Fairy-Tales Rewritten: Five Modern Books You Don’t Want To Miss

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Fairy-tales are incredibly rich narratives that have been passed on for generations and altered in the process. Some of them are based on historical events, others represent the fruits of collective imagination that include mythical creatures, princesses and princes, witches, and wizards. Either way, these stories teach us about the values of a culture or community through their main moral lessons. Just like myths, fairy-tales function as a source of inspiration and a creative driving force for many writers, giving them the freedom to reinterpret storylines and contextualize characters and their destinies in a new way. Movies and TV shows have done the same (just think about any Disney movie or the famous series Once Upon a Time), offering us new versions of stories to enjoy. Here are five books that reference fairy-tales in different ways that you won’t want to miss.

Snow White and Rose Red, by Patricia C. Wrede
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Contrary to popular belief, this novel isn’t based on the famous Snow White fairy-tale, but on a less well-known one from the Grimms’ collection with a similar title, Snow White and Rose Red. In the introduction to Wrede’s novel, Terri Windling points out some interesting facts. This fairy-tale (Snow White and Rose Red) isn’t present in the German oral tradition like other fairy-tales collected by the Grimm brothers, which drives the conclusion that the two most influential brothers in the world of Western fairy-tales actually created something original, inspired by folktales. Wrede is also a part of that tradition: she creates a new narrative by retelling a story that was once told in the 19th century. Now she re-sets the story, placing it in Elizabethan England in 1582/3. This way, she connects elements of the fairy-tale with real history. Two of the major characters, John Dee and Edward Kelly, were real historical persons who experimented with magic:

Dee was well aware of the town’s hostility. He had faced accusations of witchcraft and sorcery at least twice, though the charges had come to nothing. For a long time thereafter he had kept quiet about his interests in things magical, but in recent years he had begun to experiment once more.

The Elizabethan era experimented with many different plants as the Elizabethans believed that they had magical properties, all of which Wrede incorporated in her story.

Snow White and Rose Red is a tale of love and bears that has two sisters (Blanche and Rosamund) and their mother, the Widow Arden, in the focus. They live in a small cottage on the edge of a fairy village called Mortlak, less than a mile from the river Thames. All three of them collect healing herbs and live in fear of being accused of witchcraft. There exists a magical world within the real one. Their neighbor is an astrologer named Dr. Dee, who works in the service of Queen Elizabeth and is their enemy throughout the narrative. Dr. Dee manages to misuse magical forces and turn the queen’s half-mortal son, Hugh, into a bear. John, his elder brother, tries to break the spell and disobeys his mother, who has forbidden any travel between the Faerie and the mortal worlds. Just as in the original fairy-tale, bear (Hugh) encounters the two sister’s house, evil is defeated, and Hugh is released from Dee’s spell. The happily ever after piece of the story, re-told in a manner suitable for adult readers, is crowned with two marriages.

Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen
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This novel by Jane Yolen has been described as a postmodern fairy tale of the Holocaust. It focuses on the problems of identity, the absurdity and horrors of war, the sometimes vague (but omnipresent) links between the past and present, and especially the power of storytelling. The novel is based on the fairy-tale of Sleeping Beauty, or better yet – it’s used as an allegory for what happened to Gemma (the main character) in the Second World War. There are many parallels between the fairy-tale and Gemma’s life, and Yolen places distressing references in the story: Gemma has red hair, just like the princess in the fairy-tale; the bad fairy is the German enemy in real life (the angel of death); thorns around the castle represent the wire surrounding the death camps. Gemma tells her granddaughters the same bedtime story over and again. After Gemma’s death, her granddaughter Becca decides to find out more about her grandmother. She instinctively suspects that there is something behind the story her grandma used to tell. Becca knows that finding out more about her roots will introduce an additional piece to the puzzle of her own identity. By contemplating Gemma’s version of the fairy-tale and discovering her box of documents and memories, Becca realizes that her grandma was a Holocaust survivor. Josef’s story is also incorporated into the novel (in the section called “Castle”), where you read another story from the Holocaust, including the way his life intertwined with Gemma’s. He’s the one who gave her the kiss of life (breathing mouth to mouth) and saved her from certain death. Here is powerful wisdom from the book:

Fairy Tales always have a happy ending.’ That depends … on whether you are Rumpelstiltskin or the Queen.    

There is a powerful message in the novel: Gemma keeps repeating the altered fairy-tale because we must never forget the awfulness of World War II. That is a modern horror story we have to tell over and over again, and pass on to the next generation, because that is the only way to prevent anything similar from ever happening again. 

Rapunzel Untangled, by Cindy C. Bennett
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This young adult modern retelling of the famous Rapunzel fairy-tale is a light read, and you’ll definitely enjoy it. Bennett was inspired by her own love for fairy-tales, especially the dark elements from Rapunzel that include a young girl kidnapped and forced into solitude. The unnaturalness of this act leads every Rapunzel story towards untangling, that is – towards a happy ending. Bennett’s Rapunzel is a 21st-century young girl who lives alone with her mother. She is forced to live in alienation because of her vulnerability to illness and the fact that everyday germs could potentially be fatal for her. The internet is her only window to the outside world, and it all begins to change for her after she sends a friend request on Facebook to a boy named Fab Fane Flannigan:

One name in particular caught her attention and she stopped, staring at the face that grinned back at her. The name read Fab Fane Flanningan. She clicked on his name. His page opened to reveal a bigger photo grinning at her. His hair was dark, brushing his collar at the back, two loose strands framing golden eyes that laughed, a patch of hair on his chin. […] Her eyes moved to the Add Friend link.

After Fane accepts her friend request, things start to escalate. Rapunzel is a curious 17-year-old teenager who now has her first real conversation, besides the ones she has had with her mother. You will laugh as you read through their chats and maybe feel nostalgic about the time when you were just a kid and everything was fresh, exciting, and new to you. Rapunzel’s overcontrolling mother is a reference to all those overprotective mothers who cannot seem to let go of their children. The dangers and risks are everywhere, but that’s what life is, isn’t it? With many dramatic moments, this novel will be a treat: it is a true mix of romance and adventure. There are many places in the novel which pose moral dilemmas and demand your full attention as a reader: you’ll have to rethink different situations taking into consideration the positions of various characters.

Red Rider’s Hood, by Neal Shusterman
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Another work of young adult fiction, this time a thriller, but with a completely different approach to rewriting a fairy-tale (although it does have fantastic elements). A whole new context is brought to you by Shusterman, and the connections to the original story are looser, but also more intriguing and clever. Red is the name of a mysterious 16-year-old boy who cruises the town in his blood red Mustang. He usually stays out of trouble and keeps to the sidelines as a misfit. However, when the gang called the Wolves mugs his grandmother, it becomes personal. He decides to join the gang incognito, so he can infiltrate among them and learn how to beat them. Gradually, he discovers how they live and finally confronts the horrible truth: they are werewolves. He then begins to question his own life and compares it to the pack’s way of living: who has more freedom and who is more loyal to himself? This novel can be funny at times if you focus on the fact that it’s based on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy-tale. Some parts seem extremely humorous because of that. Just take a look at Red’s introduction to the story:

It all started the day I had to deliver some „bread“ to my grandma. That’s what she calls money, because she’s still stuck in the sixties, when money was „bread“, cops were „fuzz“, and everything else was „groovy“. Don’t even bother telling her it’s a whole other millennium.

Still, if you’re all in for fantasy with elements of horror, you won’t be disappointed.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire
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You know what they say: there are many different versions of the truth. Maguire takes a different approach in retelling the story of Cinderella: he writes in the first person singular, from the point of view of her ugly stepsister. In this version of the story, Cinderella is a manipulative and spoiled young woman who thinks that good looks can compensate for her lack of character. She indulges in self-pity and doesn’t even try to make a connection with her new family. Maguire questions man’s ability to assess anyone’s kindness because he often cannot see beyond physical appearance. The story focuses on the stepsister Iris, who takes care of her mother Margareth and her older sister Ruth (who is mentally challenged). The three flee England and come to the Netherlands after their father (that is, husband) is murdered. They arrive at the household where they become employed as domestics. Ruth meets Clara (i.e. Cinderella), who is unpleasant and rude. Good prevails at the end: although Ruth doesn’t marry a prince, she does marry an apprentice named Caspar, who cares deeply for her. This may be a subtextual message: real life and kind people are the most precious riches, not the wealth of princes. Here’s what we can really learn from fairy-tales:

In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it’s far more common for human beings to turn into rats.

Insightful, witty, and true! Bravo, Mr. Maguire.

These five authors use fairy-tales to rewrite the folktales we first heard in our childhoods. Now they have a new context, often aiming at a more mature reading audience. What are your favorites?

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