The Fairy Tale Retold

What? A writing-related fairy-tale post? It took only a few months to get back to my roots! Okay, maybe a few months and a motivated “head-clearing-through-jogging” experience, but who’s counting?

Lately I’ve been doing some pondering about fairy tale retellings. It’s because of the Eggplant Literary Productions prompt for Spellbound and Spindles, which asks for the retelling of fairy tales in order to cater to children and adults, respectively. I did have to read the guidelines a few times, however, and even so, it took reading the various questions and answers on the thread to really get a grasp for what the editors are looking for.

In short, this was my understanding of what they wanted: yes to fairy tale retellings, no to fantasy based on fairy tales.

It almost seems confusing enough to warrant thorough delving into the matter, right?


The way I see it, my understanding of a fairy tale retelling is done with the skeleton of the fairy tale in mind (for some reason I’m thinking of the spine here). Form the story-spine around a different variable, and tell the story with those variables in place. Maybe the hero has become a heroine, or the damsel in distress has become the distressed dude (on a tangent, is there really no other equivalent for “damsel”? “Dude” has annoying connotations). Or maybe the damsel is a damsel, and the hero is a heroine, and the heroine still kisses the sleeping damsel, and the two still fall in love (or vice versa).

Then there’s the option of putting the setting in the middle of a turf war in southern America, or an isolated island east of the ancient Mataram Kingdom. And what if your characters are different cultures from the original tale? Would ideologies shift, and would the view on magic remain the same? Whatever the case, clearly a retelling of “The Robber Bridegroom” would be tremendously different from the Brothers Grimm variant if you threw zombies and oracular old women into the story. Not that I’ve tried this at all, mind you…nope…not…at–argh, fine, I plead the Fifth.

But that’s the beauty of the fairy tale retelling, and the beauty of storytellers who retell them. They can take the tale and “color” it with their imaginations or perspectives or ideologies. The cinder-girl’s fairy godmother could be a djinni, the captured selkie-turned-human-wife a tennyo. Yet the skeletal framing remains in place, and more than likely, you can recognize the story even amidst a more diversely colorful backdrop.

Book Recommendations Time!


All that said, you didn’t think I’d end it without a little delving into my stash of favorite fairy tale retellings, right? Here’s a few awesome ones I’ve read in the past!

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson – A retelling of a fairy tale of the same name (or, you know, sometimes it’s called “Diamonds and Toads”), Tomlinson puts the characters in an old Indian empire, with two sisters who are actually pretty awesome heroines.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale – Retelling of–you guessed it–“The Goose Girl.” Only, this version doesn’t do the whole talking dead horse thing.

Deerskin by Robin McKinley – Not good for the faint of heart or the children, but this adult fairy tale retelling of “Donkeyskin” is deeply riveting, albeit disturbing and dark on many levels. Very different from my other favorite retelling of the same author.

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card – Admittedly, “Sleeping Beauty” is probably one of my least favorite fairy tales, but Scott Card does an awesome job putting a bit of a twist in this tale by throwing it into Russia. Granted, this is more of a “loosely based” retelling, ’cause it includes various other Slavic fairy lore, like the inclusion of Baba Yaga.

Beauty by Robin McKinley – Yes, I am admittedly a fan of her stuff, so sue me (or don’t…considering I don’t really have much to give). This one’s a beautiful retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine – By far my favorite “Cinderella” retelling. And trust me, there are a helluva lot of cinder-girl retellings out there. Ella and Char just take the cake.

And if there’s anyone out there interested in anthologies (’cause, you know, I like them, too!): A Wolf at the Door has awesome retold fairy tales by awesome authors (like Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Jane Yolen, etc.). Also, for shits and giggles, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner gives fairy tales a bit of “political” and humorous correctness.

Okay, now I’m done.

2 thoughts on “The Fairy Tale Retold

  1. That just doesn’t make sense, what you say they are saying they want, if I am interpreting it accurately. It seems to me that they are wanting to stay in the rut of the *established*, even though what is regarded as *established* is, when considering the original sources of most of all fairy tales, they are already changed so much that only the names are the same and the stories are vastly different! Looking at the story of … ANY of them almost (!) … and the denatured, pablum neutralized …. DISNEY versions. …. of something which is telling you (and the children of the world) what to watch out for is …. ooops sorry went off on a bit of a rant. <_<


    1. Which is why I’m saying the “skeleton” remains the same. Fairy tales’ groundwork has always been in oral storytelling, so the stories themselves will change especially depending on who is telling the story and where it’s being told. But I believe a number of the more popular ones are recognizable enough when you uncurl the backbone from the story. Rapunzel is a Maiden in the Tower. Donkeyskin is thrown under Unnatural Love (though arguably, many tales can be classified thus…Snow-White and Rose-Red is borderline this, with one of them taking a bear as a lover…). Bluebeard and The Robber Bridegroom are grouped similarly in the ATU system. Since ELP is using the AT classification system (or maybe ATU, since that tries to encompass international tales), it stands to reason that they’re going to classify fairy tales using the plot patterns and structures found in them. Unfortunately, this may not work as a standard for non-Western, non-European tales (especially if you delve further east), so there’s a limitation there, but I think it’s understandable, considering the vast amount of stories to get gritty with.

      On another note, I think ELP’s only accepted one story, and it’s a variant of Jack and the Beanstalk, with a female protagonist. I’m mostly just hoping nobody thinks to do a Maiden in the Tower motif set in Indonesia… >_>


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