Growing up, children love listening to fairytales or watching the many film adaptations of said tales. However, let’s face it. The majority of these stories have no semblance to reality. In many cases, these famous legends have been passed down for centuries as cautionary tales against being selfish, cruel, or any other vice.
However, many might be surprised to learn the real life stories behind fairytales we grow up to think are completely fiction.
Bluebeard is a French folktale about a wealthy, ugly nobleman—Bluebeard—whose previous wives have vanished. The heroine of the story is chosen to be his next victim—I mean bride. He leaves her for a while, telling her there is one room that she must never open, though he gives her the key (idiot). Curiosity overcomes her and she checks the room, only to find the bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives. Long story short, her brother’s eventually arrive and kill Bluebeard as he is about the kill the wife. She inherits his fortune and buries the wives.
Now, this fairytale is based on two real life people. The first is the serial killer Gilles de Rais, who lived during the 15th century. Though he did not murder any wives, he was obsessed with the occult and killed over forty children during his lifetime. I would recommend not looking up his story, because it is pretty horrific. Luckily, like the fairytale, his crimes were uncovered and he was executed. This story does not seem very much like the fairytale, but it does have similar aspects and was considered to be an inspiration.
Another more likely source was Conomor the Cursed, a medieval king in Brittany in around 540 A.D. His description (a large bear, a giant of a man) is similar to Bluebeard, and he would notoriously beat his wives. While there is not a lot of record of his life, there is evidence that he killed at least one of his wives and her son. However, there are some myths that he killed at least three wives before her, but this has never been proven. But still, imagining a man as evil as Bluebeard actually living once is a scary thought.
Most know the story of Rapunzel, the beautiful young girl who is imprisoned in a tower by an evil witch. Her hair grows long, a prince find her, and after some trouble—blindness, cutting of hair, wandering (depending on the version)—Rapunzel and the prince end up happily together and the witch is killed.
Again, this story seems too far-fetched to be true, but there are aspects of Rapunzel’s story which were taken from the real life of St. Barbara, a Christian martyr.
Saint Barbara lived in the 3rd century modern day Turkey. Her pagan father, wishing to keep her away from the world, locked her in a tower and delivered food to her through pulling a basket into the window. Now, according to legend, when her father found out she was Christian he tried to kill her, but she escaped him to hide in the mountains.
After the shepherds nearby betrayed her whereabouts—apparently the betrayer turned to stone—she was taken to be tortured to relinquish her faith. Oddly enough, every morning her wounds would be healed. Eventually, her father killed her and was promptly struck by lightning. If that’s not karma, I don’t know what is.
Now, there is some debate that St. Barbara is just a myth, but she is still considered by the Roman Catholic Church to have at least existed (even though her story may have been slightly different). Sadly, unlike Rapunzel, she did not have her happy ending.
This Disney classic’s true story most will probably at least have heard of. In the fictional movie, Pocahontas is a Native American woman who falls in love with John Smith, an English admiral who comes to the New World. She saves his life from her father, but he is wounded by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe and must return to England for treatment. There is a sequel to the film, but I will stick to the original movie/myth.
There are several ways the real life of Pocahontas (born Matoaka) differs from the Disney classic. First, Pocahontas was only 11 or 12 when she met John Smith, making it really creepy if they did fall in love. While John Smith did claim to have been saved from her tribe’s chief by her, there is some indication historians have that he might have made up the story or exaggerated it. John Smith was later wounded and had to return to England, but it was through an accident, but through any nefarious means.
Governor Ratcliffe was also a real person who was accused of hiding food for himself from the other colonist, as well as building in aptly named “Ratcliffe’s Palace” while the colonists were sick and dying. So, while his actions in the movie have not been substantiated in real life, he didn’t seem to be that great of guy either. Just about a year after the movie probably took place, he was captured by an Indian tribe and skinned alive before being burned at the stake. Whatever his actions might have been, I truly doubt her deserved such a cruel fate.
As for Pocahontas, she later traveled to England and married John Rolfe (as seen in the Disney sequel). Sadly, she died when she was only 20 or 21, probably by disease (possibly pneumonia, smallpox, or tuberculosis). However, due to her appearance in the court of King James and myths surrounding her life, there are many stories featuring her (fictional or non-fiction).
4. The Wizard of Oz
Growing up, I loved the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum’s fairytale book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, most famously adapted in 1939 as The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland. The story tells the tale of Dorothy, who gets transported with her dog to the magical world of Oz, where she travels through many dangers to find her way home. In the end, she faces off against the Wicked Witch of the West, who melts when she throws water on her.
There are many hints of reality inside this story (for example, tornados do carry away houses), but I want to focus on one aspect of the story that is based on reality. That is, the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West. I know what you are going to say: people do not melt if water is thrown on them. And my response is: that is not exactly true.
Aquagenic Urticarial is a very real allergy to water. It sounds absurd, but it is a very real condition. While a person with this disease does not literally melt when they touch water, allergic reactions from contact to water include itching skin, rashes, and small welts all over the body. While it does not come close to literally melting, I cannot imagine it would be a pleasant experience to endure.
“I’m melting!” never seemed so real before.
3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White is a fairytale about a beautiful princess whose stepmother envies her beauty. After the stepmother’s mirror tells her Snow White is the fairest maiden in the land, she sends a huntsman to kill her. However, the huntsman cannot do it and tells Snow White to run into the dark forest. She does and finds a household of seven dwarfs, who she lives with and cares for.
The stepmother again asks the mirror who the fairest one in the land is, and he responds that Snow White is the fairest. Knowing that her stepdaughter is still alive, the queen disguises herself as an old woman and poisons Snow White with an apple. Luckily, it only puts Snow White to sleep and she is saved by a random prince’s true love’s kiss. In the end, the stepmother dies (in different ways, depending on the version) and Snow White lived happily ever after.
Like Bluebeard, this story is actually based on two real people. The first is Margarete von Waldeck, who was the daughter of Count Philip IV of Waldeck and lived during the 16th century. Like Snow White, she was known for her beauty and had a strict stepmother named Katharina von Hatzfeld. Unlike the original evil queen, however, there is no evidence that Katharina was evil or tried to kill her stepdaughter.
Other connections to the story include Siebengebirge, seven hills cover with woods that Margarete traveled through (like the seven dwarfs house in the dark forest) and her father’s copper mines, which were mined mostly by children (like the dwarfs of small statue). Sadly, Margarete did not have a happy end, being poisoned before she could marry Philip II of Spain. But her stepmother was not the killer—Katharina was already dead when Margarete died at 21.
The second possible inspiration was that of Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal (wow, that is a long name), born nearly two centuries after Margarete. Like Margarete, Maria’s mother died and her father remarried. Interestingly, the castle she grew up—Lohr Castle—is now a museum and contains a “Talking Mirror,” which was apparently given to her stepmother by her father for their wedding (interesting coincidence, wouldn’t you say?). It’s a fascinating mirror, as it is construction uses vibrations to repeat what a person says to it (almost like an echo). Now, that is creepy.
Like the mines in Margarete’s story, the mines around Maria where run by children, as those were the only people who could fit inside the small shafts. However, unlike the fairytale, Maria’s stepmother was not evil, though there is some suggestion that the stepmother was jealous of Maria’s charity to the poor.
2. Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel tells the story of a brother and sister who are lost in the forest (probably the Black Forest in Germany) who come across the candy house of a witch. After stealing food off the house, she kidnaps them and prepares to eat them. However, they trap her and lock her in her stove, burning her, and escape safely.
In 1963, a book translating to The Truth about Hansel and Gretel by Hans Traxler came out in Germany, claiming the story is not as the Grimm brothers told it. Katharina Scharedin was a baker who created an amazing gingerbread recipe. Hans Metzler tried to marry her to gain said recipe, but she refused him and he denounced her as a witch. She was found innocent, so Hans went with his sister Grete to her house and killed her, claiming it was because she was a man-eating witch. Somehow he was found innocent and became a wealthy man because of the recipe.
Now, let me first say, Traxler’s book revealing all this has been proved to be partially untrue. I cannot say for certain what in his story is false or if Katharina even existed. However, I can say for certain that during that the Great Famine in the 14th century, many people would simply abandon children and some even resorted to cannibalism as a common practice due to starvation.
So, even if Traxler’s book is false, there are aspects to the fairytale which are very true.
1. Beauty and the Beast
Growing up, this was personally my favorite fairytale, but never could I imagine there was a semblance of reality to it. The French tale of La Belle et la Bete tells the story of a young, beautiful woman who goes to live with a horrid beast in a castle after her father steals a rose from the castle garden and is caught by the beast.
Again, the story varies, but usually the beast tries to woe the beauty until she leaves to see her father, taking with her a magic mirror. She looks to see the beast in the mirror, seeing he is dying and goes to find him, proclaiming her love for him. He transforms into a handsome prince and they live happily ever after.
The story is actually based on the real life of Petrus Gonsalvus, who suffered from Hypertrichosis, also known as Ambras syndrome. This disease has been referred to as the werewolf syndrome, where thick hair grows all over the body, giving the appearance of some sort of werewolf. Petrus is also believed to be the inspiration for the werewolf in Red Riding Hood as well.
Born in the 16th century, Petrus was a wealthy Spanish man. However, it is not just his disease which reminds us of the famous fairytale, but also his wife. He married a lady named Catherine, who herself was known for her great beauty. Thus, in a sense, Catherine was Beauty to Petrus’s Beast. Unlike the fairytale, Petrus never transformed into a handsome prince. He did, however, have seven children with Catherine, four of which also suffered from hypertrichosis. Still, I almost prefer the real life ending.
Did you know any of these real stories? Which ones shocked you the most? And, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,