So there’s a Grimm Brothers fairy tale about a mouse, a bird, and a talking sausage who live together. (I am not making this up.) The sausage is the cook. In order to season food, she—yes, she’s identified as a female sausage—jumps into the pan and slithers around, sweating grease and spices on the food.
Anyway, one day the bird decides that the mouse and the sausage have it too easy and they all switch jobs. The sausage goes out to gather wood and is set upon by a dog, who claims (I am still not making this up) that the sausage is guilty of carrying forged letters and thus he is allowed to eat her. The bird sees this, goes home, and tells the mouse. They decide to stay together in memory of their friend the sausage, but then the mouse does the cooking, jumps into the pot like the sausage, and is of course roasted alive. The bird, horrified, accidentally sets the house on fire and drowns in the well trying to get water to put it out.
The moral of this story is presumably that everyone’s job is hard and you should just keep your eyes on your own work, and also that mice are not bright and talking sausages are often guilty of postal fraud.
Now, I retell fairy tales for a living. Wearing one hat, I’m the author of the Hamster Princess series for kids, which are all based on fairy tales, and wearing my other hat, I’m T. Kingfisher, and write novel-length fairy tale retellings for grown-ups.
Neither one of me is going to be able to do a good retelling of the Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage.
It’s not that I can’t see the appeal! I have visions of a Disney Princess sausage, attended by little bacon fairies! The pixie dust and the musical number, where our naturally-cased heroine is suddenly wearing a glittering ball gown! The whole-wheat bun coach, pulled by rearing wursts in harness, tossing their sauerkraut manes! The…yeah, okay, it’s not gonna happen.
I love fairy tales. I can re-write Bluebeard all day long. I can tackle Sleeping Beauty from multiple angles (and have). I own more versions of Beauty and the Beast than is probably emotionally healthy. And I love the ones with surreal imagery the most: the husband turned into a stone lion by day, the moon with iron teeth that says “I smell human flesh,” the saints named after days of the week and the hero made out of an alder log.
Fairy tales tend to violate dozens of rules of good storytelling. They’re often long and rambling, as if the storyteller was holding out for another beer before wrapping up the plot. There are dropped threads and whole subplots that go nowhere and when the villain needs to be disposed of at the end—“Uh, I dunno, she got so mad that she exploded into pebbles. Yeah. That’s absolutely what happened.” If you tried to workshop a story like this, the teacher would pull you aside and have a gentle word.
But this is what makes fairy tales so much fun to work with!
You can pitch out the bits you don’t like and focus on the ones you do. You have vast reams of material to work with. “Princess turns into a peacock, you say. Okay. And she keeps a dragon in a barrel in the basement. Uh-huh, uh-huh … oh, and we have the old woman with the magic horses, too? Excellent. Hang on, is everyone in the city a peacock? It doesn’t say? Oh, I can work with that.”
Sadly, they don’t all work like that. A fair number of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang and all the rest are more like Aesop’s fables, with a definite moral, or failing that, a punchline.
For instance, I love the Grimms’ tale about the musicians of Bremen. I’ve seen magnificent illustrated versions, but it’s not a story I can really work with. Animals form a band and fend off not-very-bright bandits. Change it too much and you’ve lost the punchline. Put the sausage in a princess dress and it’s… well, arguably really really awesome but it’s also not the same story any more.
The wonderful thing about retelling fairy tales, for me, is the constraints. I get blank and panicky when I can write literally anything, but give me a fairy tale and suddenly I have problems to solve and issues to work around. How is the heroine going to escape the moon with iron teeth? And is the moon the actual moon, or a monster, or a person? Is it a palace the color of moonlight with iron spikes around it? What’s a metaphor and what’s reality? Does the princess belong to a family whose royal sigil is the peacock, or is she an honest-to-god were-bird? Suddenly I’m off and racing, and if I get stuck—well, what happens next in the fairy tale?
Hans Christian Andersen wrote the good kind of fairy tales for this. They’re horribly weird and tragic and a happy ending is one where everyone dies in church, but the imagery is often fantastic and there are loose ends you can grab and pull for the length of a novel. And some of the French salon fairy tales are just as marvelous—why on earth does Beauty need a troop of monkey butlers? And the Sheep King is summoning the shadows of the dead to amuse himself? That seems ill-advised.
It’s said that escape artist Harry Houdini loved when he got weighed down with ropes or chains because he had so much slack to work with. The tricky escapes were the ones where there was almost no rope at all. I feel like that sometimes about fairy tale retellings. The more stuff there is in the story, the more strange details and subplots that don’t resolve, the more things that get hand-waved away, the more I’ve got to work with as an author.
Meanwhile, the short, tightly written fables… eh. I’m not saying it’s impossible, by any means, but you’re trying to do an escape trick with almost no rope.
Though I do still feel a pang for the sausage princess and her chargers with sauerkraut manes.
This article was originally published in May 2017.
Ursula Vernon is a full-time author and illustrator whose work has won a Hugo Award and been nominated for an Eisner. She is the creator of the hit series Dragonbreath, which has more than million copies in print. Her standalone novel Castle Hangnail is currently in development for film with Disney, with Ellen DeGeneres producing and TV writer Bill Kunstler signed on to adapt the screenplay. Her latest Hamster Princess book, Giant Trouble, is available now from Dial. Ursula loves birding, gardening, and spunky heroines, and thinks she would make a terrible princess. She lives with her husband in Pittsboro, North Carolina.