The Original Disney Princess Stories

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Among many other titles, Walt Disney was often referred to as the Master of Fantasy.

He was lauded as a Twentieth Century Aesop. Writers proclaimed him a worthy successor to The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and others as a storyteller who had the magic touch to create worlds of timeless fantasy that enthralled both children and adults.

"I hold that neither Grimm nor Walt Disney are the culminating factors in the definition of a child's personality. I think we should throw neither rocks nor puffs at them, but accept the fact that Grimm existed in his time and Disney does very well in our time," Entertainer Danny Kaye wrote in his article "How Does TV Affect Our Children?" for TV Guide magazine March 26, 1960.

In an article from Brief magazine (Vol. 1, No. 4) April 1953 entitled "Why I Made Peter Pan" that was by-lined by Walt Disney, he stated:

"The world of make-believe has always delighted and absorbed me, ever since I was a little boy. And I know exactly how my interest started. It began when I was a child, one of five in our family.

"Every evening after supper, my grandmother would take down from the shelf the well-worn volumes of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. We would gather around her, the two youngest children on her knees and listen to the stories that we knew so well we could repeat them word for word.

Disney's Snow White changed the manner in which the princess was awakened, among other things.

"After my grandmother's death, my mother continued the evening story hour. It was the best time of the day for me and the stories and the characters in them seemed quite as real as my schoolmates and our games."

So it was not unusual that Walt would use the well-loved fairy tale of Snow White as the basis for his first animated feature film.

As early as an interview in Screen Book magazine January 1934, Walt said when talking of future projects, "The realm of folk-tale, fairy story and legend — a vast realm for future exploitation and exploration — fresh situations, rich atmosphere and, best of all, stories that are familiar and loved by us since childhood."

The critical and financial success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) locked him into being the chronicler of well known fairy tales.

As he told writer Pete Martin in 1956, "For years I had to pick titles that were sort of pre-sold like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. When I'd come up with a little story that maybe was original or something, I couldn't get anybody in the distribution end to buy it. They said, 'Well, nobody knows about that'."

However, while the general public adored his interpretations of fairy tales, many scholars felt that Disney had stolen and ruined the classic tales. It is argued that the Disney films are so appealing and wide-spread that they have supplanted the originals.

In the December 1965 issue of Horn Book magazine, Frances Clarke Sayers — who was Senior Lecturer at the School of Library Service and Department of English, UCLA — opined, "I call Mr. Disney to account for his debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, in films and in the books he publishes. He shows scant respect for the integrity of the original creations of authors, manipulating and vulgarizing everything for his own ends.

"His treatment of folklore is without regard for its anthropological, spiritual, or psychological truths. Every story is sacrificed to the 'gimmick' of animation.

"Not content with the films, he fixes these mutilated versions in books which are cut to a fraction of their original forms, illustrates them with garish pictures, in which every prince looks like a badly drawn portrait of Cary Grant, every princess a sex symbol.

"Disney has destroyed something which was delightful, which was an expression of an individual mind and imagination. Read the original classics and compare."

It is apparent that the Disney animated versions have become the definitive versions of certain fairy tales that were originally much more horrific and violent with often unhappy endings. Today, most people accept the Disney adaptations as the "real" story although there are significant differences to previous adaptations.

Disney's Cinderella omits the grisly aspects of the fate her stepsisters.

As Walt told writer David Griffiths for the TV Times of London on March 10, 1959, "The world's fairytale literature has created its witches, its evil fairies, its hags, its 'bad people'. Of course, they're repellent. They have to be.

"But in our movie versions of these venerable morality plays, we have tried to keep all the elements in proper balance of entertainment. We have often eliminated or greatly modified the 'horrific' material in the classic fairytale literature.

"All of the world's great fairytales, it must be remembered, are essentially morality tales, opposing good and bad, virtue and villainy, in dramatic terms easily understood and approved by children.

"Without such a clash of good and evil and the prevalence of goodness – of good people – fairytales like Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty long since would have died because they would have had no meaning."

Walt told writer Bill Balantine from Vista II magazine (Winter 1966-67), "Children's classics always are difficult to translate into our medium, because people have such pre-conceived notions about them."

Disney Producer Harry Tytle stated, "Walt had a knack for stories: finding good ones, spotting weaknesses, changing endings of classics when necessary. He parlayed that talent into building one of the most successful studios in history."

It is important to remember that any alterations Walt made to classic fairy tales so that the stories would be stronger and more relatable to the audiences of his era were in the tradition of the Grimm Brothers themselves.

In a society that was not literate, information was not communicated through books but orally. Often the oral version would be continually changed to adapt to the audience or the storyteller's agenda.

Generally these tales were meant to convey a message to young people about the negative consequences of lying, how looks and charming words can be deceiving, how cleverness and quickness can defeat a physically more powerful foe, beware of older women and how hard work could cause a rise in status. Basically, these stories were meant to scare children into living the right moral way.

The Grimm Brothers tried to simply record these stories, but they actually wrote several editions that spanned 1810 to 1857 and each edition featured new alterations and deletions often reflecting their middle class Christian ethos that matched their Protestant beliefs that sometimes significantly changed major plot points.

The Grimms meant for these short stories to be for children and families and to record German culture. The word "fairy tale" in English that was later associated with these stories comes from a collection of stories in the French tradition, published by Madame d'Aulnoy in 1697, that really did involve a lot of fairies in the narratives.

Disney's Sleeping Beauty omits the length of time that it takes for the princess to be awakened.

The earlier oral "peasant" versions of the folktales actually promoted lying, cheating, stealing, killing and anything that would help someone survive and get out of poverty. The stories emphasized that an element of luck was also important. It was the later Grimm versions that became the morality tales known today.

Walt's adaptations tried to mirror the American middle-class Christian family culture of his era.

Walt said, "Literary versions of old fairy tales are usually thin and briefly told. They must be expanded and embellished to meet the requirements of theater playing time, and the common enjoyment of all members of movie-going families.

"The screen version must perceive and emphasize the basic moral intent and the values upon which every great persistent fairy tale is found. I think we have made the fairy tale fashionable again.

"We translate the ancient fairy tale into its modern equivalent without losing the lovely patina and the savor of its once-upon-a-time quality. We have proved that the age-old kind of entertainment based on the classic fairy tale recognizes no young, no old.

"It has always been my hope that our fairy-tale films will result in a desire of viewers to read again the fine, old original tales and enchanting myths on the home bookshelf or school library. Our motion picture productions are designed to augment them, not to supplant them."

Here is a brief recap of some of the original stories of the famous fairy tale princesses from the final seventh edition in 1857 keeping in mind that the Grimm Brothers always kept changing things.

For instance the first version of Snow White in the 1810 edition had the mother not a step mother trying to kill Snow White for fear that her husband might be erotically interested in such a beautiful daughter. It is the father not some unknown prince who rescues the girl.

Snow White

In the Grimm version, Snow White's mother dies in childbirth which is why her father remarries so that his child will have a mother. Snow White is seven years old when the Magic Mirror tells the queen that the little girl is more beautiful than she is.

The hunter brings back a lung and liver of a deer not a heart as proof that Snow White is dead and the queen cooks and eats them. When she discovers Snow White is still alive, she disguises herself as an old peddler woman and tries to kill the little girl three times. First by lacing her up in a corset so tightly that she can't breathe and collapses but is saved by the dwarfs.

In the original Snow White tale, the queen tries to kill the princess herself three times.

Then, the queen devises a poison comb that causes Snow White to collapse when it is stuck in her hair but she is once again saved by the seven dwarfs. Finally, the queen comes up with the poison apple and disguises herself as a farmer's wife. Part of the apple is non-poisonous so the queen takes a bite from that convincing Snow White to take a bite of the poisonous side.

When they came home dwarfs could find nothing to remove to revive her and wept for three days and then made a translucent glass coffin for the little girl. They placed the coffin on a mountain and one dwarf always stood guard because the body did not decay.

A king's son came into the forest and saw the coffin and offered to buy the little girl. The dwarfs refused but were eventually convinced to give him the girl. But as the prince's servants carried the coffin, they stumbled and dislodged the bit of apple in her throat and she returned to life.

The prince and Snow White marry and at the wedding, the queen is put in burning red hot shoes and forced to dance until she dropped dead.


A rich man's wife fell ill and died but before her passing urged her young daughter to remain pious and good. In a year, he remarried a woman who had two daughters who were physically beautiful but foul and black of heart. It was they who dressed the young girl in rags and made her do housework while they taunted her.

With no bed, the girl lay down by the hearth in the ashes and was called Cinderella. The king ordered a three-day celebration for all virgins in the kingdom to come so his son could pick a bride. Cinderella was not allowed to go because she had no proper clothes or shoes.

The stepmother shook out a bowl of lentils into the ashes and told Cinderella if she could gather them all in two hours and separate the good from the bad that she could go. Cinderella called upon her friends the birds to come and help her. The task was completed in one hour but when Cinderella showed the bowl to the stepmother the woman said they would be embarrassed by Cinderella attending so she could not come.

As the others left, Cinderella went to a hazel tree that grew on her mother's grave and have been watered with the girl's tears. When Cinderella wished she could go to the celebration a little bird appeared and gave her a golden and silvery dress and slippers embroidered with silk and silver.

When she went to the celebration, nobody recognized her and thought she was a foreign princess. The prince did not want to dance with anyone else. However, as evening arrived, Cinderella ran away.

The original Cinderella story had a three-day celebration with three balls and three dresses for the princess.

The next day, the bird gave her and even more beautiful dress and once again at the end of the evening she ran away. On the third and final day, the bird gave her the most glorious dress ever and golden slippers. As with the two previous nights, the prince only wanted to dance with her.

That night as she tried to run away, the prince had coated the stairway with pitch and so her left slipper was stuck as she escaped. The prince searched the kingdom for the woman who could fit into the slipper since small feet indicated royalty.

One of the stepsisters cut off her big toe to try to make her foot fit but the prince discovered the deception. The second stepsister cut off her heel but that deception was also revealed. The stepmother did not want to allow Cinderella to try on the slipper because she was so dirty but the prince insisted and the girl's foot slid into it as if it was poured into it.

When the stepsisters attended the wedding hoping to get part of Cinderella's new fortune, doves pecked out both their eyes.

In the French version of the story, her slippers were glass ("verre") because at the time glass was still a rare and highly expensive substance, but by the 1800s, it was common enough for the Grimms to replace it with gold which was much more expensive and rare.

Sleeping Beauty

When a beautiful baby is born to a king and a queen, a festival is held and the king invites the wise women of his kingdom to attend. There are thirteen of them but since he only has twelve gold plates and utensils he omits inviting one of them.

The wise women bestowed the baby with magical gifts like virtue and beauty but as the twelfth was about to bestow her gift, the neglected thirteenth woman appeared and declared the girl would prick her finger in her fifteenth year and fall dead. The twelfth could not undo the curse but changed it so that the girl would not die but fall into a hundred years' sleep.

The king ordered all spindles burned. On her fifteenth birthday, the princess was exploring the castle and found a stairway up to an old tower. In a small room at the top she found an old woman spinning her flax on a spindle. The curious girl touched the spindle that she had never seen in her life and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

At the same time, everything and everybody in the kingdom fall asleep as well. A hedge of thorns began to grow around the castle and continued to get larger every year. A myth spread about the sleeping princess, and princes who tried to penetrate the wall of thorns ended up getting entangled and died.

In the original Sleeping Beauty tale, the princess was cursed due to a shortage of table settings.

When one hundred years had passed another prince who had heard the myth decided to find the castle and the sleeping girl and the thorns had changed to flowers so he was able to enter. He found the girl and gave her a kiss and she awoke and eventually everything and everybody else did as well.

The prince and princess married.

The original version dealt with the rape of a sleeping woman by a wandering prince (who was married) and she was only awakened when she gave birth to twin babies who began suckling on her. The Grimms almost immediately removed that plot point and any other sexual references.

Other princesses

Not all of the stories of Disney princesses came from the Grimms.

The story of the little mermaid does not come from the Grimms but from Hans Christian Andersen in 1836. In the story, mermaids do not have souls and the little mermaid hopes to gain one through marriage to a young human prince she rescued.

The mermaid does indeed make a deal with a sea witch to get human legs, although she has to hack out her tongue with a knife in exchange.

In the Andersen tale, the prince marries someone else, a princess from a neighboring kingdom who he believes saved him when he was shipwrecked. The mermaid can save her life and regain her fins by killing him on his wedding night.

She refuses to do so and becomes sea foam but because of her sacrifice is given the opportunity to do good deeds for three hundred years to earn her way into heaven. She does not have a name in the story.

The story of Beauty and Beast came from a female French writer whose stories often featured lessons on manners and propriety for young girls. The story is sort of an instruction manual for girls facing the prospect of arranged marriages, which are not about love initially, but over time love can develop. The Beast is meant to convey the animalistic nature of sex.

In the original story, Beauty has multiple siblings who are cruel, vain and selfish. They actually take the place of Gaston who does not exist in the story as the antagonists.

The original story of Aladdin has the princess being pretty clueless. First, she hands Aladdin's magic lamp over to the evil sorcerer because she doesn't know what it is.

She temporarily redeems herself by following Aladdin's instructions to seduce and poison the sorcerer so Aladdin can get his lamp back but then she immediately invites the sorcerer's even more evil younger brother — who has disguised himself as an old lady — to come live with them in the castle.

Fortunately, the genie saves the day.

The stories of the princesses have existed for centuries and continue to resonate with modern generations although they are constantly changing to adapt to new audiences.