Dec 6 2013 10:00am

Fairy Tales for the Modern Age

The Company of Wolves

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.

The Bloody Chamber Angela CarterWe 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.


Stranger Things HappenKelly 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.


Snow Glass Apples Neil GaimanNeil 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.




Wolf at the Door CoverEllen 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!

1. ClintACK
It's a slightly different take on the theme, but "
Once Upon a Time: A Treasury of Modern Fairy Tales" is a book I still remember from decades ago. It's got several great fantasy authors writing completely new stories in the fairy tale genre.
2. brandiv87
I've got a copy of Belle et le Bete sitting around and I've never seen it. May have to! Very interesting article, I enjoyed it! Some of these retellings sound awesome.
A.J. Bobo
3. Daedylus
Thanks for the shout-out to Fairy Tale Theatre. I remember watching that one as a kid.
Heim Kirin Grewal
4. kei_rin
One of my favorite fairy tale re-tellings is Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine which is a re-telling of Cinderella.
Walker White
5. Walker
So why do you lead with a still from Neil Jordan's Company of Wolves and not mention it at all?
6. Annosk
I loved the take on fairy tales by the Polish author
Andrzej Sapkowski in his stories about Geralt. The first (and the best) ones are translated in English. The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher
Walker White
7. Walker

I am not sure I would consider Sapkowaki's work to be fairy tales. It is more traditional fantasy. If anything the style of his Hussite Trilogy (never translated to English) is a closer fit.
8. Juushika
The video game The Path may be second only to Carter's work as my favorite Red Riding Hood retelling, and is in fact similar to Carter: evocative, seductive, gruesome explorations of the five wolves encountered by five girls who stray into a forest.

The TV miniseries The 10th Kingdom isn't an exhaustive retelling of any one fairy tale, but harvests from and remixes a handful of them and has some particularly beautiful things to say about Snow White (and, like Gaiman's "Instructions," about fairy tales as a united mythology).

There's a number of female fantasist who've written evocative retellings: McKillip's Winter Rose, Dean's Tam Lin, Napoli's Zel, Lanagan's Tender Morsels, and a handful of Datlow/Windling anthologies (Wolf in the Door being one the less impressive, to be honest) aren't individually required reading, help to build one of my favorite genres.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
I would suggest that Star Wars and film series' of its ilk are the modern equivalent of fairy tales, tales shared widely enough that they become part of the culture and our common lore.
Even if they use the tropes of fairy stories, I wouldn't think of individual novels as modern equivalents of these tales.
10. Jan the Alan Fan
There are two retellings of Sleeping Beauty I like - Spindles End by Robin McKinley and The Gates of Sleep by Mercedes Lackey.

I also like Games of Command by Linnea Sinclair, the sci-fi retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier'.
11. Eugene R.
When modern (or revisionist) fairy tales come to mind, following right behind Angela Carter is Tanith Lee (Red as Blood, or Tales of the Sisters Grimmer, 1983). Truly, the 1980s were a great time for fairy re-tale-ing.

Sometimes, I hear echoes of fairy tales throughout science fiction. One such reverb is Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy", a re-imagining of "The Ugly Duckling". Dr. Asimov also contributed a tale ("Prince Delightful and the Flameless Dragon") to the anthology that ClintACK (@1) mentions, Once Upon a Time: A Treasury of Modern Fairy Tales. (Note: This book is worth looking into for the illustrations if nothing else.)
12. Qu'est-ce que c'est
Well, there is always "Let Stalk Strine" for the hardcore aspect:
Furry Tiles: Sick humour for kiddies. These are stories which begin with the words, `One spawner time...' and then describe in graphic and revolting detail various acts of murder, mayhem and treachery, such as `... he drew out a sharp knife and cut off the head of the wicked
brother', and `At nightfall they came to the edge of a deep forest and the young maiden did what the witch told her -- she cut out the young huntsman's heart and threw it down the well. Then she wept bitter tears and could not be comforted and they lived happily ever after.'
Because of their violence and gloomy horror, such stories are naturally, very popular with young children, and it is surprising that so few Strine furry tiles exist. Those that do are usually variations on the theme of `If we are returned to power...' or `You may rest assured that I shall leave no stone unturned.'
And then there's the wild, far-out take on "winning the Princess' hand in marriage" I found online ...
13. SJ
I love so many of these and will try and look into the others.

Thinking of other adaptations reminded me of the wheel of time (spoilers for last books included). RJ always adapted from a wide range of mythological sources but in the last books there are some fairy tale parallels too:
Egwene and Cinderella - forced to work in the ashes by her wicked sisters, she ends up 'queen' and married to a prince
Moiraine and Rapunzel - she's trapped in a tower and (one) of her rescuers is (partly) blinded trying to save her. Then Nynaeve loses her braid too ...
And of course Birgitte tells a hansel and gretal story of her former life
Just a thought that fairy tales sneak in everywhere
14. a1ay
A big feature of my childhood was Roald Dahl's "Revolting Rhymes"... Cinderella realises that the Prince is a bit of a thug ("In the kitchen, peeling spuds/Cinderella heard the thuds/ Of bouncing heads upon the floor/ And poked her own head round the door") and bins him, to marry a decent man who makes and sells jam. Snow White steals the Magic Mirror and uses it, with the help of the Seven Dwarfs, to make a fortune betting on horse races. ("And ever after, day by day,/ The Mirror made the bookies pay./ Which shows that gambling's not a sin/ Provided that you always win".)

Great stuff..
15. Iggy.I
I've just read "The Witch of Duva" by Leigh Bardugo, from a Tor sampler. Great story telling, all the elements of good fairy tales are present (including the dark, disturbing overtones, often including sex and cannibalism, that I think are essential to the genre). "Help me stir the pot". I was mesmerised.
William Gardner
16. myangelsman09
The series the Witcher has a knack for this, especially the first book "The Last Wish". The author likes the reimagine the old tales into his world and narrative in very murky dark circumstances, his hero tends to stand against them, and despite them tending to be the evils from the Grimm days, it ends up often morally ambiguous about the nature of right and wrong in say a Beauty and the Beast where the beast is grumpy but well spoken while the beauty is silent and eerie; or when the Snow White analog is only passingly mentioned to have lived with the seven dwarves and it's suggested it wasn't all a hi-ho fun romp, and she has become somewhat viscious over her traumas. Quite a complex, but pulpy-good, violent and pensieve book.
17. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller
We might well call them the "Golden Eighties" for fairy tales retold either in book or cinematic form. Unless I missed it, I'm amazed that no one has mentioned (except a passing reference to Pamela Dean's superb resetting of the old Scottish ballad of "Tam Lin" on a modern day college campus) the 'Fairy Tale Series' edited by Terri Windling for Ace during that time frame. One of my treasures is Charles de Lint's brilliantly evocative retelling of "Jack the Giant-Killer" (the Wild Hunt as a motorcycle gang!!!) where a modern day Canadian Jackie takes on Unseelie forces. Jane Yolen's version of "Briar Rose" against a concentration camp background is heart-breaking, and Kara Dalkey created a fascinating Oriental 'take' on the Emperor's same in "The Nightingale." The Series also includes "Snow White, Rose Red" in an Elizabethan setting if I remember correctly...not sure but I believe Patricia Wrede wrote that one. I also think I should mention (since no one else has) that Elizabeth Ann Scarborough has ripped her concerns out of today's newspapers, tackled a variety of contemporary ills by updating their fairy tale counterparts within a modern Seattle setting in "The Godmother". GRAND reading ALL!!!!!!!
18. the captain
I love the graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, which is for younger readers but is so much fun! Other authors with great fairy tale stuff are Vivian Vande Velde (The Rumpelstiltskin Problem is very funny) and Donna Jo Napoli, plus Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters books are interesting retellings.
19. Ashiva
Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty is interesting but rather dark take on many different fairytales. Wouldn't recommend it for people who don't like feminist literature though.
20. Ryce
I'm currently in love with Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles series, which are futuristic retellings of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White.
21. Spikeabell
Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens is a fab retelling of Rapunzel, a fascinating blend of 17C times and fairytale lore. Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest (Seven swans), Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer (Tam lin), Eowyn Ivy's Snow Child, Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts (Selkie's)
@Ellie, I love everything on your list too, especially Jack the Giant Killer by DeLint and Tam Lin from Pamela Dean.
@Ashiva, Tepper's Beauty is one of my all time favourites.
22. Cori
I also want to throw into the mix Robert Coover and Gregory Maguire, both authors who work largely in the realm of subverting fairy tales. In a similar tone to Fairy Tale Theatre (just shorter and animated) was Rocky and Bullwinkle's Fractured Fairy Tales.
23. Olivier
Small correction: it's "La belle et la bête", not "le bete".
24. Olivier
PS: You might also enjoy Juraj Herz's cinematic take on the tale. It's not the least bit gorgeous, unlike Cocteau's movie, but nevertheless very worth watching.
Rachel Carthy
25. xenobathite
Michael Gruber's The Witch's Boy is a favourite of mine - not least because it's a shock when you realise what it's a retelling of!
26. Copper
Throwing in a bit late, but adding to the mix because of a Christmas gift, actually, with a few more ideas to add, too.

Happy to see the mention of McKinley's Beauty on the list, since that was one of my favorites when I was growing up. Spent a couple of years tracking down a copy of it with my favorite cover on it, heh.

#18 mentioned Rapunzel's Revenge, which I immediately thought of when I saw "Six-Gun Snow White," especially due to the "wild west" theme.

There's also a series out there called "Once Upon a Time" by Cameron Dokey that features retellings of various iconic stories (Arabian Nights, Rapunzel, Snow White, Little Mermaid, etc.) I haven't started the series yet, as some are missing from my collection, but they seem like a good addition to the list.

Which brings around the show "Once Upon a Time," too, which seems an obvious mention, though I don't see it listed. I've enjoyed the first season and got busy for the second, but I plan on making a trip back eventually.

And finally, the one that prompted the comments, which is fairly new to the market in Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends. It's based on a line of dolls by Mattel and tells the story of the children of iconic fairy tale characters who are expected to embrace their destinies as the next generation of story characters. Except, throwing a monkey wrench in the works is Raven Queen (daughter of the Evil Queen that poisons Snow White), who doesn't "feel" evil and who doesn't want to become evil. There are some punny moments, like Raven remarking about how her teacher, Madam Maid Marian can pull off wearing a cone hat when very few people can, and modern touches in an otherwise fantasy universe (MirrorPhones, 'hexting' instead of 'texting,' etc) but it's cute and refreshing to see such a different take on the characters. Things are a bit fuzzy on what constitutes a fairy tale, as there are several Wonderland characters in the book, as well as a Cupid character and nursery rhyme characters, too, but they all work very well together, I think. I and a friend blew through the book in a day each, but it brings up a lot of interesting questions about choice and destiny and what shapes us into who we really are.
27. jezzagreen
I hope it is OK here to mention one's own book! I'm the author of "One Shoe Tale", a retelling of Cinderella in the style of hardboiled detective fiction. It's set in an alternative history context (an alternative history Hungary of the 1600s).

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