True love’s kiss

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Illustration, Frog, From Meika Gafu, 1814, New York Public Library Digital Gallery

Waiting for a kiss. Or decapitation.
Image: “Frog,” Meika Gafu, 1814, New York Public Library Digital Gallery

A kiss is just a kiss. . . or is it?

No single fairy tale motif is more pervasive in American popular culture than “true love’s kiss.” It is the archetypal mechanism of transformation in our contemporary fairy tale tradition, with the power to wake comatose maidens, change animals and monsters into handsome princes, and prevent foolish mermaids from turning into sea foam (in the Disney version, anyway).

And clearly this comes from the authentic fairy tale tradition, right? Not so fast. Behind these chaste kisses is a rich history of sex and violence.

In the Brothers Grimm’s version of “The Frog King, or Iron Henry” (tale type ATU 440)—the first tale in their classic Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812), which celebrates its bicentennial later this year—the disenchantment occurs thanks to an act of passion and rage after the frog demands to join the princess in her bed: “This made the princess extremely angry, and after she picked him up, she threw him against the wall with all her might” (Grimm et al. 4). When he lands on the floor it is as the handsome prince rather than as frog.

Other oral versions of this fairy tale are even more violent. In “The Well at the World’s End,” a Scottish version, the heroine decapitates the frog in order to disenchant him.

Snow White (ATU 709) fares little better in the Grimms’ version. Besotted by the comatose Snow White’s beauty, the prince tries to purchase her from the dwarfs. She awakens, not with a kiss, but when one of the prince’s servants trips while carrying her glass coffin, thus dislodging the chunk of poisoned apple from her throat.

Other versions are more suggestive of the hero’s necrophiliac desires. In a Scottish version, “Lasair Gheug, the King of Ireland’s Daughter” (Tatar 90-96), the female protagonist marries a king and has three sons before her stepmother kills her. The king then keeps her dead body in a lead casket within a locked room and visits her twice daily, even after he remarries.

But the most disturbing is Sleeping Beauty (ATU 410). Though the Grimms’ version, “Briar Rose,” does include the disenchantment by kiss motif (D1978.5), older versions make it clear that the prince did not stop at a mere kiss.

Giambattista Basile’s “The Sun, the Moon, and Talia,” the fifth story of the fifth day of Il Pentamerone, a 17th-century Neapolitan collection of fairy tales, makes the rape motif explicit. In this version, a (married) king finds Sleeping Beauty sleeping and is unable to waken her by yelling. Enflamed by her beauty, “he carried her in his arms to a bed and picked the fruits of love” (Basile and Canepa 414). Nine months later, the sleeping Talia gives birth to twins. She awakens when one of her children, searching for a nipple, sucks on her finger instead, removing the flax that enchanted her.

Despite Disney’s efforts to sanitize fairy tales and package them for children, sex and violence have been important central themes for centuries.

From terrifying to cute, endearing, or romantic, when and why did the transition from violence to kissing occur? Today we expect fairy tales to be romantic, but did their original audiences?

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Linda J. Lee is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.

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Basile, Giambattista, and Nancy L. Canepa. Giambattista Basile’s the Tale of Tales, or, Entertainment for Little Ones. Series in Fairy-Tale Studies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007. Print.

Grimm, Jacob, et al. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Bantam third expanded ed. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books, 2003. Print.

Tatar, Maria M. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. A Norton Critical Edition. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.