Tag Archives: Grimm’s fairy tales

Was the Real Snow White a 16th-Century Countess?

Grimm's Fairy Tales Book Cover

Most of us associate the origin of Snow White with Willhelm and Jacob Grimm’s nineteenth-century publication of Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). Some assume  the brothers composed the volume of fairy tales, but most tales in the book were hundreds of years old by the time the Brother’s Grimm’s compiled them. Some stories, like Cinderella, were over a thousand years old.

I often wonder what inspired these tales. In a post about Snow White, author Kate Forsyth says there may be upwards of 400 versions of Snow White and the oldest is a”medieval Norse saga written by the 12th-century poet Snorri Sturluson, which sets the tale in the time of Harald Fairhair in the 9th century.”  While the saga and the German tale share some similarities (beautiful girl, a prince falls in love, she dies), the two stories are very different. The Norse version has no poisoning, no apples, no wicked stepmother, and no dwarves. So if the Norse tale is indeed the origin, how did the other elements end up in the German version of the tale?  Is it just the product of an unknown storyteller’s imagination, or is the German fairy tale somewhat rooted in historical fact?

278622-margarete-von-waldeck

Margarete von Waldeck (1513-1534) may have been the origin of Grimm’s Snow White.

According to German scholar Eckhard Sander, Grimm’s Snow White the latter is true. In his book,  Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?), Sander argues that the famous fairytale is based on the life of Countess Margarete Von Waldeck

Margarete was daughter to Count Phillip von Waldeck-Wildungen and stepdaughter to Katherina of Hatzefeld, whom Margarete did not get along with.  At the age of sixteen, Margarete’s father sent her away to Brussels, where she attracted the attention of Phillip II, a Spanish Hapsburg prince who later became king of Spain and Portugal.  A marriage between the Spanish prince and German countess was seen as politically disadvantageous by many, and Margarete’s untimely death all-too-conveniently ended the affair.

Portrait Phillip II of Spain Hapsburg

A love affair between Phillip II of Spain  Margarete von Waldeck may have resulted in her untimely death.

According to Sander, Margarete did not die of some unknown illness but was poisoned. On her deathbed, it’s said that  Margarete composed her will with a tremored-hand, a sign of poisoning though I think the fear of death alone might cause a woman so young to be a little shaky when writing her own will.

So let’s assume Margarete was poisoned. Who did it?   Her “wicked” stepmother died before Margarete, so she couldn’t have been the culprit. Besides, there were others who had more to gain in killing Margarete. Sander believes the Spanish poisoned Margarete to keep her from marrying the future king.While it is unlikely that the weapon of choice was an apple, there seems to be some evidence that a man living in Wildungen gave poisoned apples to children whom he suspected were stealing from him. This may be how poisoned apples ended up in the German fairy tale.

children coal mine

Sander believes children working in coal mines were the basis of Snow White’s seven dwarves.

But what about those seven dwarves? Where did they come from?  Maragerete’s brother owned copper mines in Wildungen which employed children who worked twelve hour days.  The children grew crooked and crippled from the work. Their hair grayed prematurely and most were dead before the age of  twenty.  Thus, they looked much like the dwarves from the Brother Grimm’s tale.  According to Sander, the many parts of the story from this particular region were told and retold until they became the tale that the Grimm brothers recorded, and we now know as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

According to Sander, the many parts of the story from this particular region were told and retold until they became the tale that the Grimm brothers recorded, and we now know as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Whether Sander’s theory is right or not remains a mystery. But for me, Sander’s research on Snow White’s origins is every bit as compelling as the German fairy tale.

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper, made it to the quarter-final round in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier last year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

Did you enjoy this article? Well, there’s more where that came from! Check out the archives or peruse the sidebar for a list of trending posts.  To make sure you don’t miss out on my latest articles, follow this blog or sign up for the newsletter.

And if you happen to be a historical fiction reader who loves a strong female voice and gritty Medieval settings, check out The Fairytale Keeper series. (When a storyteller’s daughter attempts to avenge her mother, she gets caught in the cross-hairs of a power struggle between kings and kingmakers. The conflict gives rise to some of the greatest stories ever told: Grimm’s Fairy Tales.) Publisher’s Weekly calls The Fairytale Keeper a “resonant tale set late in the 13th century…with unexpected plot twists. An engaging story of revenge.”

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Three Army Surgeons

4 Grimm’s Fairy Tales That Will NEVER Be Disney Movies

In my retelling of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I meld the original folklore with real medieval history…gore and all. And while I prefer a gritty story, there’s something about Disney that even I love. With a wave of Walt’s wand and a sprinkling of Tink’s fairy dust, Disney transforms dark tales into candied confections. Still, there are a few fairy tales that even Tinkerbell can’t sweeten and will likely never be Disney movies.

Three Army SurgeonsThe Three Army Surgeons

Three army surgeons enter a tavern… Yup, this one starts like a dirty joke. Anyways, the three men tell the tavern owner they can amputate and reattach any body part. Shocked, the owner doesn’t believe them and challenges them to prove their claim.
One army surgeon gouges out his eyes. Another slices off his hand. The last removes his heart. And then, off to bed they go.
To make a long story short, a cat steals the eyes, heart, and hand when a serving wench isn’t looking. Terrified of punishment, the wench replaces the missing organs and appendage with animal and corpse parts. Ignorant of the switch, the surgeons attach the impostor body parts the next morning and go on their merry way.
When their new parts malfunction, the army surgeons return to the tavern and demand the real eyes, heart, and hand. But the owner can’t return what he doesn’t have. To keep the three army surgeons from killing him, the tavern owner gives them his life savings. The three army surgeons are left with faulty body parts, the bar owner is broke, and no one lives happily ever after.

So why won’t Disney touch it? The tale is too violent and offers few merchandising options. Can you imagine a “gouge out the kitty’s eyeball” playset? Me neither.

rumpelstiltskinRumpelstiltskin

In a nutshell, a king locks a beautiful maiden in a room and commands her to spin straw into gold, but she doesn’t know how. So enter a conniving magical dwarf who can and will spin straw into gold—for a price.

At first the girl trades her jewelry for the dwarf’s services. When she no longer has anything to offer him, the dwarf makes her promise to give him her firstborn child.
Eventually the girl marries the king and becomes queen. Her first child is born and the dwarf comes to take what was promised, but the queen is so distraught that the dwarf makes her an offer. If she can guess his name in three days, she can keep her child. The queen sends a messenger to learn every name in the kingdom. The messenger stumbles upon the dwarf’s hovel instead. By the third day, the queen learns the dwarf’s name is Rumpelstiltskin. She keeps her child. And Rumpelstiltskin, in a fit of rage, tears himself in half.

Calling little people dwarfs and portraying them as evil isat the very leastpolitically incorrect. Disney strives for a squeaky-clean image and this seems like a bigger media debacle than The Little Mermaid penis castle.

The Girl Without HandsThe Girl Without Hands

A man accidentally sells his daughter to the devil, but the girl keeps herself so clean that the devil cannot claim her. The devil commands the girl’s father to chop off her hands so she can’t clean herself. At her father’s orders, the girl succumbs to the amputation without argument. But because the girl cries on her stumps, she remains clean and the devil still can’t touch her. In his rage, the devil kidnaps the father and mother before burning their mill to the ground. The homeless, handless girl wanders to a castle followed by an angel. The king of the castle falls in love with the pious girl, has silver hands made for her, and marries her.

Can you imagine parents lining up at the box office to watch a little girl’s hands get lopped off by her selfish father? I can’t. Besides this, the female protagonist in this tale offers herself up for sacrifice without argument and then waits for salvation which makes her far too passive for modern audiences. .

The Jew Among ThornsThe Jew Among Thorns

When a boy discovers his violin’s music forces people to dance, he preys upon a Jewish man in a thorn bush, forcing him to dance. The Jewish manwho’s being cut by the thornsbegs the boy to stop playing. The boy refuses…unless the Jewish man hands over a bag of money. When the man relents, the boy runs off with his coins. The Jewish man reports the robbery to local officials, the youth is caught and then sentenced to hang. At the gallows, the boy pulls out his violin and makes the Jewish man dance again. The boy refuses to stop playing until the man admits that he stole the gold in the first place, which he does. They hang the Jewish man instead of the boy even though he was a thief, as well.

This story perpetuates an old and terrible stereotype that Jewish people are greedy swindlers. For that reason, Disney would never turn this into a movie. They did, however, adapt the Israelite Exodus into a movie  called The Prince of Egypt, a more positive portrayal of Jewish people and their history.

Can you think of another Grimm’s fairy tale that would make a TERRIBLE Disney retelling? Let me know via Twitter, Facebook, or simply comment below. If you like this post, there’s more where that came from, follow my blog, Twitter, and Facebook to keep up with my posts on medieval history and fairy tales.

The Real Snow White: A 16th Century Countess?

Portrait of Margarete von Waldeck

Most of us associate the origins of Snow White with Willhelm and Jacob Grimm’s 19th century publication of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) which is a volume of German folklore collected by the Grimm brothers and not actually composed by the two.  So where did this tale actually come from?   Is it really just the product of an unknown story-teller’s imagination or was this famous fair-faced maiden based on historical fact?   German scholar Eckhard Sander presumes in his book Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?) that the real Snow White was in fact Countess Margarete Von Waldeck.

Margarete was daughter to Count Phillip von Waldeck-Wildungen and step-daughter to Katherina of Hatzefeld, whom Margarete did not get along with.  At the age of sixteen, Margarete was sent away to Wildungen, Brussels where she met and fell in love with Phillip the II, who would later become king of Spain.   A marriage between the Spanish prince and German countess was seen as politically disadvantageous by many and Margarete’s untimely death all-too-conveniently ended the affair.

According to Sander, Margarete did not die of some unknown illness, but was poisoned by the Spanish secret police to keep her from marrying the future king.  However, her “wicked” stepmother couldn’t have been the culprit since she was dead before Margarete’s death.  While it is unlikely that the weapon of choice was an apple, poisoned apples were given out by a man living in Wildungen who didn’t want children stealing his fruit.  And as for the seven dwarves, Maragerete’s brother owned copper mines in Wildungen which employed children who worked twelve hour days.  The children grew crooked and crippled from the work. Their hair grayed prematurely and most were dead before the age of  twenty.  Thus, they looked much like the dwarves from the Brothers Grimm’s tale.  According to Sander, the many parts of the story from this particular region were told and retold until they became the tale that the Grimm’s brothers recorded and we now know as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Article written by Andrea Cefalo, author of The Fairytale Keeper: a novel of corruption, devotion, and the origins of Grimm’s fairytales.  To follow Andrea Cefalo and hear more about The Fairytale Keeper series, please visit: