It is no real secret that we as a culture have a weakness for fairy tales and their retellings. The overwhelming success of Disney alone is a testament to how much we love to hear familiar stories told in a slightly different way. Indeed Disney does not only retell classic fairy tales, but they sometimes even retell their own–think of the strikingly different stories contained in Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, both Disney films, based on the same fairy tale.
The universal appeal of fairy tales and folktales is not such a difficult thing to understand; they are defined by simple and easily accessible motifs that echo deep truths about the human condition. And because fairy tales and folktales were originally passed down orally, the idea of editing and changing the story with each telling is, well, a tale as old as time in some respects. This is what makes me such great fodder for modern stories; indeed it has become its own literary genre, and an incredible number of recent buzz-worthy and bestselling books fall into it.
Think Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle, or Gregory Maquire’s Wicked (which has since been re-told again as a highly popular musical – isn’t this fun?). And because fairy tales and folktales tend to involve magic or other elements of the uncanny, novelized retellings tend to fall into the fantasy genre (or, with some of the really creative ones, the sci-fi genre). In this post I’ll be taking a look at three approaches to the retelling genre and focusing on two books in each (with the exception of the four book series in category three) and thinking about what works and what doesn’t.
This discussion will not contain plot spoilers, but if you happen to feel like maybe you don’t want to know anything at all about the books before you read them (which is hard because they are, you know, fairy tale retelling so…. you probably already know the basic story) this may not be the post for you!
1. Grounding the Tale
In my humble opinion, the type of retelling that takes a fairy tale and places it in a historical setting and breathes real life into it is, perhaps, the strongest approach. The “once upon a time” becomes, “Once, in this place that you are at least vaguely familiar with, where people actually did things, this cool thing didn’t happen but I’m going to make you believe it did.” I dig that, and and it tends to be the classic way to go about doing a retelling (think Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley).
One such story that takes this approach is The Great Hunt by Wendy Higgins, a retelling of “The Singing Bone.” It shows up on most lists of must-read retellings and was on several most-anticipated lists for Teen books in 2016. While The Great Hunt does take place in the fictional kingdom of Eurona, Eurona is so clearly the British Isles that I actually kept forgetting it was not supposed to be taking place in Scotland. And aside from the magical beast that is plaguing the kingdom, The Great Hunt is really grounded in real life, with characters going about their daily lives either afraid of the idea of magic or totally ignoring its reality. Characters and settings are all historicized and largely realistic, with perhaps the glaring exception of a kingdom where royalty marries only for love. What results is a tale that, as you read, feels like it could really have happened, and that Higgins is just adding in some fantastical elements to exaggerate the story the way all great storytellers do.
I think that no one does this better than Juliet Marillier. My opinion is, admittedly, slightly biased by my intense and undying love for Marillier and all her work. She, too, has dipped her fingers in Teen fairy tale retellings, with her books showing up on various “best of” lists, particularly Heart’s Blood (Beauty and the Beast) and Wildwood Dancing (12 Dancing Girls meets Princess and the Frog in Translyvannia). But nothing beats her debut novel, Daughter of the Forest, which is based on the Swans fairy tale.
Marillier takes a real-world dark ages setting in Ireland, including political conflicts and the conversation between the old religion and the growing influence of Christianity, and introduces the story of a girl whose brothers are turned into swans and she must torture herself in silence for several years in order to undo the spell and save them. And while obviously magic is present in the book (the entire main plot is about undoing a spell), and at least one character is a witch and other characters are Fair Folk, the story is just so strikingly real. It helps, perhaps, that the POV character does not have any inherent magic; she exists in a world where people don’t believe in magic beyond basic folktales and fears of foreign enchantresses the way many people, historically, have. But Daughter of the Forest reads like a historical tale of a person that really existed in a time that did actually exist and you have to remind yourself that people probably can’t be turned into swans. Probably. I think my favorite thing about Marillier is the way she weaves the tale to suggest that maybe this isn’t so fantastic, maybe it did happen, maybe the problem is that the world has just lost its inherent magic. The fact that so many people in the story itself are entirely unaware of the magic in the world around them and some are never even confronted with this reality makes it even easier to buy.
And this, I think, is what makes the “grounding the tale” approach so powerful. Because if we love fairy tales so much precisely because we feel connected to them, because they tell us something real, what better way to expand the story and retell it than to tell it as though it was real? As though it could have happened? This dreamer right here is a big fan.
2. “Fantisizing” the Tale
Considering most fairy tales include magic or dragons or some otherwise fantastic element, it seems to make sense that a good way to retell the story might be to hype up these elements and just place the story in a wholly fantastic world. Indeed this seems to be the favorite approach of retellings in the Young Adult genre, likely because high fantasy tends to be one of the most popular genres within the YA world. Objectively, this approach is a great one. Let’s take something we know people love (fairy tales/folktales) and add it to something else we know people love (YA fantasy) and it will be great.
And, honestly, maybe it is — but I haven’t found that “great” one yet. Maybe I’m just a scrooge, though. The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine, for example, was highly hyped and I think many people loved, but at least Goodreads suggests I was not the only person to feel like it just fell short. It took the Snow White story, and placed it in a highly, highly “fanticized” world, where characters are half-dragons and the people who have magic have a truly overpowering magic that can literally encompass an entire kingdom. In so many ways I felt like the Snow White story got totally lost in everything else Redwine was trying to build, and not in a good way. Unlike with the grounding tales that say, “What if this story really happened?,” The Shadow Queen said, “No way this story happened, so here’s another story that definitely didn’t happen that is happening right now because I guess there wasn’t too much to the original one so I’m making other stuff up as I go along.”
Reign of Shadows by Sophie Jordan was another such miss. Like The Shadow Queen, it was focused so much on creating a fantastic universe where nothing is anything like our world that the essence of the Rapunzel story got totally lost. Jordan was so busy trying to make the story her own, trying to establish that this was her story and not anyone else’s, that it really didn’t make a lot of sense that she was retelling a classic in the first place. The world of Reign of Shadows was so intensely other, the narrative trying so hard to do something new, that the Rapunzel elements felt out of place and confusing. It left me wondering why she bothered to do a retelling at all if she was so clearly interested in making an original story.
I love me some high fantasy (love it sooooo much), but my foray into high fantasy retellings so far this year has me thinking maybe this isn’t the best way to go. If it’s true (and I think it’d be pretty hard to argue that it isn’t) that we love fairy tales and folktales so much because we connect with them and see how they tell us about our own lives, it seems like maybe we shouldn’t try to retell them in a setting that is wholly and completely other. The impact gets lost, then, and we end up with the issues both Shadow Queen and Reign of Shadows faced: a story at once trying to be original and trying to retell a familiar tale. It seems natural that one of those things will fall by the wayside.
3. The Lunar Chronicles
Yes, they get their own category. I’m not even sorry about that.
Marissa Meyer really created her own special thing with the Lunar Chronicles, and in so many ways it was fantisizing on steroids and I guess it just had enough steroids to work. Meyer took the basics of four fairy tales (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White) and inserted them into a straight sci-fi tale about earth and the moon in the future with moon magic and cyborgs and androids and space pirates and just generally…. a lot. Cinderella is a cyborg, people. The Evil Queen is a moon witch. The kiss is never the punchline, but Meyer still manages to find a way to stay true to the basic tenets of each story while also going off on the most intense creative tangent ever known to the retelling genre and somehow managing to mesh them all together.
If you can Marissa Meyer it, this might be the best way to do retelling because it’s just so absurd and so incredibly creative that it leaves people like me, who are notoriously grouchy readers, just grinning and saying, “You know what, yes. I’ll take it.”
So how about you, readers? Which approach is your favorite?
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.