Twisted fairy tales – or not

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose read...

A picture by Gustave Doré of Mother Goose reading written (literary) fairy tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a fine post over at Mr. Pond‘s by Katherine Langrish. It looks at the question of the “anti-tale” among folk tales and epics. And it reminded me of that genre we call “twisted fairy tales.”

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.

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5 thoughts on “Twisted fairy tales – or not

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    Faerie tales certainly seem to be re-cast for each age. Not sure I disagree with the practice. I still remember one where kids had to cut out the heart of a giant; it was kind of gruesome, perhaps more appropriate for a time when childhood was shorter and there was no concept of teenage years.

    • Can and should be retold and reshaped. Absolutely. I’ll even go further: Fairy tales that have been turned into stories about handsome princes and weak heroines ought to be twisted. But I think it’s worth knowing that it’s usually a Victorian reshaping that’s being reworked, not the fairy tale per se. In doing away with children eating giants’ hearts, our predecessors had a tendency toward the prudish, and this was often done in an imperialist spirit. (“Our enlightened age …” and all that.) I’m not a fan of cultural snobbery in any era, or ignorance of the tradition, to put it a bit too bluntly I’m sure. But yes, there are times when twisting a tale is a good way forward.

  2. Great post, John. And thanks for the trackback. My favourite observation of Kath’s post there is how much more radical and subversive the old medieval version of ‘Mr Fox’ is compared to the intentionally ‘twisted’ version by Angela Carter. The real weakness with twisting tales is, as you point out, it’s not the real tale we’re twisting–and our twisting of someone else’s retelling is inevitably limited by that retelling. With the end result that too many attempts at subversive retellings wind up being every bit as parochial and prudish as the Victorian tales they’re reacting to–just more accommodating to our modern biases. Can’t beat (or do without) a deep knowledge of the whole folk tradition if you want to retell fairy tales well, I think.

    You might be curious to see this old(ish) interview of mine about anti-tales: http://www.cabinetdesfees.com/2011/discovering-the-anti-tale/ It’s a fun idea to kick around.

    • Well said! Thanks for that. And the interview was enlightening. You’ve given me some new categories for thinking about why some reappropriations of tales are more to my liking than others. I knew I wasn’t opposed to radical retellings per se–just some of them. Now I’m starting to see why. Thanks for stopping by and sharing the link.

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