What gives fairy tales such power? Why do writers return to them, again and again? And what do fairy tales reveal about the people who love, hate, and choose to retell them?
Thursday’s Fairy Tale Remix panel at San Diego Comic-Con explored all of these questions, with an entertaining, well-matched panel of new and veteran authors who have all put their own spin on traditional tales. Moderated by Shannon Hale (Ever After High series), the panel brought together Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles), Cornelia Funke (The Inkheart trilogy), Ben Tripp (The Accidental Highwayman), Tony DiTerlizzi (The Spiderwick Chronicles), Danielle Page (Dorothy Must Die), John Peck (Charming series), and Katherine Harbour (Thorn Jack) to talk character development, genre mashing, and their particular approaches to reclaiming and reinterpreting fairy tales.
Hale opened the panel by cautioning the audience that “if there’s a reality shift, you may feel slightly queasy.” It seemed an apt warning, since one of the panelists, Ben Tripp, was already dressed as an eighteenth century gentleman (with a wig that he soon found couldn’t withstand the San Diego heat), and the abundance of imaginative power in the room was palpable.
The panelists started off by discussing their favorite childhood fairy tales, citing a wide variety of stories, from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books to “Cinderella” to “The Six Swans” to “The Goose Girl.” Meyer said The Little Mermaid became her favorite fairy tale when she saw the movie in theaters and fell in love with the bright, musical Disney version of the narrative. She received an early lesson in the mutability of fairy tales, though, when her well-meaning grandmother gave her a book containing the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story, in which the titular mermaid feels knives slicing her feet every time she walks on land, and eventually throws herself into the sea in despair, dissolving into foam. It was a little traumatic, Meyer acknowledged, but it got her thinking: “What else is Disney not telling us?”
“I probably don’t have to explain,” said Funke, on the question of what drew her to fairy tales. “I am German. And there was no doubt about what version you read.” Tripp had a similar introduction to fairy tales, with a father who read him all of the original versions, “where everyone dies at the end and everyone’s a cannibal and it’s all long and boring.” Peck “found the Grimms pretty boring as a kid,” but then discovered the darker, bloodier Hans Christian Andersen versions, which appealed to his sensibilities as an eight-year-old boy.
But love wasn’t the only emotion they associated with these stories: for many of the authors, their strongest reaction to fairy tales was hate. “Hate can be powerful,” said Hale, going on to explain that she retold the tale of Rapunzel in Rapunzel’s Revenge because it is “the stupidest. Story. Ever. They’ve got all this raw silk in the kingdom the prince keeps bringing her, but no rope?” Cornelia Funke stressed that she hated fairy tales as a child, but that she listened to them every night, and found herself turning them over in her mind, exploring the layers and metaphors long after the end of tale.
Danielle Page mentioned a similar motivation for writing Dorothy Must Die, a follow-up to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: “I kept thinking about what happened when Dorothy went back to Kansas, after being in this magical world. Why would you stay there? She keeps saying, ‘I want to go home.’ Really? Why?” (“Yeah,” chimed in DiTerlizzi, “it’s the Dust Bowl! It’s the worst time to be in Kansas!”) This led to a discussion of whether works like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz qualify as a fairy tales, and the particular American experience of seeing a new fairy tale come to life, with Washington Irving and Mark Twain named as two of the writers who had successfully pulled off the creation of original, compelling fairy tales.
Fairy tales already comprise a mishmash of genres, from fantasy to historical narrative to parable, so, as Hale pointed out, “it’s easy to slide a new genre in there, like Marissa did with science fiction.” In traditional fairy tales, several panelists noted, the reader takes everything for granted, and characters lack real development, with motivations and personalities sketched in only the faintest of outlines. When an author chooses to retell a tale, they’re able to explore those unturned pages, and invent answers to the questions that often bugged them as kids, or occurred to them as adults.
DiTerlizzi mentioned that becoming a parent made him consider the orphan trope so often used in fairy tales very differently, and consider the intensely traumatic effect that losing a parent would have on a child, which is rarely explored in traditional tales. “In the eighteenth century,” Tripp added, “being an orphan was not that unusual. Now it’s a key thing, but it used to be a background element.”
Fairy tales are mirrors of our time, Funke asserted, especially when it comes to portrayals of women. In the earliest versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, the girl and her grandmother saved themselves, and the definitive lumberjack-as-hero version only came with the Grimms. Now women are retelling those tales, recasting their roles, and digging up the roots of these stories to find new ways to reclaim them. This brought up the question of whether writers have the “right” to retell tales, to which the panelists naturally responded with an emphatic “yes.” No story, Peck asserted, is beautiful unless you add something new to it. “In my writing,” Funke said, “I want to travel—if I live long enough—to go once around the world…Fairy tales are like travel guides. They give you the secret beliefs of a place, the weather, landscapes, old gods.”
When Hale opened up the panel to the audience, the discussion expanded to the question of whether reinterpreting fairy tales is truly different from writing fanfiction, how to pare down the wealth of research material available on fairy tales when penning one’s own version, and what, exactly, constitutes a fairy tale in the first place.
Meyer, who got her start writing Sailor Moon fanfiction, explained that fanfic was the catalyst in her choice to combine science fiction with fairy tales, inspired by a NaNoWriMo contest on fellow fanfic writer’s site where she had to pick two elements from a list and write a story about them. “I chose: 1) set it in the future, and 2) include a fairy tale character,” which led to the writing of Cinder, her debut novel. So, in Meyer’s eyes, retelling fairy tales isn’t that different from writing fanfiction, except that in fanfiction, the characters are firmly defined, with less of the space for reinterpretation that traditional fairy tales offer.
When faced with multiple versions of a tale, the panelists said, writers should use “whatever speaks to you,” “things you like,” or, said Meyer, “things you don’t.” Funke said she uses about five percent of her research, and spends a year-and-a-half on each book. Stories should have intricate texture and complexity, she said, and writers should never underestimate their readers. The story should be able to bear the full weight of a highly attentive reader: “You want to weave to make a carpet, not a napkin.”
As to what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale, the panelists all agreed that both “challenges” and “magic” had to be at play, with Tripp defining the crucial aspect as “the intrusion of magic into someone’s problems.” “How do you find the magic?” one audience member asked, to which Funke replied, “How do you not find it? There is so much in this room that I would call magic…we are just the reporters of that.” “Magic is out there,” Tripp added. “Artists and writers go find it.”
Katharine Duckett coordinates book coverage for Tor.com, and enjoys reading the creepiest, goriest versions of fairy tales she can find (meaning, apparently, that she would fit in well in Germany). You can find her on Twitter (@kekduckett).