Langrish takes as her point of departure the tale Blue Beard, with its passive heroine who must be saved by her (male) siblings. Langrish contrasts it first to a modern novel, and then, in a surprise, with another fairy tale, Mr. Fox. If you don’t know this tale, it’s every bit as chilling as Blue Beard, but with a twist: the heroine is far from passive, and saves herself by her ingenuity.
In fact, folk tales are full of these ingenious figures. The gallant tailor comes to mind: a fellow who is part fool, part charlatan, he fools one giant after another, until he lands himself a royal berth. Then, just when you thought he got all this through dumb luck and naivete, he defeats the cleverest of the clever: politicos. And you’re left wondering: Maybe it was I who was naive?
So many folk tales are ambiguous. I sometimes eavesdrop on Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple discussing fairytales about mothers and daughters (Mirror, Mirror: Forty Folktales for Mothers and Daughters to Share; Viking Penguin, 2000). None of these tales are “twisted.” Like good art generally, most of them are ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations. Readers find themselves in the tales where they can–or where they can’t.
Not so much, the retellings. My boys received a Mary Engelbreit collection of tales not long ago. Most, if not all, end with a beautiful, pure girl marrying a handsome, good prince. These are retold tales, with the grimmest features removed (by long tradition). They’ve been selected, edited, reworked in light of certain sensibilities, with just a touch of girl-power in the mix (just a small touch, I would say). They don’t sit side-by-side with Mr. Fox or The Gallant Tailor. They make a up a mini-corpus, a little canon of fairy tale tropes.
All this, to me, suggests that the twisting of fairy tales relies for its existence on a particular refraction of the “fairy tale.” It comes by means of these collections and animated retellings, which together suggest that the meaning of fairy tales is fixed, a quantified and contained thing that can be “twisted” or turned on its head for the benefit of people today. As far as most people know fairy tales, that’s probably true. But the deeper resources of the genre point up the falsehood here. In fact, traditional folktales and epics sometimes undermine the very tropes we assume they stand for. Such tales don’t need to be “twisted” to achieve the goal of empowering society’s marginalized. They already do that on their own.