Saturday, August 15, 2015

Story Saturday: Fairy tale re-tellings - The Good, the Bad, the Meh

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:

The Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
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.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
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)

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
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! :)


  1. Hm. I find it difficult to come up with a list of fairy tale and folktale retellings I LOVE actually. There are a lot I like and I'm always to keen to read more but honestly, not that many have really made it to my 'desert island' list. However, there are some. My far-and-above favorites are The Orphan's Tales duology, "In the Night Garden" and "In the Cities of Coin and Spice" by Catherynne M. Valente. They weave from one tale to another, akin to 1001 Nights, but they are also part of a single story. (My memory is I liked the first volume more.)
    I also adored "The Girl With Glass Feet" by Ali Shaw. Not a retelling of a specific tale necessarily but it doesn't take a lot of hunting to find related fairy tales and folktales to his story either.
    I also did not expect to enjoy "The Snow Child" as much (by Eowyn Ivy) but I really did. (And so did my husband! Exclamation point is because we have very very different tastes in books.)
    And I recently read Toby Barlow's "Babayaga: A Novel of Witches in Paris". So fun. And more than one tale in there, along with a little Kafka too.
    The other main one that sticks out as a retelling I truly loved was "Winter Rose" by Patricia A. McKillip, (Tam Lin retelling), and I'll read almost any retelling by Donna Jo Napoli.
    Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" remains an iconic standout for me and I was very moved by an audiobook retelling of Jane Yolen's "Briar Rose" (I didn't like the way it started - it felt clunky to me - but it definitely resonated and remains with me. Perhaps growing up in Australia in the 70's/80's surrounded by war stories and impact made me relate a lot).
    And one day, please do explain why you're not partial to Beauty and the Beast! I am in the minority among fairy tale folk in not loving this fairy tale, which people can't seem to understand (although Cocteau's classic is a film fave) and I love beastly bridegroom stories - just not B&tB. Tam Lin, however, battles for top place in my favorites fairy tales (even if it is a ballad).
    PS You're right about the range. I haven't even made it through one column on the linky page and I'm overwhelmed by romance and non-fairy tales, but as you said, popular cultures idea of what a fairy tale is, can't (and shouldn't) be easily dismissed since it impacts our retelling of traditional stories in a variety of formats. (It doesn't mean I have to like it all though! lol)
    Thanks for this. I have some new books to hunt down, although I have NO IDEA how I will find/make time to read them!

    1. I do love Catherynne M. Valente, I enjoyed Deathless a lot :) And the Lunar Chronicles is actually a series that is adorable and does the "easter egg" thing really well. I am just not keen on sappy romance-y retellings I guess :)
      Also I think my rant about Beauty and the Beast will be a whole separate post sometime soon...

  2. Catherynne M. Valente has a special spot in my heart too for her "Deathless". It was wonderfully gruesome and you don't come across a re-telling of Eastern European stuff very often.

    Personally I am working my way through absurd American literature of the 1960s and 70s for my thesis and found some interesting takes on fairytales there, too. One is Donald Barthelmes "Snow White", that really is not what you might expect from the title. It is hilarious and as a reader I often ask myself, what I am actually reading - it takes on gender roles, sexuality, psychological insight and questions language itself. The same goes for James Purdy's "Malcolm", which is equally disturbing. Both books are not for readers of romance novels and easy-reading.

  3. I love fairytales. I remember reading a Chinese version of Cinderella, and it was quite different from the Disney one I grew up with here in the States.

    In the Chinese version, the girls cut off their toes so make their feet fit the glass slipper. Yikes!!!

  4. I love fairytales. I remember reading a Chinese version of Cinderella, and it was quite different from the Disney one I grew up with here in the States.

    In the Chinese version, the girls cut off their toes so make their feet fit the glass slipper. Yikes!!!