Fairy Tales. Old & New

I’ve always liked the retelling of old stories. There’s an art to taking the essential themes of a story and fitting them into a new time or a new setting. No narrative does complete justice to every character, and I love modern adaptations, or spin-offs from the original work, because they give the reader a chance to learn about and experience the characters more. Everyone knows Mr. Rochester had his batshit crazy wife living up in the attic, but who the heck was she and where did she come from?!? This is barely addressed in Jane Eyre, and that’s exactly what makes Wide Sargasso Sea such a cool book. Wives-in-the-attic always deserve their own narrative, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll admit that I’m a fan of just about every modern movie adaptation of Shakespeare [You should admit it, too. She’s the Man is a funnier movie than one would have any right to expect.] I like Austen adaptations as well. Clueless is amazing in its own right, but to top that, the movie is such an imaginative way to redo Emma. I didn’t even know it was based on an Austen novel until I was in high school, but it’s a blatant retelling. And despite being a little inane, the movie still manages to highlight the rigid rules surrounding social class structure, which is the important theme running through the novel.

I think these retellings work because the original story and characters were so phenomenal to begin with. I will always be impressed by how clearly Jane Austen saw people. [At least people of a certain social class and breeding]. She never married, spent most of her short life in the same small town, surrounded by the same people day-in and out, and yet she provided such rich, deeply psychological portrayals of human beings, their motives and their feelings.

And I think you can lump fairy tales in with this literature; in any case, I have a special fondness for them so I consider them to be literature. I don’t know specifically where my interest in the genre came from. I think I might just have a general bent toward fantasy. But fairy tales have all those archetypal characters and story lines. Plus, they’re fascinating with all the incest and murder, gore, brutality, magic and sorcery. There are some really haunting images from  fairy tales.

In Donkeyskin, the king wants to marry his own daughter. He’s willing to kill his favorite pet and have its skin turned into a dress for her. That’s how much he wants to bang his own daughter. Disney doesn’t do them the justice they deserve, and I think their version of the tales might do more harm than anything else.

But the original fairy tales were meant to be lessons. Be docile. Be an obedient child and wife. Don’t question, don’t think, & don’t snoop in your husband’s shit. Be happy with your meager life and don’t be greedy.

I read a book of retold fairy tales when I was in high school, and I still think it’s one of the most interesting and best written books of short stories that I’ve read. It was Kissing the Witch, by Emma Donoghue, and it had a serious influence on my desire to write and my conceptualization of how short stories should be told. [She also wrote Room, which has been getting a lot of buzz lately. If you recognize her name, that’s probably why.]

The stories in Kissing the Witch are all the familiar ones, Donkeyskin, the Little Mermaid, Snow White, but they are decidedly twisted. The heroines leave the princes and decide they want something else, something better instead. Or the evil step mom turns out to have her own horrible story, her own fairy tale which explains everything.

Every single story in the book is connected seamlessly to the story before it and the story that follows. It’s a seriously impressive little book. They’re beautiful and weird, sometimes subtly erotic, often sad. The book is well crafted. I wish I had thought of something even half as clever.

When I went to undergrad, my first year seminar was called Telling Stories [and it was with Mimi, for anyone who understands what that means.] The class was all about narratives in our lives and all of the different shapes they can take. We often focused on fairy tales. You could do anything for the final class project, as long as it somehow related to narratives, and so I wrote a short story, which was heavily influenced by Kissing the Witch.

I deleted the story after that semester, or maybe I lost it when I moved from my desktop to a laptop my sophomore year. In any case, I remember thinking it was good, and I’m sad to no longer have it. From what I remember, I had Cinderella or someone similar as the heroine, finding out that Prince Charming isn’t so charming after all, and he doesn’t want her to have a job or work. He wants a caricature of a wife, not an actual woman. So she leaves him and wanders into an inn in another town where there’s a whole table of heroines from other tales discussing their stories and how their happy endings weren’t so happy either. She joins the table and they all get drunk. I liked the story. I liked writing it. I did not like having to read it aloud to the class.

I remember it being a really not-enjoyable experience for me. I don’t like sharing my writing with people, especially not a whole group of people who couldn’t possibly have been more apathetic about it. I am a very nerdy lady, and I fully admit that, but having to read a fairy tale I wrote to a class of 18 year old boys seemed dorkier than I could really deal with, psychologically. But Mimi loved it. She raved, and I got an A in the class even though I’d skipped at least one day a week for the entire semester. [It was a 9 Am class. I liked to sleep.]

Recently, I came across a new book of collected fairy tales. There aren’t enough of these, in my opinion, so I’m always happy to find when a new one is published. The title sucked me in within the second that I saw it.

My Mother she killed me, My father he ate me: Forty new fairy tales. The title comes from an old fairy tale called The Juniper Tree, which I think was written by H.C. Anderson. The title is essentially what happens in the story, except a creepyass juniper tree brings the kid back to life in the end. Some of the stories in this book are new interpretations of old tales, and some are translations from Russian, African, or Japanese fairy tales.

The stories were scary, sexy, moving, provocative. The book is psychologically fascinating, which is always a plus for me. Sometimes it was difficult to guess which fairy tale was being retold, but what I liked the best was that the stories had the author’s commentary at the end: their inspiration to write the story, what they were attempting to accomplish with it, etc.

Many of the stories in this edition are by really well-known authors. All of them seem to share a strong interest in the genre, which makes me wonder if writers are all the same. Some of them, like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates, you would expect to be writing weird adapted versions of fairy tales. But all of the stories were excellent.

If you have the time and want to read some creepy, scary, sexy stories, this is your book.


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