Monday, October 8, 2012

Retold Fairy Tales

Discussion Topic: Retold Fairy Tales - Keep 'Em Coming or Enough Already?

I'm a guest blogger for Random House's blog - Random Acts of Reading. In July 2012, they asked us for retold fairy tale suggestions. This immediately put me in mind of the people I've met at conferences who groan and roll their eyes whenever someone describes a book as a "twist" on something or other. "I'm so sick of retellings," I've heard more times than I can count. In contrast, others like myself can't get enough of them. I love when an author can transform stale, familiar material into something new; I consider such works one of the many miracles of great storytelling. I agree about disliking retold fairy tales that aren't...retold enough.  What's different and special about this version? I always ask. What exactly the author changes and how opens up entire new worlds and discussions.

One can, and many do, argue that no story is unique. Everything builds off that which came before. The layers, however, distinguish each retelling. The question remains: how many new layers conceal the story's roots? People who dislike retold fairy tales might find the influence too obvious. Not to mention that sometimes describing a book as a retold fairy tale becomes a spoiler in itself! Well, I already know that story, someone might think. Why not try something new? As I've already said, I dislike retold fairy tales that haven't been reworked enough, but what I love about well-executed retold fairy tales is the evidence that there's always another perspective or angle we haven't considered. Humanity will be retelling the same stories again and again until the end of time.

Speaking of the end of time, this tradition of building off each other goes back to the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of humanity. Humans wouldn't accomplish nearly as much if we didn't frequently add onto work someone else completed. I remember, back in junior high, being rather annoyed with a school project. Students had to research and present about the inventors of certain modern technologies or appliances. It didn't even take that much research before I noted a significant flaw in this assignment. We were expected to present on the one inventor of individual items, but, even in cases where we commonly attribute credit to one specific person, almost all creations/inventions/discoveries are a collection of different accomplishments. If we look at television, Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium, and Paul Nipkow invented the scanning disk, but those are only two pieces necessary for that invention puzzle.  Or take the lightbulb. Thomas Edison or Joseph Swan most commonly receive single-name credit for that creation when in truth historians can pinpoint many scientists prior to both Edison and Swan with their own variations or contributions to a now common technology. Collaboration is essential in scientific fields, but what some people don't realize is how equally vital collaboration is in creative fields. Have you ever read something and then your imagination took the worldbuilding a step further? Wow, that detail's intriguing, but what if...? A new story is born.

Consider dystopian fiction, a current trend, from the point of view of an editor or literary agent. When a dystopian manuscript comes across your desk, the very first thing you want to know is: what makes this one different? The same can be said of retold fairy tales. There's nothing wrong with building off established stories (or writing to trends), as long as you build something new. Complex worldbuilding, for example, runs through all the retold stories I love. It shouldn't feel like the author has intruded on someone else's imaginary world, but like they've discovered an alternate universe bearing similarities to the original and still completely its own.

Curious for examples? ASH by Malinda Lo jumps to mind, especially since Lo's so open about what inspired this story. Short version: because it's one she wanted to read! Readers often describe ASH as a lesbian twist on Cinderella, but I feel that description's still too simplistic, implying that difference alone makes ASH unique. Not true. Lo also makes the fairy godmother figure male and otherwordly and as creepy as he is helpful. His gifts come with a price and his magic doesn't feel pure and self-sacrificing - try sinister and self-serving. Then there's Ash, our Cinderella, a heartbreaking and more realistic portrayal of how someone with her childhood might behave.

Gail Carson Levine's Cinderella twist ELLA ENCHANTED earned readers' admiration and devotion over a decade ago. In this case, the universal morals and themes about helplessness and taking control of your own life become far more important than the recognizable fairy tale influence. Working from the model of Snow White, Levine also wrote FAIREST, an exploration of how we value ourselves. While lacking in beauty (what sometimes seems most admired and coveted), Aza possesses other gifts, but even those could prove curses if she only uses her talents for others' wishes.

Mette Ivie Harrison, a thoroughly underappreciated author in my opinion, has also crafted a striking Snow White twist, MIRA MIRROR (sadly, now out-of-print). The magic of that story has stuck with me. While so many authors gift their characters with almost limitless power or only focus on the positives and ideals about magic, Harrison has a real knack for balancing perks and sacrifice. If you can track down a copy, MIRA MIRROR is definitely worth reading! Thankfully, though, THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND and sequels, also by Mette Ivie Harrison, are still readily available. THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND plays with another fairy tale, The Beauty and the Beast, although I hesitate even mentioning the inspiration stories for Harrison's work, since she forms such striking, compelling worlds and tales that the influence almost becomes lost within the retelling. Those looking hard for a predictable Beauty and the Beast storyline in THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND will find themselves confused or disappointed. Harrison strays far from the original fairy tales and sometimes her stories feel like retellings only in a phantom sense, but that's exactly what makes her books so incredible!

Gregory Maguire is most well-known for WICKED, his twist on Frank Baum's Oz world. However, he also wrote many other fairy tale retellings, including CONFESSIONS OF AN UGLY STEPSISTER and MIRROR MIRROR. In this case, I don't think one reads Maguire's work because they're looking for a twist on a classic. His writing makes his books distinct and, in fact, has a rather polar effect on readers. Some love the vivid description while others find his style too dense and wordy. This demonstrates that sometimes it's not even a particular plot twist that makes a retelling unique. It could be the writing, the setting, one vivid character, a new outlook/interpretation, etc.

Margo Lanagan's retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, TENDER MORSELS, isn't for the faint of heart! I read an interview with Lanagan in Locus magazine and she mentions her motivation for writing TENDER MORSELS: she didn't find it believable in the original fairy tale that this mother and her two daughters just get their own personal, perfect, saccharine heaven. So she imagined what kind of trauma might make someone need a metaphorical "other world" to which they could retreat and heal. Emphasis on the word trauma and a repetition of my warning: not for the faint of heart. The ending, though, elevated TENDER MORSELS far above average and made all the violence and horror serve a purpose.

Rather than retell one story, some authors create mash-ups of familiar tales, such as Adam Gidwitz's Grimm books: A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and IN A GLASS GRIMMLY. By their nature, mash-ups already have more potential for uniqueness rather than redundancy. In A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, each chapter twists a different fairy tale while Hanzel and Gretel connect all the smaller stories with an overarching narrative. IN A GLASS GRIMMLY proves an especially strong example of a twist/retelling that stands on its own with an original and heartwarming moral.

MERMAID by Carolyn Turgeon fits into this discussion nicely, though I hesitate mentioning a book I haven't yet read! Why this novel made my to-read list, though, ties into an earlier point. I already explained that part of my fondness for retold fairy tales stems from the concept that there's always another perspective unexplored. Turgeon's book describes itself as a twist on The Little Mermaid. However, this story follows "the other woman." You know the one. The one the prince marries in the real Hans Christian Anderson tale. The one Ursula disguises herself as in the Disney version. The one who finds the prince on the beach after the little mermaid saves him. In most versions, she's a secondary character if she receives that much attention, so I am mighty curious how Turgeon played in this underexplored territory.

Last, if we stray away from fairy tales, we still find a bounty of retellings. NOBODY'S PRINCESS by Esther Friesner spins the Helen of Troy legend. I love that duology, since Friesner balances sticking to the original story with giving Helen more personality and spunk. True to mythology, Helen doesn't escape her captors. However, in NOBODY'S PRINCESS that's not for lack of trying! You know what else winds up retold again and again and again? That's right: Shakespeare. Both DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor and ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE by Tamora Pierce, among countless others, contain Shakespearian roots (from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, respectively), although both stories weave in so many layers and twists that the Shakespearian influence becomes buried in the new story.

Whether fairy tales, mythology, Shakespeare, or something else entirely, people like retelling stories. We like looking at something someone else created, but adding our own perspective. That new perspective then creates new conversations. In literature specifically, what the author changes in each new version makes its own point. Starting with a known story presents established storylines, characters, and morals, but also challenges the author to subvert, rather than confirm, the reader's expectations. Writers, keep the twists coming, because I for one doubt we'll ever run out of brand new ways to tell the same story.

What about you? Do you like retold fairy tales? Hate them? Why or why not?

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