Monday, May 6, 2013

TOTW - Fresh Fairy Tales


Fairy tales – they’ve been told and retold, but maybe you’re drawn to tell one again. And you’d be in good company.

Even many of the versions of fairy tales we think of as “collected” were actually retold in ways that made them distinctive. A number of today’s popular fairy tales were invented by actual authors, often women, in the French salons of the 17th century. These salons were creative and intellectual outlets for women shut out of other intellectual institutions. (For more on the French Salons, read “Introduction: The Rise of the French Fairy Tale and the Decline of France” by Jack Zipes in Beauty and the Beast and Other Classic French Fairy Tales.) Later, in the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm made significant changes to tales they collected from their sources, most of which weren’t peasants in the German countryside but educated young women. (For more on this, read the introduction by Jack Zipes to The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.) The Grimms also reshaped the tales for their intended audiences. Perhaps you would like to join such an august company of re-tellers.

But what more can be said with these stories? Bookshelves in YA and children’s libraries are full of fairy tale retellings. How might you craft fresh versions?

Perhaps the more appropriate question is this - Why do we still enjoy reading these tales? Why are many of us drawn to write them?

The simple answer is that they continue to have relevance for contemporary readers. What follows is a list of suggestions for finding unique relevance in old stories – the unexplored but rich terrain in fairy tales.

Consider the Historical Parallels or Significance. What are the connections one might make to tales and historical events? How might a tale represent what happened in the past? Jane Yolen, for example, used “Sleeping Beauty” to tell a sophisticated story of the Holocaust in Briar Rose. An alternative would be to consider contemporary parallels or significance, as Alex Flinn has done in a number of her novels. 

Draw a Cultural Picture. What stories are too little told? How might they depict cultures and peoples misrepresented or underrepresented in literature? Grace Lin used Chinese folk and fairy tales to inspire the wonderful MG fantasy Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. However, those of us considering writing outside our cultures should think carefully on the if’s, when’s, and how’s of such a decision. 

Find Logic in the Illogical. Often, the things that occur in fairy tales don’t entirely make sense. Why doesn’t Red Riding Hood notice that her grandmother has a hairy face? Why is Cinderella so obedient as she’s robbed of her position and possessions? Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted offers an answer to this last question that’s both humorous and emotionally resonant. Great stories can come from making sense out of nonsense. 

Tell the Tale from Another Side. Every character has his or her own story: the prince, the witch, the servant girl who walks into the tale briefly and then walks out. Try seeing the story from all sides, and writing it from an alternative perspective. To read an example of this kind of story, track down Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel or The Magic Circle, both of which offer the perspectives of witches. 

Kindle the Emotional Heat. Fairy tales might be about magic and once-upon-a-time, but they’re also about fathers who abandon children, lovers who must see past the ugly outward appearance of a beloved to the sweetness beneath, girls who make the wrong choices and must try to save themselves. These stories are, at their cores, about situations people continue to face every day. When we’re drawn to a particular tale, we might ask, why? What truths are we finding in it? The answers to these questions led me to write a version of “Hansel and Gretel”. Robin McKinley provided two sets of answers in two novels that retell the story of “Beauty and the Beast”, Beauty and Rose’s Daughter

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some ways of approaching old and yet compelling stories. How do you create unique stories from already-told tales? 

17 comments:

  1. I love this post! and your advice about how to make an old tale fresh. I think that if you add a lot of specific detail (not just "a girl in a forest" but what she looked like, what she's wearing, why it's torn, what kind of trees are there, what kind of birds, what's under her feet) it necessarily becomes a new/original world--though maybe also less of a "fairy tale" world.

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    1. A great point. All those details can make a story distinctive, even one told often. Billingsley's Folk Keeper vs Lanagan's Brides of Rollrock Island come to mind.

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  3. Sometimes I think we love certain fairytales because they resonate with us in ways we don't fully understand -- until we try to retell them. I found that with my retelling of H.C. Andersen's "The Snow Queen". CROWN OF ICE is told for the Snow Queen's perspective, for some very specific reasons. Discussed this on my blog if anyone's interested -- http://tinyurl.com/butrlx9

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    1. I absolutely agree. Thanks for the link.

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  4. The trick I like best for making old tales new is reading/writing a story where we get to know the characters as more than just the archetypes we're used to. Many fairytale characters are household names, but who are they beyond the girl with the glass slipper / red hood / hundred-year nap? What are their personalities, voices, thoughts, and feelings? Why do they do what they do? Make the characters *people*, and since every person is different, every story retelling will be, too.

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    1. Yes, absolutely. And the actions of the characters can help us discover who the character might be. We use the behavior to determine motivations.

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  5. Love this post, especially your Find Logic in the Illogical and Kindle the Emotional Heat. That's really the key to making any story our own -- because without emotion, we don't have a story. I still remember the delicious dread of going to bed with Grimm's fairy tales, and the emotional roller coaster I went through in each of them. Recapturing any of that for another kid would make me thrilled.

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    1. I remember a lot of my dread while reading Grimm collections, but I often didn't understand what chilled me. Hansel and Gretel was one of those tales - and I was an adult before I realized that father, who abandoned his children, was what frightened me so.

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  6. I love that you mentioned Robin McKinley! As for fairytale retellings, I've had a hankering for a while to do one, but with a boy as the main character rather than a girl--not sure which story, though. Maybe Cinderella? :) I absolutely adore female MCs, but I want to try out a male MC sometime just to break the market mold.

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    1. I discovered Robin McKinley's work when I was 15. She is definitely one of the reasons I write fantasy. A male Cinderella? That would be a twist. There are lots of great fairy tales with male protags, tricksters and younger brothers that are believed to be fools but aren't. Go for it.

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    2. I love that idea--a male Cinderella-- in novel form. I have a collection of Cinderella-based books (mostly for children, of course) and one is The Irish Cinder Lad, which is quite original, but not really one of my favorites. (I also have Dinorella, Cinderella Penguin... the list goes on and on... and some are pretty ridiculous! But I can't seem to help myself from purchasing them anyway!)

      I'd love to see what you come up with somewhere down the line! Go for it!

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  8. I love fairy tale retellings, and Robin McKinley's are among my favorites! My debut novel (and its sequel) refashions Snow White & Rose Red, a favorite Grimm tale from my childhood, across the scope of two books: The Ryn (March 2013) and The Remedy (April 2013.) I'd always been more partial to the spunky Rose Red as a character than the demure Snow White and always felt a little robbed that the Bear/Prince ended up with Snow White in the end, so I switched it up, added in a little girl power, and made sure that he couldn't even BE a prince without Rose Red making it so...

    Right now I'm digging into a new Grimm tale for books 3 & 4 of the Eyes of E'veria series and I hope readers will be really excited to find out how I am integrating a pirate and knight they met in the first two books into this newly reimagined tale. (and, since I'm a "pantser" I'm pretty excited to see how it turns out, as well! LOL)

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    1. I've loved Snow White and Rose Red for years. Thanks for mentioning it. What a very odd fairy tale. Good luck with the new story.

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  9. Love this post - got me thinking about rewriting some of my olde stories!
    I've been mulling over The Greenman for years - thanks for the guideposts!

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    1. Sounds like it's time to dig out those ideas and sit down with them, Keely.

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