A lonely, locked-away Rapunzel lets down her long hair in more ways than one and winds up pregnant. The evil stepmother demands Snow White's lungs and liver to snack on, mind you. When the queen finally guesses Rumpelstiltskin's name, the quirky little guy literally rips himself apart.
Imagine the tabloid headlines: Fairy tale creatures gone wild!
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first collection of folk tales in 1812, committing to paper for the first time many of the oral stories gathered from their fellow Germans. (Frenchman Charles Perrault beat them to it with some of the tales; more on that in a moment.) They would release a half-dozen more editions over the next 45 years, mixing in varying degrees of violence and occasional anti-Semitism, and downplaying the sexuality found in certain versions of the same stories, including those first chronicled in Perrault's "Tales of Mother Goose," published in 1695.
Two hundred years later and the Grimms' works first published as "Children's Stories and Household Tales" are more popular than ever, co-opted by Disney Studios in the 20th century as animated vehicles for the big screen, referenced in no small part in popular TV series such as "Grimm" (NBC) and republished in numerous written variations and in more than 160 languages.
They're also the source of ongoing academic debate, from Freudian to feminist. This year alone, folklorists have gathered at bicentennial events around the globe to examine the Grimm brothers' renditions from all angles.
Harvard professor Maria Tatar, author of "The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales," was in Greece earlier this month for such a gathering. Her latest book, "The Annotated Brothers Grimm: The Bicentennial Edition" (W. W. Norton & Co., $35, 552 pages) was released this month.
Tatar believes there are several factors behind the fairy tales' ongoing appeal.
"These are stories that show you no matter how bad it is you can be faced with the worst-case scenario but if you use your wit and have courage, you can get back home again," she said. "Even if we know in the real world that you don't always survive, these are the stories that tell you (that) you do have a chance."
The tales also carry themes and unresolved questions that still plague us, Tatar believes. She cites "Little Red Riding Hood," who strips off her clothes for the wolf in some versions, as an issue of innocence vs. seduction or worse.
"I think John Updike puts it in the best possible way: These stories were the television and pornography of an earlier age," Tatar said. "There were these long winter and summer evenings where you are spinning, carding wool, mending clothes, engaged in all these repetitive labors. We know that whenever you have manual labor, if you have music or song or poetry or stories; it lightens the labor."
Sacramento parent Heike Sharp remembers the Grimm brothers' tales from her own childhood in Germany, the stories always read aloud to her by her grandparents. When she had her own children, she bought a copy of her own and was more than a little surprised by the content.
"As an adult, I was going, 'Wow. This is pretty heavy material for kids,' " said Sharp, whose children are now 10 and 14. "As a kid, I didn't find them scary. They were very normal to me. But as an adult, they're pretty macabre."
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were as much on a political mission as a cultural and literary one when they began gathering folk tales, according to Elisabeth Krimmer, professor of German at the University of California, Davis.
It was the time of the Napoleonic wars, and their hope was to shore up national identity.
"They saw the French take the spoils of war, and they wanted to collect what was truly German," she said. And, surprisingly, they were geared to an adult audience in the first few editions, and rich with academic footnotes.
True, Frenchman Charles Perrault published several of the stories that the Grimms later retold, such as "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood," and more than a century earlier. Still, Tatar calls the brothers "prescient" for rounding up so many tales (roughly 200, all told), especially as industrialization took hold.
"They had a sense that rural areas were becoming less populated. You have just the beginnings of the rise of cities," she said. "I think they anticipated major cultural shifts and wanted to preserve these stories before they disappeared."
The brothers were so successful in contributing toward German pride that they gained additional fans in the 20th century: the Nazis, who found the texts compatible with the nationalistic ideology of "blood and soil" ("blut und boden"). The Grimms wrote three stories with anti-Semitic overtones.
When she included "The Jew in the Brambles" in the first annotated edition, Tatar said, she was asked by British members of the Anti Defamation League to take the book out of circulation.
That's a different response than she often gets from her own students at Harvard, explaining, "First there's the big shock that Disney didn't make up these stories."