day long. Now, babies crying isn’t that unusual, but when they won’t forego it for eating, there might be a problem. But before the new dad can figure out what’s wrong, the crying stops.
The nanny wants to find out what’s going on, so she sneaks up to the baby’s room one night and, right at midnight, hears someone going in. This happens again the next night at midnight, and then again the next. She tells the baby’s father and some of his relatives, and they decide to spy and see who it is.
At midnight the following night, one of the family members goes into the baby’s room and. Shockingly, they see the baby’s dead mother, in the same clothes she was buried in, breastfeeding her child. But when someone shines a light on her, she leaves. When the group goes to check on the baby, they realize he’s dead too.
2. the little match girl
This story was written by Hans Christian Anderson, the author of the original version of The Little Mermaid as well as The Snow Queen, the story that later inspired Frozen. I’ve talked about Anderson on the channel before, in my video about premature burial — which you can watch here. This story has been adapted to film a handful of times, but I guess those versions never took off quite as much as other fairy tale movies.
The story begins on New Year’s Eve, and it’s almost dark out. Despite the bitter cold, a little barefoot girl walks around, having lost her shoes after running across the street. The little girl is trying to sell matches, but hasn’t made a sale all day. She doesn’t want to go home because her father won’t be too happy about this, and because their house is falling apart and probably not much better than the cold anyway.
She ends up sitting in the area between two houses and lighting a match by striking it against one of the house walls. As the light shines, she sees a multitude of things in front of her: A warm stove, a Christmas tree, even a roast goose that jumps off the table and waddles around, despite already being cooked. All these things disappear when the match goes out, so she keeps striking the rest and seeing more amazing visions.
The last vision the girl sees is of her dead grandmother, the only person who ever loved her. Her grandmother picks her up and they fly up into the air, away from everything.
The story ends the following morning, when passers-by see the girl’s body leaning against the wall. Everything we just saw was, of course, a series of visions she had before dying.
Yeah…that was depressing, wasn’t it? I guess you could interpret it as being happy, with the girl finally seeing some good things after such an awful life. But I remember reading this one in school and just feeling sad. Yeah, I read this in elementary school…what was my teacher thinking?
3. the stolen pennies
Also called The Stolen Farthings, this story the first one on the list attributed to the famous brothers Grimm. Jacob and Wilhelm published their collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the early 1800’s and have been credited with starting “the modern study of folklore,” according to Britannica. All the rest of the stories on this list were also retold by the brothers and included in their collection. I didn’t plan on including so many of their stories, they’re just really influential when it comes to fairy tale retellings.
In The Stolen Pennies, an unnamed narrator is having dinner with some friends — a husband, wife and their children. At noon, everyone’s at the table when our protagonist sees a child walk in. The child doesn’t acknowledge anyone and goes straight to another room.
The protagonist must have been staying with these people for awhile, because he notices the same thing the next day, and the day after that. Finally, he asks the family patriarch about it, but he hasn’t seen another child in the house lately — and neither has anybody else. The next time the narrator sees the child, he follow them into the next room, where the child is trying to get underneath the floorboards. But when the child sees the narrator, he disappears. (Or she — the child’s gender is never specified.)
The narrator tells the family matriarch what happened and describes the child to her. She says it has to be her child who died a month earlier — why the narrator doesn’t know about this child already, I have no idea. But apparently right before the child died, they were given two farthings by their mother, who hoped they might give them to a poor man. But the child, being a child, decided to keep the money instead, hiding it under the floorboards. The child comes back to the house even in death in an attempt to retrieve the money. Once the child’s parents give the money to a poor man, as was the mother’s original intent, the child is never seen again.
When I first read this story, it reminded me of another one in a collection called Real Life Scary Kids, which I’ve talked about on the channel before. It’s called The Daughter’s Midnight Visit and tells of a ghost girl who returns from the grave for one night to seek out a doctor and convince him to tend to her ailing mother, who would have died otherwise. These stories aren’t the darkest ones out there, but they’re good, classic ghost stories.
4. the three snake leaves
During a war, an impoverished, single father can no longer support his son. The son offers to fend for himself from now on, and the father takes him up on his offer, albeit begrudgingly. The son joins the war effort and ends up leading the empire to victory. As a reward, the king lets the boy marry his daughter.
But the daughter has one condition.: She says she won’t get married unless her husband vows to be buried alive if she dies first — and vice versa, so they won’t have to live without each other. No other man has taken her up on this offer so far, but this particular young man is so taken by her that he agrees.
The couple marries, and everything goes well for awhile. Then the wife gets sick and dies. When the young man is faced with the promise he made so long ago, he’s terrified, but goes along with it.
For a few days, he stays in his wife’s tomb and eats what little food is given to him, knowing that once it’s gone, he’ll have to slowly starve to death. After awhile, he sees a snake in the tomb and thinks about eating it. He kills it and cuts it into three pieces. Then another snake comes in, slithers off and comes back with three leaves. The snake puts the leaves on the pieces of the dead snake, which is magically put back together and resurrected. Then they both slither away.
The young man gets an idea. He puts one leaf on each of his wife’s eyes, and the remaining one over her mouth. She comes back to life and they knock on the door of the tomb and are “rescued.” The young man gives the leaves to a servant and tells him to protect them.
But after she’s brought back to life, the wife seems uninterested in her husband. While they’re on a sea voyage to visit the young man’s father, the wife convinces the skipper to kill her husband by throwing him overboard. They plan on telling everyone the young man’s death was an accident, and they can get married once they get back on land. But the servant who still had the leaves sees all this, finds the man’s body and uses the leaves to resurrect him. (Because I guess the young man told him about their magical healing powers at some point.)
The young man and the servant make excellent timing and reach the king before the wife and skipper. They tell him what happened, and the king is horrified that his daughter could do something so awful. When his daughter comes home and feeds him her sob story about an accident, he doesn’t buy it. Then she sees her dead husband alive again and, shocked, begs him for mercy. But the king has no mercy in store for her, and she and the skipper are thrown out to sea themselves. A bit harsh, yes, but a good, classic revenge story.
5. the juniper tree
This story takes place two thousand years ago — at least from the time it was written down — and begins with a rich man and his wife. They want children but haven’t been able to have them yet, so the wife prays under a juniper tree. When she cuts her finger while slicing an apple, she somehow knows that she’ll get pregnant. Personally, I would have used some sort of ovulation calculator, but you do you I guess.
Anyway, the wife does get pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy, but dies of happiness when she sees her child for the first time. She’s buried under the juniper tree.
Her husband remarries and has a daughter by his second wife, but the new wife doesn’t like her stepson very much. One day she asks him if he wants an apple, then leads him to a chest and tells him to take one out. But when his head is in the chest she shuts the lid and beheads him.
Yeah, I told you these stories were dark — and this particular one gets even worse.
The wife chops up the boy’s body and cooks it into a pudding. His half sister salts the dish with her tears.
When the father asks where his son is, his wife tells him he went to visit other family members. She serves him the pudding she’s just cooked, and he likes it so much he asks for more.
But the boy’s sister, who knows everything, is understandably upset over her brother’s death. She takes the boy’s bones from under the table, wraps them in a handkerchief and lies under the juniper tree. While she’s there, a mist comes out of the tree and a bird flies out. The bird sings a song about how the little boy was killed and eaten. When he sings his song again to the boy’s father — who, again, knows nothing about his son’s death — he likes it so much he asks the bird to sing it again. The bird wants some sort of payment for a repeat performance, so the husband gives him a pair of red shoes.
The bird flies away and goes to a mill, performing his song for all the millers. The millers like it too, and bribe the bird to repeat the song by giving him a millstone.
By the way, the picture above is a millstone. They’re large stones used to grind grain, typically using two put together. And when I say large, I mean large — they can weigh hundreds of pounds. Keep that in mind.
The bird goes back to our main family’s house. The father still loves its singing, but his wife is terrified because the bird can give away her secret. (Frankly, I don’t know how he hasn’t already.) And it turns out she’s right to be scared. After the last time the bird sings his song, he kills the wife by crushing her with the millstone.
After this, the husband must have figured everything out because he’s now happy, as is his daughter. And…that’s how the story ends. Probably a lot of things that don’t make much sense to a modern audience, but it is another nice little revenge story.
6. the girl without hands
This story is a long one with lots of detail. There are a few religious symbols and references, so I think there’s some sort of theme here about God always watching over and protecting us. But there’s also a lot of drama, so strap in.
The story opens on an impoverished miller. This miller is so poor, the only thing he has to his name are his mill and the apple tree in the backyard. One day, he’s in the forest getting wood when he’s approached by a man he doesn’t know. This stranger says he can make the miller rich if the he gives him what’s behind his mill. The miller assumes he’s referring to the apple tree, and agrees. The strangers says he’ll come back in three years to collect.
When the miller gets home, his wife asks him where all their new stuff came from — stuff that magically appeared in their chests and drawers, just as the stranger promised. He tells her what happened, but she says the stranger must have been the devil. He also clearly wasn’t looking to collect the apple tree, but the couple’s daughter, who was behind the mill sweeping at the time. Whoops.
The couple tell their daughter about this, which was probably a mistake — sometimes ignorance is bliss. On the flipside, it does give her time to prepare. On the day she’s supposed to be taken, she protects herself by drawing a circle around herself with chalk. When the devil comes, he can’t get to her, and he’s pissed.
The devil tells the miller to cut off his daughter’s hands so he can have power over her. If he doesn’t do it, the devil will take him instead. Surprisingly, the daughter agrees to this, and the miller cuts off her hands. The devil leaves, and when he comes back later, the daughter has cried into her stumps for so long that they’re clean now, and he’s lost power over her again.
The daughter leaves home and wanders for awhile with her stumps bound behind her back. She eventually finds a garden filled with food, and she’s starving by this point — but there’s also water around it, preventing her from getting in.
The daughter prays and an angel shows up, creating a dam in the water for her to walk through so she can get to the garden. She eats a pear and hides, but the gardener sees her and is afraid she’s a spirit.
As it turns out, the garden belongs to a king. When the king comes to check on his garden and notices the missing pair, the gardener tells him about the “spirit” and the king decides to come back to the garden that night with a priest to see if the spirit comes back. Sure enough, the girl comes back at midnight and eats another pear. Upon confirmation from the priest that the girl is human, they bring her to the palace and the king is so taken with her that they decide to get married.
A year into their marriage, the king has to go on a trip and asks his mother to look after his now pregnant wife. The now-queen gives birth to the couple’s son while he’s away, and a messenger is tasked with delivering the good news to the king. But when he falls asleep by a brook, the letter is intercepted by our old friend the devil, who replaces the letter with one that says the queen gave birth to a monster. The king is horrified when he hears this news, but sends a message saying the queen should still be taken care of until he gets back. But on the way to deliver this message, the same messenger falls asleep by the same brook and the letter is once again intercepted by the devil (so, good job messenger). This new letter, supposedly from the king, says the queen and her son are to be executed.
The king’s mother is shocked when she reads this letter, but she writes back. The last letter from the king is also intercepted, with the devil saying to preserve the queen’s tongue and eyes.
But the king’s mother can’t bring herself to do this to her daughter-in-law. She has a deer’s eyes and tongue cut out instead, then tells the queen to take her son and leave for their own safety.
After some more wandering, the queen reaches a forest and prays. Another angel comes and leads her to a house. The queen and her son stays in the house for seven years.
After these seven years, the king finally comes home (About time, right?). He asks to see his wife and child, oblivious to all the intercepted letters that led to them being exiled. His mother, who still thinks he ordered their deaths, fills him in on everything. The king vows to look for his wife and child and not stop until he does, whether he finds them dead or alive.
The king travels for seven more years doing just that. He never eats or drinks anything, but God keeps him alive. Finally, he finds the house his family is in, and an angel makes sure they’re reunited. When the former queen tells her husband who they are, he doesn’t believe her at first because this woman has hands. Well, that and the fact that it’s been fourteen years at this point since he saw her, and he’s never met his now-teenage son. That probably contributed too.
Anyway, the former queen says God allowed her hands to grow back. She also shows her husband the silver hands she used to wear when they were married. Upon this confirmation, the king is overjoyed and the couple is remarried. I guess their original marriage was rendered null and void when he supposedly ordered her killed — but the important thing is everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of.
So those are all the dark fairy tales I have for you today. Even though these stories can be found online for free, you can click here for a book collection of Grimm’s fairy tales,*** because I know some people prefer to have things like this compiled in print. I read all the Grimm ones out of an older book; I couldn’t find the exact version online, but I imagine all the different versions of the collection are similar, if not the same. Let me know your favorite dark fairy tale in the comments below.
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