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Q: I bought the kids a book of Grimm’s fairy tales for Christmas. There aren’t so many fairies in the stories, but they certainly are grim. What’s up with that?

A: And just think, these are probably the sweetened up versions, not the original, even more graphic tales of seduction, betrayal, incest and other unvarnished attributes of human nature.

The stories are based on folk tales collected over the years and first published in 1812 by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and reflect the oral storytelling traditions of the time. Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Rumpelstiltskin are just some stories featured in earliest editions of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But with their grisly plot lines (just look at poor Hansel — thrown out of the family home by his own father and captured by a witch who wishes to fatten him up to eat him), why would you call these fairy tales to begin with?

The term fairy tale, now used as a generic label for magical stories for children, comes from the French term conte de fées, first coined to describe a group of 17th-century tales directed at an adult audience. During this era, the recounting of magical tales served as a pastime for the upper classes in Paris, and was particularly embraced by women, who felt keenly all the social constraints of the time. Folk tales, on the other hand, have probably been with us for as long as the spoken language, and transport us into a world of sorcerers, talking animals and enchanted spells. Do we have an equivalent in today’s society? Some propose that the urban legend comes close.

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