Not Your Average Retelling
By Marissa Meyer
Fairy tales and folk tales have been around for hundreds of years, being re-shaped, re-twisted, and re-told again and again. And yet readers continue to hunger for more, as is evidenced by not only the deluge of fairy-tale retellings in the book market, but also Hollywood’s current obsession with them. (Have you heard of the three Snow White movies coming out in the next few years?) How do writers continue to work with the same material, yet give us such vastly different renditions?
Here are some ways that today’s writers are keeping our beloved tales alive and new.
Lesser Known Tales
There are some tales that pop up again and again. How many Cinderella remakes can you list off the top of your head? How many Beauty and the Beasts come to mind? While there are good reasons these tales have stood the test of time and popularity, there are also a lot of great stories that, in the past, went ignored in our Disney culture. Not the case anymore! As the market for fairy tales becomes more saturated, more writers are delving deeper into the works of Grimm, Andersen, and even non-European cultures, and seeking out stories that haven’t yet received their due.
Tales that once would have been considered fringe (such as “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”) have received more attention lately with books such as Entwined by Heather Dixon and East by Edith Pattou, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more and more non-Disnified tales on the rise. After all, the Grimm brothers alone had over 300 tales collected, so writers have plenty of material to choose from.
Examples of Lesser Known Tales Retold:
Matchless by Gregory Maguire (based on “The Little Match Girl”)
The Swan Kingdom by Zoë Marriott (based on “The Wild Swans”)
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce (based on “Rumpelstiltskin”)
Another way authors are setting apart their fairy-tale retellings is by choosing interesting times and locations for them to take place in. Writers are no longer trapped in fantastical, make-believe worlds just because they lend themselves so easily to the original stories. From ancient Greece to futuristic space colonies, the options are endless, and (lucky us) writers are taking advantage of that! Will we soon be watching Puss in Boots in the court of Louis XVI? Will the next Frog Prince hop out of Cleopatra’s Nile? We’ll just have to wait and see where authors are willing to take us.
Examples of Retellings with Original Settings:
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (“Sleeping Beauty” set during the Holocaust)
Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson (“Diamonds and Toads” set in pre-colonial India)
Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire (“Snow White” set in 16th-century Tuscany)
No matter how rare (or common) a tale is, or what fascinating time and place it’s set in, the best retellings still have one thing in common: the author has made it strictly their own. There is still something that sets that story apart from the Grimm Brothers’ or Hans Christian Andersen’s or any other author who may choose to re-spin the same tale.
Gregory Maguire is renowned for telling fairy tales from the villain’s perspective (see Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister). Gail Carson Levine turned the classic Cinderella story upside-down in Ella Enchanted, when she gave Ella an unusual curse—she must do whatever she is told to do. These “retellings” are almost more like “re-envisionings”—they may use the bones of the classic tale for inspiration, but then the author took the story in a new direction that we’d never seen before.
I believe it’s these new twists on the old stories that keep readers hungry for more retellings, because you just never know what an author is going to do next. How will tomorrow’s fairy tales differ from today’s? I, for one, can’t wait to find out!
Examples of Retellings with a Unique Twist:
Ash by Malinda Lo (“Cinderella” with an LGBT romance)
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce (a modern “Little Red Riding Hood,” in which two sisters become werewolf hunters)
A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz (a collection of tales, including “Hansel and Gretel,” strung together into one continuous storyline)
Marissa Meyer’s debut novel, Cinder (“Cinderella” set in the future), re-imagines our princess as a teenage cyborg faced with the task of saving the world. It’s scheduled for release in early 2012. You can find her online at: