Last week's Top Ten Tuesday was about fairy tale adaptations. I spent hours and hours browsing people's lists of their favorite books, adult and Young Adult, based on folk- and fairy tales. It was very telling for a number of reasons. One, it showed what different people think fairy tales are, and the definition varied greatly. Some lists only included folktales (mostly Grimm), while others had things like Alice, Peter Pan, or even The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (I'm looking at you, Disney).
Two, it was fascinating to see which fairy tales get re-told in current literature more often than others. According to my (non-scientific) survey of many lists, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella seemed to be winning the day. Surprisingly enough the 1001 Nights also appeared quite often (but always in the form of the same 2 books), and of course there were a few other well known tales such as Snow White and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Since I was looking for some light reads for the end of the summer, I got copies of 3 of the most often mentioned books, and read them.
Here is my impression of them, from a storyteller's perspective:
Here we have a teenage girl from a starving family, who is really good with a bow because she hunts to keep them fed, and who volunteers to go to an unknown place and die to save her sisters. When she gets there, she is given a makeover, lives in a luxurious environment, still manages to get herself into mortal danger, and saves an entire country in the end.
Here is the thing I realized: It seems to me that most supernatural romances these days ARE re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast. You get the teenage girl, whisked away against her will, just to find out that her "beautiful and lethal" captor is the love of her life. Something about this fairy tale, something about this trope, sticks so deep in people's minds that it is still commanding popularity and attention, even though it is more than a little bit problematic.
(As a storyteller, I never liked Beauty and the Beast)
Don't get me wrong, this book was actually not bad at all (I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads). It just also wasn't very surprising. The only glimpse of greatness was the idea of combining the ballad of Tam Lin with the second part of Beauty and the Beast - and yet, the iconic shape-shifting rescue scene from the ballad never made it into the book. Such a pity.
Unlike the previous one, this book actually was bad. Really bad. I have a personal soft spot for the 1001 Nights as a storyteller (I even worked for a gaming company that made an MMORPG based on it), but that wasn't my main problem. This book is just not well done. It has plot holes, horrible clichés, an unlikable main character (nicknamed "Shazi"), and a total of two and a half stories told. It swaps the iconic element of the original story - Shahrzad's nightly series of storytelling - for a tired romantic cliché: The girl doesn't get more days to live because her stories are intriguing; she is allowed to live because the king finds her attractive (also, she cries and begs to be allowed to live, which clearly the previous 60-70 executed wives did not think of doing).
As a storyteller, the rock bottom for me was the night when Shazi decided it was a great idea to tell her bride-murdering husband the tale of Bluebeard. Because bride-murderers clearly want to hear stories about other bride-murderers. They are open-minded like that. At the end (before she begged to live, again) Shazi pointed out that the moral of the story is that you should not keep secrets from your wife.
That's not the moral of Bluebeard.
(Ironically, Bluebeard and Mr. Fox are probably the best counterpoint to the message Beauty and the Beast seems to be sending about romance)
Now THIS is how you do a Grimm re-telling. Oakes made a good choice of a less well-known tale, one of Grimm's most disturbing: The Handless Maiden. True to the original, the book is dark, gruesome, emotionally heavy, and yet compelling in its empathy for all characters involved. The language is eloquent, and the author never rubs your nose in the original story (no "It was so grim! Get it? GET IT?!"). Instead, you are left on your own to find the subtle hints and familiar imagery as the story goes along. That is what usually wins me over for fairy tale re-tellings: When I am invited to an easter egg hunt for fairy tale nuggets, but they are not marked with big pointy neon signs along the road.
(It is also very telling that many Goodreads reviews either complained that there was not enough romance in this, or said that it was just plain 'boring.' Compared to the previous two books I mentioned, this one is definitely more of an intellectual challenge. Take that or leave it as you will)
Final thoughts: I would love to see more of a range in the fairy- and folktales being re-told. I made a wish list a couple of weeks ago, so I'll just link it here. If you have any suggestions for other books I should read (now that you have seen my taste in these things), they are most welcome! :)