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Why I Love Fairy Tale Retellings

Sunday, August 31, 2014



I have loved fairy tales since I was a little girl. 

I was first given a book of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ when I was seven, and in hospital. I had been cruelly savaged by a dog as a baby and spent the first ten years of my life in and out of hospital, suffering high fevers and seemingly endless operations to repair a damaged tear duct. 

Reading that book of fairy tales were such an escape for me, and yet, also a comfort.
I could imagine myself riding a winged horse, soaring free of my narrow white hospital bed, escaping to have marvellous adventures somewhere else. 

The world of fairy tales was filled with beauty and mystery and romance and strangeness, all the things my hospital ward was lacking. In fairy tales, blinded princes were healed as I wished to be. In fairy tales, imprisoned maidens won their way free. 

I read that collection of fairy tales to tatters, and was always hungry for more. 

One day, when I was about ten, I discovered a book called The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon on my school library bookshelf. I began reading it as I walked home from school and was instantly entranced. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale and is full of charm and whimsy. I was so engrossed I walked straight past the end of my street and could possibly have kept on walking for miles, if a neighbour had not driven past and honked me back to the real world. 



That book has been such a talisman for me all of my life that I named my own daughter Eleanor (after the writer), nicknamed Ella for short (after the heroine). 

That book began my love of fairy tale retellings. A year or so later, I read The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray, a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ told from the point of view of the witch’s cat. Of all the fairy tales I loved, ‘Rapunzel’ one resonated with me the most – perhaps because I too had been a young girl locked away from the world, longing for escape, perhaps because the injuries to my eye meant that for long periods of time, I was half-blind and in pain, as the prince had been.


I began to imagine writing my own retelling of Rapunzel before I had even finished reading the book. I love The Stone Cage, and Nicholas Stuart Gray is, I think, one of the greatest children’s writers ever. Nonetheless, I needed my own retelling of the tale to be from Rapunzel’s point of view, and to give some sense of the terrible loneliness, fear and despair she must have endured. 

When I was twelve or thirteen, I read When We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis. I had found it on my great-aunt’s bookshelf while staying there one summer, and I read the whole book, cover to cover, while lying on the floor on my stomach behind her over-stuffed tapestry armchair. It was an utter revelation. Dark and strong and full of anger, it showed how well-known tales – in this case, the story of Cupid and Psyche – could be turned utterly inside-out when told from the point of view of the supposed villain of the tale. 


I began to imagine writing part of my own Rapunzel retelling from the point of view of the witch. She had always puzzled me. Why had she wanted to lock Rapunzel in the tower? What happened to her after the story ended? 

As I grew up I devoured the work of Robin McKinley, reading her wonderful retellings Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End, Beauty and Deerskin. I also loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, North Child by Edith Pattou (also published as East), and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. 



Then I read Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, the first time I had read a retelling of a fairy tale written for adults. I knew at once that was what I wanted to do – write a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ for an adult audience.


For me, it was always a story about sexual desire and power. I never understood how it could be told as a pretty bedtime story for little children, with pictures of a smiling girl combing her hair in a tiny tower wreathed with roses. I knew, gut-deep, that Rapunzel was a far darker story.

So I began to think seriously about my own retelling. It took me seven years to write Bitter Greens – a powerfully symbolic number in fairy tales – and the book ended up very different to how I had first imagined it. As well as telling the story from the point of view of the maiden in the tower, and the witch who put her there, I also tell the story of the woman who first wrote the tale – the utterly fascinating 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

So why do I love such retellings? Because they illuminated the dark and hidden depths of fairy tales, the most mysterious and magical of all narratives.  

BOOK LIST: My Favourite Fairy Tales Retellings

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I love fairy tale retellings ... here are a few of my favourites! 



'The Glass Slipper' by Eleanor Farjeon
I read this retelling of the Cinderella fairytale while walking home from primary school one day and was so entranced I walked straight past the turnoff to my street. I might have kept walking for hours if a neighbour hadn’t driven past and honked me back to reality. 

I love this book so much that I named my daughter Eleanor after the writer, with her pet name being Ella after the heroine. The Glass Slipper is full of wit and charm and whimsy and word play, the prose dancing like poetry. After I left my primary school, my one regret was that I hadn’t smuggled the book out of the library in my school bag and kept it. 

Years later, I found it in a second-hand shop and fell upon it with squeals of excitement. This is very much a classic children’s book, published in 1955 – the Prince does no more than kiss Ella’s hand – but it is so full of joy and innocence, it will always be one of the most magical books of my life. 


For 8+

'The Stone Cage' by Nicholas Stuart Gray
A beautiful retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, told from the point of view of the witch’s cat, this is an absolute classic fairytale retelling. Reading this as a child is what first made me think of writing my own Rapunzel tale – I wanted to make my heroine a little feistier than Nicholas Stuart Gray’s sweet and loving Rapunzel. 

What I love most about this book is the personalities of the witch’s cat and the witch’s raven – one is arrogant, selfish and smart-mouthed, the other serious-minded and scholarly. 

For 8+


Cold Iron by Sophie Masson

Published as Malkin in the US, this is a retelling of the English fairytale ‘Tattercoats’, interwoven with elements of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’.  ‘Tattercoats’ is a Cinderella type story, about a persecuted heroine, but in this book it is not the sweet and maltreated Tattercoats who is the heroine, but the brave and feisty serving-girl Malkin, and her friend, the goose-boy Pug. Cold Iron is a small book, but packed to the brim with personality. Sophie Masson writes with a light, deft touch, lavishing attention on her minor characters and on the scenery, so that the book gleams like a little jewel.

I also love Sophie's most recent fairy tale retellings - Moonlight & Ashes and Scarlet in the Snow - gorgeous and romantic and surprising. 



Wild Magic by Cat Weatherill 
This is a wonderful fresh take on the Pied Piper legend, which explores why the Piper may have lured away all the children of the town of Hameln and what may have happened to them afterwards. The primary protagonists are Mari and her little brother Jakob, and the land they have been taken to is a place of wild magic, fearsome beasts, and an ancient curse than must be broken if they are ever to escape. The writing is beautiful, and the story itself gripping and suspenseful.  I’m surprised this wonderful book is not better known. 


For 8+ 


Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George 
I thought, from the title, that this must be a Cinderella- retelling, but it is in fact ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ which Jessica Day George has re-told in this sweet and atmospheric novel. Even though Jessica Day George has done a classic retelling here, in a fantasy otherworld very much like Europe, and with the plot line adhering closely to the original tale, she has done it with a light touch, a sense of humour, and just enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning the pages.  A captivating fairytale retelling. 

For 8+


Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Since being made into a movie with the beautiful young Anne Hathaway, Ella Enchanted is possibly the best known retelling of Cinderella. As always, though, the book is much better than the movie, being filled with humour and surprise and intelligence.

At birth, Ella is given the gift of obedience by a well-meaning but air-brained fairy called Lucinda. The gift is more of a curse for poor Ella, and so she sets out to find Lucinda and undo the spell. She has all sorts of adventures along the way, some of which include a prince, a pumpkin coach and a glass slipper, but Gail Carson Levine takes great delight in twisting the known elements of this most popular of tales to give it new life.

12+


The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
The Goose Girl was Shannon Hale’s first book, and launched her career.  It is a retelling of the Grimm Brothers story ‘The Goose Girl’, which is one of the lesser known tales but still filled with a few gruesome touches, like a dead horse’s head that talks. 

Ani, a crown princess, can talk with birds and animals, but her talents are not appreciated in the royal family. When Ani is sent off to marry the prince of a neighbouring kingdom, her treacherous maid-in-waiting schemes to take her place. Barely escaping with her life, Ani disguises herself as a goose girl while she tries to find a way to reclaim her rightful palace. With some surprising twists and a satisfying ending, this is a lovely romantic retelling, suitable for children or adults. 

For 12+


North Child by Edith Pattou 
Known as East in the US, this beguiling book is a retelling of a traditional Norwegian fairytale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, which is an Animal Bridegroom type story. 

Rose was born into the world facing north, and as a north child, superstition says that she will be a wanderer, travelling far from home. This prophecy is fulfilled when she rides away on the back of a white bear to a mysterious castle, where a silent stranger appears to her night after night. When her curiosity overcomes her, she loses her one true love, and must journey to a land east of the sun and west of the moon to save him.

For 12+

A Curse As Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce 
I love fairytale retellings that are set in the real world, at a real time in history – somehow they make the fairytale seem so much more possible. A Curse As Dark as Gold was one of my favourite reads last year – a beautiful, romantic retelling of the well-known Rumpelstiltskin fairytale, set in a British wool town during the Industrial Revolution. This story is really brought to life by the atmosphere of the mill, the heroine’s family home which is being threatened with closure. It also has a really charismatic and surprising villain, which helped add suspense and surprise to this well-known tale.


Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

I had adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series as a child and so one day, while staying with my great-aunts, I found this book on a bookshelf and sat down on the floor to look at it. The first line reads: ‘I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.’  

Entranced, I read on to the end, devouring the book in a single sitting. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, which is not properly a fairytale, except in its obvious similarity to Animal Bridegroom tales such as ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’. It is, however, still one of my all-time favourite retellings.

For 16+


Deerskin by Robin McKinley
This is a heart-rending retelling of ‘All-Kinds’-of-Fur’, the Grimm tale about a king who falls in love with her daughter and seeks to marry her. Known under different names in different cultures, it’s probably best known as Tattercoats, Catskin, or Donkeyskin. In some versions of the tale, the princess manages to outwit and escape her lustful father, before hiding herself in the skin of a wild beast and working in the kitchen of the king of a neighbouring country. In time, the second king comes to recognise the princess hidden beneath the filthy furs, and marries her. 

In Robin McKinley’s novel, the daughter does not escape until she has been raped by her father, making this one of the most powerful, and ultimately redemptive, novels ever written about incest. 

Robin McKinley has written many other beloved fairytale retellings, including Beauty and Rose Daughter (both retellings of ‘Beauty & the Beast’) and Spindle’s End (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty), which I adore as well. 




Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
A retelling of the Six Swans fairytale, this was Australian author Juliet Marillier’s first published book.  Although she has written a number of gorgeous, spell-binding fairytale retellings since – including Heart’s Blood (‘Beauty & the Beast’) and Wildwood Dancing (Twelve Dancing Princesses), 

Daughter of the Forest is still my favourite. It is set long, long ago, in Ireland, and begins when Sorcha, the seventh child of the family and the only girl, is only a child. The whole atmosphere of the book is filled with romance, enchantment, beauty and danger, making it one of the best retellings ever written (in my humble opinion).



Other must-read fairy tale retellings by Juliet Marillier include Wildwood Dancing, Heart's Blood and Cybele's Secret - I love them all!


I also love Margo Lanagan's novels, especially Sea Hearts - a haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 





Thornspell by Helen Lowe

New Zealand writer Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. Prince Sigismund has grown up in a castle whose gardens and parklands are surrounded by a deep, tangled forest. He is kept locked away from the world, and so longs for adventures like the ones in the stories he loves so much – fantastical tales of knights-errant and heroic quests, faie enchantments and shape-shifting dragons. One day a beautiful and mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, and Sigismund's world begins to change. He dreams of a raggedy girl trapped in thorns, and a castle that lies sleeping … soon he is caught up in an adventure as perilous and strange as that of any story he had ever heard …


The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

What a wonderful, amazing, magical book! I just loved this and think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I wish I’d written it. A retelling of the Russian fairytale, the Snow Child, set in Alaska at the turn of the 19th century, it seems far too accomplished to be by a debut novelist ... I can only look forward hopefully to many more books by Eowyn Ivey.


White As Snow by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee has been called "the Angela Carter of the fantasy field" for her dark and sensuous prose. This is one of the strangest and yet most compelling fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. It is so filled with violence and despair, it is almost unreadable in parts. Yet somehow it haunts the imagination afterwards, giving new depths to the well-known story of Snow-White, and taking it very far away from Disney territory.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

BOOK LIST: Books I Read in February

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

I read 10 and a half books in February, bringing my yearly quota to 24.5 books. There's a lot of romance in the list - my favourite was 'The Autumn Bride' by Anne Gracie - plus one of my all-time favourite children's classic, 'The Stone Cage' by Nicholas Stuart Gray, which I have read at least a dozen times (but it never wearies me). 

The two stand-out titles for me were 'Scarlet in the Snow' by Sophie Masson and 'The Year of Ancient Ghosts' by Kim Wilkins (both due to be released in May 2013 - lucky me got advance copies!) I also really enjoyed the medieval murder mystery, 'The Queen's Man'by Sharon Penham. 


1. The Lost Duke of Wyndham – Julia Quinn

A frothy Regency romance that was marred for me by being a companion book to an earlier title which I had not read, and so it contained lots of references to things I was obviously meant to know. A lesson in how NOT to write a sequel (or perhaps a lesson in making sure you read books in a series in the order in which they are published.)

2. Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed – Anna Campbell
A very sexy Regency romance with appealing characters and a dash of adventure. I enjoyed it hugely, and have ordered another by this author (who is Australian and so bolsters my reading of Australian Women Writers in the AWW2013 challenge - yay!)

3.  The Stone Cage - Nicholas Stuart Gray

A wonderful classic children's fantasy which retells the Rapunzel fairy tale from the point of view of the witch's cat. The book which first made me think about writing my own Rapunzel retelling, when I was only 12. 


4. The Autumn Bride - Anne Gracie

My favourite living romance writer, Anne Gracie never disappoints. This is beautiful, old-fashioned romance, driven by character and situation and dialogue, and, as always, is filled with wit and charm and pathos. Love Anne Gracie romances!



5. Scarlet in the Snow – Sophie Masson 

I just loved this retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, told with flair, dash, and panache, by one of my favourite Australian women writers (yay! Another AWW2013!) Sophie Masson has really found her niche with these books ('Scarlet in the Snow' is set in the same alternative-world Prague as Sophie's previous novel, 'Moonlight & Ashes', which was one of my BEST BOOKS READ IN 2012.) This is YA fantasy at its best - filled with magic, adventure and just a touch of romance. Loved it!


6. All That I Am – Anna Funder

I am very ashamed to admit that I could not finish this book, the most awarded and lauded Australian book of 2012. And another AWW! Was I too tired? Am I too frivolous? Or was the book just too slow and self-aware for my tastes? It should have ticked all my boxes. Historical fiction - yay! Set in Nazi Germany - yay! About a brilliant, independent woman mostly forgotten by history - yay! I really, really wanted to love this book, but it just put me to sleep every night. I've left it on my bedside table and will hopefully return to it once I'm not so tired. Maybe in my next life. 


7. To Wed A Rake – Eloisa James

A delightful Regency romance novella, razor-sharp and not a word wasted. Bought it on my Kindle as I was waiting for my ferry and had read it by the time my ferry had come. Not a yawn in sight. 


8. The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr Wright – Tessa Dare

Another Regency romance novella, not quite as light on its feet as the one by Eloisa James, but still light, amusing and a wonderful way to pass by ferry ride home. I enjoyed it so much I tried another by the same author:

9. A Night to Surrender – Tessa Dare

I really enjoyed this deliciously frothy and amusing Regency romance, with likeable characters and a great premise. A lovely way to while away and hour or two. 


10.  The Year of Ancient Ghosts – Kim Wilkins

I LOVED this book! Kim Wilkins is one of my all-time favourite writers, spinning together suspense, romance, history and mythology into books that are utterly unputdownable (is that a word?) However, she's been busy the last few years writing parallel historical/contemporary books under the name Kimberley Freeman (still uputdownable but with a greater emphasis on family drama than mythology and fairy tale -  read all about Kimberley Freeman's books HERE). 

So I was very excited to be sent an advance copy of her first Kim Willkins' title in a few years.  'The Year of Ancient Ghosts' is a collection of novellas and short stories - brave, surprising, beautiful, frightening and tragic all at once. I WANT MORE! 


11. The Queen’s Man – Sharon Penham

Sharon Penham is best known for her magisterial novels set during the Middle Ages - I haven't read any yet, though I hear they are utterly brilliant - I do plan to get to them eventually. In the meantime, I've started with Sharon Penham-lite. 'The Queen's Man' is the first in a series of mystery novels set during the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure who has always fascinated me. I enjoyed this a lot, and plan to read more - the world is vividly and accurately portrayed, the characters and the relationships ring true, and the mystery was satisfyingly mysterious. Lovely to find a new medieval mystery series to devour!   
(See my Spotlight on Ellis Peters, author of the Cadfaely medieval mysteries, and my interview with Karen Maitland, who writes brilliant medieval supernatural thrillers).



PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


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