For centuries, when people have had to explain the harshness of this world to their children, they’ve turned to fairy tales. Not to soften the blow, or to give things a fictive sheen—rather they’ve used them to stare unflinchingly into the darkest places of the human psyche. They have given us monstrous husbands who murder their brides; starving children abandoned in the woods; beasts, and the beauties who love them. A variety of cultures have adapted these stories to their own needs, and it’s because of this resonance that so many authors go back to fairy tales to explore changes in society. Victorians turned them into harsh but G-rated bromides to keep kids in line, without scaring them too much. Disney scoured off any weirdness and slapped happy, heteronormative endings on every story.
With this in mind I took a look at some of our readers’ favorite fairy tale retellings, especially some of your Twitter suggestions! What I found is that some of the best modern tales use the lens of the fantastic to examine issues of gender, class, and race, going beyond a basic “feminist” version or “racially diverse” version of a story to dig into some of the darkness that haunts society today. The best of the books, television, and film I looked at give us ways to see old stories from new perspectives, and if you’re looking for reading and viewing over the holiday season, the following titles will not let you down.
We can begin with Angela Carter. Her groundbreaking (and terrifying) short story collection, The Bloody Chamber, featured retellings of Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Puss-in-Boots, the Erl-King, and two versions of Little Red Riding Hood. The stories are dark and graphic, returning again and again to horrifying relationships between men and women, with plenty of symbolic blood and feasting, plus some not so symbolic blood. And if you think that men are occasionally likened to wolves, you’re wrong: men are always likened to wolves. This book brought feminist theory into fairy tales, and helped many writers see old stories in new ways.
Robin McKinley has retold several tales in interesting ways, including her first published book, Beauty, which was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It follows the fairy tale’s plot closely in most respects, but the emphasis on inner beauty goes both ways this time—not only does Beast change, but Beauty find herself transformed by love. Deerskin, based on “Donkeyskin,” gets into far darker territory. The original story celebrates a sort of feminine submission and endurance—Donkeyskin chooses to live a life of poverty and servitude to escape her father’s desire to marry her. Her redemption comes about only because of her beauty, and her father ends the tale happily married to another woman. In McKinley’s subversion, Lissar/Deerskin, is raped by her father and forced to flee her home. She is given supernatural powers by a moon goddess, and ends her story by confronting her father, stopping his wedding, and forcing him to face justice for his crime.
Kelly Link’s modernization method is simple on the surface: take a modern person and drop her into the fantastical reality of the tale, then tell her story in a flat, unaffected manner for maximum weirdness. He result is a hyper-internalized meditation on the horror of living in one of these worlds. Take this passage from “Travels with the Snow Queen,” included in the life-changing collection Stranger Things Happen:
“The map that you are using is a mirror. You are always pulling the bits out of your bare feet, the pieces of the map that broke off and fell on the ground as the Snow Queen flew overhead in her sleigh. Where you are, where you are coming from, it is impossible to read a map made of paper. If it were that easy then everyone would be a traveler. You have heard of other travelers whose maps are breadcrumbs, whose maps are stones, whose maps are the four winds, whose maps are yellow bricks laid one after the other. You read your map with your foot, and behind you somewhere there must be another traveler whose map is the bloody footprints that you are leaving behind you.”
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, which was described by Elizabeth Bear as “a masterpiece,” is a haunting look at fairy tales set in modern Providence, Rhode Island. India Morgan Phelps is the unreliable narrator, an artist whose schizophrenia calls everything she sees into question. Her interest in researching tales of drowned women quickly turns into obsession, and obsession that could cost her her art and her life itself. Kiernan’s novel won the Tiptree Award as well as a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.
Catherynne M. Valente gives us a fantastic reimagining of Snow White that wrestles with America’s history in Six-Gun Snow White. “Snow White” in this story is the insulting nickname given to a half-white, half-Crow girl by her wicked stepmother, who wants to taunt her with the pale skin she’ll never have. The girl must learn how to live in a world where violence is everywhere, and there is no place for a half-native, half-white child. Finally deciding to escape her stepmother, she dresses as a man, acquires a pony named Charming, and enlists seven outlaw women to elude the Pinkerton detective chasing her down.
Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” is his retelling of snow White (it’s also his favorite BPAL scent…) and much like his take on Narnia in “The Problem of Susan,” he writes from the perspective of the tale’s “villain” to force people to see the story in a different way. Here, Snow White is probably a vampiric monster, and the Wicked Stepmother is a desperate woman trying to protect her kingdom.
Ellen Datlow’s A Wolf at the Door, a collection for younger readers, also includes a contribution from Gaiman. “Instructions” is a list story breaking down the lessons to be learned from fairy tales, while Gregory Maguire’s “The Seven Stage a Comeback” checks in with the Seven Dwarfs after Snowy leaves them for the Prince, and Delia Sherman tells a tale of magic, art, Manhattan. And more recently, Cecil Castellucci retells the Scandinavian tale “Prince Lindworm” in her story “Brother. Prince. Snake.” by giving us the perspective of the terrible lindworm, who is actually a sad, haunted young man.
Finally, for some reason, 1980s TV was a particularly fairy tale friendly place! Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller were both live action anthology series that ran during the 1980s. The FTT retellings were usually quirky and fun, with hilarious guest stars and directors, including James Earl Jones as the Genie in Tim Burton’s Aladdin, Paul Rubens as Pinocchio, Mick Jagger as a Chinese Emperor (???) and, in my personal favorite episode, an especially mind-blowing Jeff Goldblum as the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs (seen below). The StoryTeller, hosted by John Hurt, was predictably a bit darker, and often told stories like “The Soldier and Death” and “Hans, My Hedgehog,” that weren’t as well-known to American audiences.
You can’t go wrong with a rewatch of either of these series. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a few days off this holiday season, I cannot recommend my two favorite retold fairy tales highly enough! Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et Le Bete, which is, hands down, the most gorgeous movie I’ve ever seen, and an update of The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
What are your favorites? Who did we miss? Who must we read? Which fairy tales do you turn to when life gets scary?
Leah Schnelbach doesn’t trust any fairy tale with a happy ending. However, all of her tweets end well!