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Once Upon A Time: Fairy Tales and Fantasy

Cinderella by Oona Patterson

Once upon a time…

Just about anyone familiar with the Western literary canon knows that phrase. It opens familiar fairy tales we’ve grown up with, like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, along with more obscure ones, like Katie Crackernuts. It appears in modern fiction, too, albeit slightly translated. After all, what else could “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” mean?

Through the Woods by JonathanFairy tales are essentially the precursors to modern fantasy. Their recurrent themes have become easily recognizable tropes. Royalty hidden away as a peasant? The Belgariad has that, as does The Goose Girl. Heroes transformed into animals? Take a look at Taran Wanderer, fourth book of the Prydain Chronicles, along with The Seven Swans. Magic, witches, or the Fair Folk? Pick any fantasy novel and any fairy tale, and chances are, they’ll have at least one.

Of course, when discussing the intersection of fairy tales and fantasy, the first thing that springs to mind is retold fairy tales. These have been around for years; as a child, I read Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and her Princess Tales series, and as I grew older, I discovered Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. These are the more basic sorts of retold fairy tales. Levine’s books are a little more blatant about their origins. (It’s rather hard not to be when you have literal fairy godmothers appearing.) Lackey’s series is a touch more subtle, as the books are much more historical fantasy than explicitly fairy stories, but it’s still quite easy to tell which fairy tales inspired the books. Both are also more than just an expanded retelling. While they stick to the general structure of the original fairy tale, characters are fleshed out and details are added that turn them from simple bedtime stories to compelling novels.

In recent years, there has been a surge of retold fairy tales, of all sorts and genres. Most are children’s or YA books, and while many remain fantasy, at least one (Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles) have translated fairy tales into science fiction. All of them feature greater agency not just for female characters (something which is sorely lacking in older fantasy literature) but also for male characters, and even villains. While this does have a great deal to do with modern expectations for books, it is also a necessary shift when writing in two different mediums. Fairy tales (and myths in general) tend to be more plot-based than character-based. Even when myths are not an explanation of how some natural phenomenon or social code came to be, the characters don’t usually have the dimensions of characters in novels. Fairy tales work the same way, and we can all probably recite their plot structure.

Taming dragon by Dina Belenko

(And there’s another element of fairy tales that features in modern fantasy! A hero going on a quest, facing setbacks, gaining allies, and eventually achieving a goal is just a condensed version of the hero’s journey.)

Fairy tales aren’t just being retold and reimagined to better suit modern sensibilities. They are being co-opted entirely to serve new stories. Fairy tale characters appear outside of their own stories. Once Upon a Time sits right on the line between these two approaches. Flashbacks show us characters like Snow White and Belle living out their fairy tales while the present day storyline features them in the town of Storybrooke, living ordinary lives, unaware of their previous identities. Another example of fairy tale figures living in the modern world is the Fables series, currently sitting in my TBR pile, and I know there must be dozens more.

Graveyard by Jonathan

The School for Good and Evil and its sequels take things a step further. Fairy tale figures are historical figures in this series, which features future fairy tale heroes and villains learning how to make it through their own fairy tales. In the third book, figures such as Cinderella and Peter Pan make a brief (humorously disillusioning) appearance, one perfectly fitting for a book that isn’t quite kid lit and isn’t quite YA. Cinderella is as foul-mouthed as a PG-rated side character can be, and Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, actually has grown old, and isn’t too thrilled with the various side effects of old age.

Some might say that none of these stories are properly original. After all, when you retell Snow White, all you’re doing is taking an old story and putting a different spin on it. We all know what’s going to happen, from the apple to the kiss to the happily ever after. Wouldn’t it be a better use of authors’ (and readers’) time to make a new story entirely?

Maybe. However, I will fight for the reinterpretation of fairy tales to my last breath for two reasons. First, they’re fun. Knowing where they’re going to go means I can focus on the clever reinterpretations rather than being too sucked up into the plot and all its twists and turns. Sometimes all you need is a light read.

China by KarineDiot

Second, they’re often clever, but more importantly, they’re modern. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a novel inspired by both China and Snow White, feels like a story I’ve never read before, even though I can occasionally pick up hints of where it came from and where it will go. The setting and the fairy tale weave together to create a work that is more than the sum of its parts. It also manages to create a balance between the modern style of characters driving the plot forward and the older style of plot pushing the characters along. The protagonist makes her own choices and is pushed down certain paths by fate. It doesn’t feel like an even split; it feels like an intricate dance.

Castle Book by The Image FoundationFairy tales and fantasy will always be intertwined, and as the genre goes forward, there are two things I would love to see. For the most part, the fairy tales I’ve seen influencing fantasy come from Grimm, Perrault, and others in the Western canon. I’d love to see more influenced by Eastern and African works, or perhaps that come from a fusion of different cultures. (Maybe the Big Bad Wolf could meet one of the helpful wolves of Russian fairy tales?) I’d also love to see new fairy tales of some sort. Fantasy is a genre inherently rooted in the past, and it therefore presents the perfect chance to combine past and present as we please. Why not reawaken old styles and use them as we please?

Do you have a favorite modern fairy tale, either original or retelling? Let us know in the comments!

Title image by Oona Patterson.

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One Comment

  1. Fran Laniado says:

    I’m a big fan of fairy tales and fairy tale retellings for many of the reasons that you mentioned. In July I published my first novel, Beautiful, that is a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast (an all-time favorite fairy tale for me). I actually didn’t set out to write a fairy tale retelling when I started, but the fairy tale structure sort of emerged as I wrote the first draft, and I embraced it. I realized that there was a character that I’d never given much thought to and I fleshed out her motives and expanded her role in the story. I wouldn’t say that my book is definitive. But that’s the great thing about fairy tales. There is no “definitive” version because they come from an oral tradition that has a million variations anyway!

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