ARE you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time there were stories so gruesome we’d never think of telling them to our children.

There were tales of cannibalism, torture, infidelity and cold-blooded murder. In modern times, we prefer to tell children about beautiful princesses, charming princes and stories that all end happily ever after.

Except there’s a twist, as there always is in a good old-fashioned fairytale. The gruesome stories are the original fairytales and what we serve to our children is often far removed from the original story, heavily censored and sanitised.

The original writers of modern-day fairytales such as the brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and Joseph Jacobs didn’t hold back on the more gruesome aspects of love and life – including poisoning and death. What they did was synthesise old folk-law, handed down by word of mouth, into more sanitised stories with meaning for more modern times. One thing the writers did was make the evil characters pay a hefty price, but they also hid many of the flaws of the heroes and heroines.

Who knew that Cinderella murdered her own mother, breaking her neck by slamming a trunk lid shut. The murder was at the behest of her governess, who married Cinderella’s father. In the original, older tales Cinderella was banished to the kitchen and did attend a grand party hosted by a Prince. She also loses a slipper, but it was fur rather than Disney’s iconic glass slipper.

The search for the slipper’s owner was carried out across the kingdom. In an early Scottish version of this story, Rashin Coatie, Cinderella’s step-mother was so keen for her daughters to be the owner of the lost slipper she cut pieces of flesh off their feet to try and make it fit. In this tale, a murderer, Cinderella, lives happily ever after. Grimm ensured that the “ugly sisters” were punished by having their eyes pecked out by songbirds.

Disney’s Snow White more closely follows the early folk-lore tales of an evil Queen out to destroy a beautiful younger women. Although Disney keeps in the attempted murder of Snow White through poisoning, the original tale was much more gruesome.

The evil Queen was Snow White’s biological mother. The Queen sends a huntsman to find and kill Snow White. For proof, he was to bring back her liver and lungs for the Queen to cook and eat. But Snow White most certainly isn’t as innocent and sweet as we imagine. Having survived the attempts to murder her, she invites her mother to her wedding. At the wedding party she forces her mother to wear specially made iron shoes heated in a fire until they glowed. The evil Queen’s feet were horrifically burned, but Snow White forces the Queen to keep dancing until she dies.

Other fairytales and stories have very old origins. Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin are believed to be based on tales dating back 4,000 years. But what is the purpose of a good fairytale and why do we tell them to children? Apart from being fun, they can have a serious purpose.

Fairytales are a way of broaching difficult subjects and real-life issues from the safety of imagination. If we look at fairytales they do address many issues that children find difficult – from growing up and becoming an adult and our resistance to that, as exemplified in Peter Pan, to dealing with the break-up of a marriage or loss of a parent and the introduction of a step-family. The original fairytales were indeed gruesome and were intended as a warning of the dangers facing young people, such as Hansel and Gretel who were abandoned by their parents and, even worse, taken in by an evil “witch” who lived deep in the forest and wanted to cook and eat them.

We have for the most part sanitised these stories. The accepted modern versions, such as those produced by Disney, are pure entertainment but if we use them for bedtime reading there is always the opportunity to engage children in meaningful discussions about things that worry them.

Although one good thing about the modern tales is the classic fairytale ending, real life sadly does not always end happily ever after.

By confronting our difficulties, however, we have a much better chance of surviving them and dealing with the consequences. Reading to children and encouraging them to love reading is crucial to their well-being and development. With Christmas just around the corner, never underestimate the value of a good book as a present for a child. It can open up new worlds and boost creativity.