Literature & Words

6 Dark Fairy Tales You Never Heard About

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

What was your favourite fairy tale when you were a child? Perhaps it was Cinderella or Snow White? Mine was Bluebeard, a disturbing tale about a serial-killer king. This might explain my fascination with all things evil. But Bluebeard is just one of hundreds of dark fairy tales. Here are a few of my new favourites.  

6 Dark Fairy Tales You Never Heard About

1. Tatterhood – Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe

It seems that some dark fairy tales have a moral to their story.

A childless king and queen were desperate to conceive. Eventually, they adopted a girl, but as she grew up, they noticed their adopted daughter would play with the poor. Her best friend was a beggar girl.

This was not the life of a royal princess, so they banned her from seeing her bedraggled friend. However, the beggar child’s mother knew of a way the couple could conceive a child of their own.   

The queen was told to wash that night in pails of water and empty the water under her bed. As she sleeps, two flowers will grow; one beautifully exquisite, the other black, gnarly and ugly. She must eat the beautiful flower, leaving the ugly one to die. The queen did as she was told but was greedy and ate both flowers.  

Nine months later the queen gave birth to a beautiful daughter, fair of face and delightful company. However. shortly afterwards she delivered a second daughter.

This was an unkempt, loud and unruly girl who took to riding a goat and carried a wooden spoon wherever she went. Even though the two sisters were the definition of opposites, they loved each other deeply.   

The ugly daughter became known as Tatterhood, as she wore a tattered old cloth hood to cover her dirty hair and rags for clothes.   

One night, evil witches came to the castle and despite her young age, Tatterhood fought them off. But during the struggle, the witches ensnared the older sister, replacing her beautiful head with that of a calf.

Tatterhood followed the witches and was able to restore her sister’s head. As they were travelling back home, the sisters passed through a kingdom, ruled by a widowed king and his son.   

The king instantly falls in love with the beautiful sister and wants to marry her, but she refuses unless Tatterhood marries his son.

Eventually, the son agrees and the wedding day is set. On the wedding day, the beautiful sister is adorned in the finest silks and jewels, but Tatterhood insists on wearing her old rags and even riding her goat to the ceremony.   

Tatterhood now knows that appearances do not matter to the prince, on the way to the wedding. She reveals the goat to be a handsome stallion. Her wooden spoon is a sparkling wand and her tattered hood falls away to reveal a golden crown.

Tatterhood is even more beautiful than her sister. The prince realises that she wanted someone to love her, not for her beauty, but for herself. 

Read the full story here.

2. Faithful Johannes – Brothers Grimm

More royal skullduggery here. A king sees a portrait of a beautiful princess and he wants her to be his bride. With the help of his faithful servant Johannes, he decides to kidnap her and make her his queen.

The pair travel across the ocean to the golden kingdom and carry out their plan. The princess is suitably scared, but after learning that her kidnapper is a king, she acquiesces and agrees to marry him.  

However, as they are sailing, Johannes hears three ravens portending doom for the king as soon as he sets foot on shore. The ravens warn of a fox-red horse, a poisoned golden shirt, and the death of his new bride.

Johannes is horrified but listens on. The only way to save the king from impending doom is to shoot the horse, burn the shirt and take three drops of blood from the princess. There’s one caveat; Johannes must not tell a soul or he will be turned into stone.   

Stepping onto dry land, the king mounts his fox-red horse, but, without saying a word, Johannes shoots it in the head. Perplexed, the king arrives at the castle and waiting for him is a golden shirt, but, before he can put it on, Johannes burns it. During the wedding, the newly-wedded princess drops down dead. However, Johannes quickly takes three drops of blood from her breast and saves her.   

Nevertheless, King is furious that a servant would be so disrespectful and grope his royal bride. He sentences Johannes to death, but Johannes tells him of the raven’s warnings and his actions. In doing so, he is turned to stone. The king is devastated at the demise of his faithful servant.   

Years later, the royal couple have two children. Johannes’ statue has pride of place in the palace, and one day it tells the king that he can be brought back to life but only with the sacrificial blood of the king’s children. The king, wracked with guilt over the last few years, happily agrees and beheads his children.   

As promised, Johannes is reborn. To thank the king, Johannes gathers the children’s heads and replaces them on their bodies. The children are instantly revived and the palace rejoices.   

Read the full story here.

3. The Shadow – Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen is surely the master of dark fairy tales. This is one of his most disturbing.   

A learned man from the cold lands yearned for the sun. He moved to one of the hottest places on earth but soon discovered that the heat was so intense that most people stayed indoors during the day.

Only during the evening did the air freshen and people would come out onto their balconies and socialise. The learned man lived in a narrow street, filled with tall apartments, packed with residents so he could easily see his neighbours.

However, he never saw the resident in the apartment opposite him. Yet, obviously, someone lived there as tended pot plants filled the balcony. One evening he happened to sit on his balcony with a light behind him, thus revealing his shadow in the opposite apartment. He thought to himself,

“My shadow is the only occupant of that apartment!”  

However, the next evening when he relaxed on his balcony, he noticed that his shadow was absent. How can this be, he wondered? Doesn’t everyone have a shadow? Even venturing out during the day he could not see his shadow. After years of living in the repressive heat, the learned man returned home to the cold lands.

One night a visitor arrived at his door. The man was a gentleman of the highest order. He wore expensive clothes and gold chains adorned his body. The learned man had no idea who his late visitor was.

“Do you not know your old shadow?” the visitor asked.

Somehow the shadow had freed itself from his master and had lived an extraordinary life of privilege and adventure. The shadow had decided to return to the cold lands.  

But as the shadow flourished, the master had become frail. He was becoming a shadow of his former self, whilst the shadow thrived. The shadow persuaded the master to travel with him to a special watering place that cures all ills.

All manner of strangers gathered at this special place; amongst them was a nearsighted princess. She was instantly attracted to the enigmatic shadow man and they were soon engaged to be married. Now the master was acting as the shadow, but he enjoyed the royal life alongside his former shadow.

However, as the shadow was to become royalty he had one request for his former master; his master was to be called the shadow, lie at his feet and deny he had ever been a man. For the learned man, this was too much. The shadow alerted the authorities and had the master declared mad.

“The poor fellow thinks he is a man. He is insane.”

The master was imprisoned and spent the rest of his life there until he died.   

Read the full story here.

4. The Flea – Giambattista Basile

I don’t know where some authors get their ideas from, but this is not just a dark fairy tale, it is positively weird.   

A king wants only the best suitor for his daughter. He captures a flea and lets it feast on his blood until it grows to an enormous size. Once the flea has reached the size of a sheep, he kills it, removes the skin, and sets a challenge for would-be suitors.

Guess what animal produced this skin and you can marry my daughter.  

Of course, no one is expected to guess the hide of this animal is a flea; it is enormous. As predicted, suitors arrive, but none of them guesses correctly.

Then a deformed, smelly, and cantankerous old ogre turns up and guesses the animal is a flea. The king is surprised but has to stay true to his royal declaration. The daughter is sent away with the ogre to arrive at a stinking home, made from human bones.  

To celebrate the wedding, the ogre prepares a special dinner. The princess looks into the cauldron and to her horror sees human flesh and bones, bubbling away for a stew. She cannot contain her disgust and refuses to eat human flesh.

The ogre takes pity on her and goes out to snare some wild boar but tells her she will have to get used to feasting on humans.   

The princess is alone and crying to herself and by chance, a wily old woman hears her sobs. The woman hears the princess’s tale of woe and summons her sons to rescue her. The sons defeat the ogre and the princess is free to return to the palace where her father welcomes her back.   

Read the full story here.

5. The Wonderful Birch – Andrew Lang

A shepherd couple live in the woods with their daughter. One day they discover that one of their black sheep has escaped. The mother goes to look for it but meets a witch living deep in the forest.

The witch casts a spell, turning the woman into a black sheep and impersonating the woman. Returning home, she convinces the husband that she is his wife and tells him to kill the sheep so that it won’t wander off again.   

The daughter, however, had seen the strange altercation in the woods and ran to the sheep.   

“Oh, dear little mother, they are going to slaughter you!”  

The black sheep answered:

“Well, then, if they do slaughter me, eat you neither the meat nor the broth that is made of me, but gather all my bones, and bury them by the edge of the field.”  

That night, the husband slaughtered the sheep and the witch made a broth from the carcass. As the couple feasted, the daughter remembered her mother’s warning and taking the bones, carefully buried them in a corner of a field.

After a while, a beautiful birch tree grew in the spot where the daughter had carefully buried the bones.  

Years pass and the witch and her husband have a baby girl of their own. This daughter is ugly but treated well, however, the witches’ stepdaughter is little more than a slave.

Then one day the King announces a festival to be held over three days and invites everyone to celebrate. As the father prepares the younger daughter for the trip to the palace, the witch sets her step-daughter a series of impossible tasks.   

The daughter runs to the birch tree as she will not be able to complete her tasks, and weeps under the birch tree. Her mother, hearing this tale of woe tells her to snap off a branch from the birch tree and use it as a wand. Now the daughter is able to complete her tasks.  

When the daughter next visits the birch tree, she is transformed into a beautiful maiden, adorned with splendid clothes and given a magical horse, with a mane glistening from gold to silver.

As she rode past the palace, the prince sees her and falls instantly in love with her. Much like Cinderella, the daughter, in her rush to get home and complete her tasks, had left several personal items behind in the palace.   

The prince declares:

“The maiden whose finger this ring slips over, whose head this golden hoop encircles, and whose foot this shoe fits, shall be my bride.”  

The witch forces the items to fit her daughter’s finger, head, and foot. The prince has no choice. He must wed this odd creature. By this time, the daughter is working at the palace as a kitchen maid. As the prince leaves with his new bride, she whispers:

“Alas! dear Prince, do not rob me of my silver and my gold.”  

The prince recognises his beautiful fair maiden and they escape the witch by throwing the witch’s daughter over a river and using her body as a bridge.   

Read the full story here.

6. The Red Shoes – Hans Christian Andersen

Another dark fairy tale with a moral at the core of the story.   

A beggar girl named Karen is lucky enough to be adopted by a rich woman who spoils her as if she were her daughter. As a result, Karen becomes selfish, narcissistic, and vain.

Her adopted mother buys Karen a pair of red shoes, made from the finest silk and softest leather. Karen loves her new red shoes and wears them to church one Sunday. But she is chastised for wearing them. In church, you must be pious and only wear black shoes.  

Karen does not heed the warning and wears her red shoes to church the following week. On this day she meets a weird old man with a long red beard who stops her.  

He tells her, “Oh, what beautiful shoes for dancing. Never come off when you dance,” then he taps each shoe and disappears. Once the service is over, Karen dances out of the church. It is as if the shoes have a mind of their own. But she manages to control them.   

When her adopted mother dies, Karen forgoes the funeral, instead, she attends a dance class, but this time, she cannot stop her red shoes from dancing. She is exhausted and desperate to stop. An angel appears and warns her that she is condemned to dance until the dancing kills her. This is her punishment for being vain.   

Karen cannot stop dancing. By now, her dress is tattered and dirty, and her face and hands are unwashed, but still, the red shoes dance on. Despairing that she will never be able to stop dancing, Karen begs an executioner to chop off her feet.

Begrudgingly, he does, but her feet continue to dance with the red shoes on. The executioner makes Karen wooden feet so that she can walk and not have to dance.   

Karen is remorseful and wants the church congregation to see that she is no longer the vain girl she once was. However, the red shoes, complete with her amputated feet, bar the way and she is unable to get inside.

She tries again the following Sunday, but every time the red shoes prevent her. Sorrowful and full of remorse, she stays at home and asks God for mercy.

The angel reappears and forgives her. Her room changes into the church, and is now full of the congregation that once despised her. Karen is so happy that she dies peacefully and her soul is accepted into heaven. 

Read the full story here.

Final thoughts

There were so many dark fairy tales it was a real task to choose my favourite! Please let me know if I have missed out on one of yours, I’d love to hear it.  

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)
Tags: books