Fairy Tales

Anne here, talking about fairy tales. I've been indulging myself lately, reading fairy tales for adults — and no, I'm not talking about Fifty Shades of anything, just the usual fairy tales most of us grew up with, only retold for adults of today. (The pic. on the right is Fairy Tales  by Mary Gow (1851—1929)Fairy-tales

I'm also not talking about stories that riff off old and beloved tales, like the many romances spun around the Cinderella, or the Beauty and the Beast theme, which I've done in a number of my books; I'm talking about the retelling of the original stories more or less as is.

It started when I was talking to my friend Jenny and the conversation drifted to what we've been reading, as it usually does. She told me that a few days earlier she'd reread Robin McKinley's Beauty for the umpteenth time and had wept reading it, as she usually does.

Beauty "Sad ending?" I asked, being a terrible wimp about such things.

"No, it's lovely," she said, secretly shocked that I hadn't already read Robin McKinley. "I'll send you a copy."

So she did, and I read it and I loved it. It's a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, and though it sticks pretty much to the original story, it's wonderful—a lush and evocative tale that's told with a freshness and energy that kept me reading far into the night. Spindle'sEnd

Next I read McKinley's Spindle's End — a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, and once more, even though you already know the story, and she doesn't depart radically from it, she brings it to life in a vivid and unexpected way.

I now have her Sunshine to read on the plane when I head up to the Romance Writers of Australia Annual National Conference (where, incidentally Honorary Word Wench Eloisa James is the keynote speaker—and won't that be fun?) Sunshine isn't quite based on the kind of fairytale I grew up with — it's a vampire story. I'm looking forward to it.

RedShoesRackhamSo all this reading of fairy tales retold has started me thinking about other fairytale retelling. I was entranced with fairytales when I was a kid even though I hated the way most of them ended — I still boil with resentment that the poor little girl who wanted the frivolous red shoes was so horribly punished, and every time I buy yet another pair of red shoes, I'm making a gesture of solidarity with that poor child and her desire for something pretty to wear. And as for the Little Match Girl, the image of her burning her matches one by one in the freezing night haunts me still. (pics following are by Arthur Rackham)

Strangely, though I disliked so much about fairy tales, I really enjoy the romance novel retellings of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty and one of my favorites, The Ugly Duckling. The main difference is that in modern versions of fairytales, we prefer the heroine to rescue herself, or at least to have a major role in her own rescue. And the hero and heroine get what they deserve in the end. I love the Jennifer Crusie essay where she talks about this:
RackhamSnowWhite 
"As a child, I’d been looking for myself in fairy tales and finding only disappointments. If I’d been a boy, I could have found great role models in stories like “Jack & the Beanstalk,” with a protagonist who climbed to the top to get what he wanted, grabbed the prize, killed the giant, and came back home a hero. Jack’s story remains a great model for little boys, telling them to be active and quest for what they want in life and they will be rewarded. But what did I have as a girl? Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she’d ever wanted because she had really small feet. The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys’ stories were about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won."

(Read the rest of the essay here and another of her essays dealing with fairy tales here.)

Image So I like the fairy-tale elements in stories, but with a modern day slant toward active heroines and justice prevailing. It might not be as true to life — but it's what I enjoy in my escapist reading. Apparently it's also what I enjoy in my own writing. I just made a list of my own books and tried to work out what fairy tale they were most similar to — some I couldn't categorize, but I did discover that Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Ugly Duckling featured more than once, and Cinderella is a theme I've revisited quite a few times. (Pic on the left is from The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault )

It reminded me of a writing exercise Jane Porter did many years ago when she came to Australia for a conference. In it she asked us to list our favorite fairy tales, and later on she told us the themes in those stories, might well be themes we'd revisit in our own stories. I can't remember which my favorites were when I was a child, but I think I can see the pattern emerging.

So what about you? Did you enjoy fairy tales as a child? Were there any you hated? What modern day writers' version of fairy tales do you enjoy — romances or other kinds of books. Do you have a favorite fairy tale romance, or maybe a movie or even TV show? Share your favorites.