What is a Fairy Tale Retelling?

“What’s the use of stories if they aren’t even true?” 
– Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Giving this month a title was more problematic than might be apparent. The fairy tale tradition is a body of familiar stories to which most readers were introduced as small children, via retellings. Whether they were picture books, anthologies, movies and television shows or even through oral storytelling. However, even the most casual familiarity with this genre has to reveal that not very many of these stories really deal with fairies and no one story is told the same twice. So why do we call them Fairy Tales? And what, then, should be called a Folk Tale? The origins of fairy and folk tales are embedded in the oral tradition, but even putting all of these stories under the oral tradition umbrella is problematic in that many works (and many that we will blog about this month) are literary. However, bringing up the oral tradition serves as a reminder to us that the first exposure to storytelling has, traditionally, in numerous cultures, been to stories that are narrated aloud and not read from the page, and that many of the stories under consideration here bear elements that remind us of this background. Here the real issue seems to be one of ownership: there is so much cross-pollination and transcription of these stories that to ascribe them to a particular culture, and therefore give them a single title becomes difficult but the fact remains that some of these stories are, except for a couple of eccentricities, remarkably prosaic.

Whatever we call them, much of what we assume about these stories has only the slightest relationship to what they actually are. This month a number of fairy tell retellings will be read, discussed, assessed and recommended (or not!) and they don’t all begin with “once upon a time” and they don’t all end with “and they lived happily ever after!” Not all of these tales deal with princesses in distress being arbitrarily rescued by princes they subsequently marry. Indeed, they don’t all have neatly patterned, coherent, linear narratives that teach a useful lesson. More and more the mixing of fairy tales (perhaps to obscure these original morals) and motifs and myths and legends is becoming quite popular, a new form is evolving out of the old, which really is the beauty of the fairy tale. Moreover, even if we realize that many of these tales were first told among adults we must also realize that that does not mean what we now call children’s stories are all based on tales full of raunch, grotesquerie and violence, nor are they solely intended for adults. The 17th-century French transcriptions (most notably by Charles Perrault) assumed an audience we would now consider more “youth” than “child” (marriageable young adolescents), they were intended for young people. The Grimms’ collection was first called Kinder- und Hausmarchen (“Children’s and Household Tales”), and in the face of considerable criticism (not only concerning the unsuitability of many of the stories for children), subsequent editions were considerably revised, edited, and truncated; however, even at the turn of the 19th century these stories were assumed to be useful as “children’s literature.” But how do we feel about this shift? What does this say about stories created by adults for children and what does it mean to the youth and children of today?

The “oral tradition” implies, as Salman Rushdie suggests in the quote above that fairy tales are a ‘sea of stories’, an immense body of protean material, constantly changing, its currents constantly yielding both new and familiar materials as storytellers dip into them. J.R.R. Tolkien, whose own interest was primarily linguistic and folkloric, argued in “on Fairy-Stories” that contrary to popular assumption children do not necessarily like this sort of story, or like it any better than any other material within their grasp. Many scholarly approaches to “fairy tales” assume a significant role in the lives of young readers; the extent to which this role remains significant, and these stories remain familiar among current young readers, is a question worth consideration and this month we will question our authors to get a variety of opinions on this topic.

What is the new role of fairy tale retellings? What are the new phenomena in these tales, the new motifs? This month we will scour our collections and kick of this blog with a look at all sorts of retellings to try and better define what we actually mean. For me a retelling must have its roots in a fairy tale. The author has dipped into the wealth of the fairy tale tradition and pulled out a few strands with which to play.

We will not just be concerned with fairy and folk tales with European roots; we have reviews planned of translated books which contain traditional tales from Japan and India. Additionally, we have for you interviews with several authors who have written either fairy tale retellings or stories with fairy tale elements. The authors include Marissa Meyer (Cinder), Robert Paul Weston (Dust City), Heather Dixon (Entwined), Zoe Marriott (Shadows on the Moon), Christopher Healy (The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom) and Merrie Haskell (The Princess Curse). There will be movie reviews and fairy tale photography. Check back often for new content!

3 responses to “What is a Fairy Tale Retelling?

  1. Pingback: Children’s Stories | The Write Stuff·

  2. I’d be willing to checkout more folk tale reimaginings. Not to long ago I wrote my own fairy tale retelling to get into the mood of the sub-genre and posted it on my blog, so it would be great to see other works within that realm.

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