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SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Retellings

Thursday, May 07, 2015

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS

A few months ago, I gave a speech on fairy tales at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I've had a lot of queries from people who were unable to make it for various reasons (including vast distances) and so I've summarised my speech into a couple of blogs so everyone may enjoy.  Here is a brief rundown on fairy tale retellings and ways to use them in your own creative work ...



A fairy tale retelling is a story which retells or reimagines a fairy tale, or draws upon well-known fairy tale symbols and structures.


Fairy tale retellings deal with personal transformation - people and creatures change in dramatic and often miraculous ways. Many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of a truth that has been somehow hidden or disguised. 

Fairy Tale Retellings are most often written as a fantasy for children or young adults.


        

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for young adults


Not all, however. In recent years, there have been a number of beautiful, powerful and astonishing fairy tale retellings for adults too. 

          
      

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for adults

My own novel BITTER GREENS is a sexy and surprising retelling of the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale, interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force . It moves between Renaissance Venice and the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century Versailles and Paris, imagining the witch of the tale as a beautiful courtesan and the muse of the Venetian painter Titian. 

      

There are many different ways to draw upon fairy tales in fiction. Here is a brief overview: 


“Pure” Fairy Tale Retellings
A retelling of a fairy tale in which few changes are made to the best-known or ‘crystallised’ sequence of action and motifs. Changes tend to be small and subtle, such as adding dialogue or rhymes, naming characters, describing the setting more vividly, or smoothing out any inconsistencies. My picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, beautifully illustrated by Fiona McDonald, is an example of a "pure" fairy tale retelling. 



Fairy tale Parodies
Stories in this genre parody fairy tales for comic effect – they are usually done in picture book form, though sometimes writers do so in longer fiction also. 



Fairy Tale Pastische
A pastiche is a work of literature which celebrates the work that it imitates i.e. it is a new work which copies or mimics the style of an older literary form. A fairy tale pastiche therefore sounds like it comes from the ancient oral tradition, but is entirely new 



Sequels, prequels and Spin-Offs

Many fiction writers take a well-known fairy tale, and then create new stories that tell of the events which happened before or after the pattern of action in the 'crystallised' tale. 




Fairy Tale Allusion & Intertextuality

Some novels can draw upon fairy tale motifs, metaphors and plot patterns in more subtle ways. 

A girl may wear a red hoodie, or red dancing shoes. 

A young woman may be poor and under-valued, yet still win the heart of the most eligible bachelor

A dark forest may be a dark city … a tower may be a hospital …

My novel DANCING ON KNIVES is a contemporary romantic suspense novel set in Australia, yet it draws upon Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale, 'The Little Mermaid'. My heroine Sara is not at home in the world. She feels as if she cannot breathe, and every step causes her pain. She is haunted by the ghosts of the past, and must learn to be brave before she can begin a new life for herself. The fairy tale elements are used only as allusion and metaphor, and as a structural underpinning of the story. 




Retelling well-known tales from another Point of View

Another way to reinvigorate a well-known fairy tale is to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. I was always interested in the motivations of the witch in 'Rapunzel', and so knew right from the beginning that she would be a major point of view in BITTER GREENS. Here are a few other books which make the villain the protagonist of the story: 

      


Retelling well-known Fairy Tales in unexpected settings

Another way to revitalise a well-known fairy tale is to set it somewhere startling or unexpected. I have spent the last year working on a retelling of the Grimm Brothers'version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in Nazi Germany.  THE BEAST'S GARDEN will be released in late April 2015.





Books About Fairy Tales & Their Tellers

As I noted earlier, BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the ' Rapunzel' fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. As an author and oral storyteller, I am very interested in the tellers of the tales. In my novel, THE WILD GIRL, I tell the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most famous fairy tales, against the dramatic background of the Napoleonic Wars in Germany. 

      
   


Retelling Little Known Fairy Tales

You do not need to only drawn upon the best-known fairy tales. There are many hundreds of beautiful, romantic and beguiling fairy tales that are not as well-known as they should be. In THE GYPSY CROWN, I retell some old Romany folk tales. In THE PUZZLE RING, I was inspired by Scottish fairy tales and history. In THE WILD GIRL, I shine a light upon some of the forgotten Grimm tales. In THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, I play with old Welsh tales. 

The only limits are your own imagination!

FURTHER READING:




SPOTLIGHT: The Little Mermaid

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Little Mermaid

History of the Tale
Many cultures around the world have tales of mermaids and other magical human-like creatures of the sea in their folkloric traditions. 

The first known mermaid tale appeared in ancient Assyria, more than 3,000 years ago. The goddess Atargatis was in love with a handsome shepherd, but accidentally killed him. In her guilt and shame, she leapt into a lake and took the form of a fish but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. So she was caught as a human above the waist and a fish below. 

In Greek mythology, mermaids are linked with sirens, beautiful yet dangerous creatures that lure sailors to the death with their enchanting and irresistible singing. 


There is a similar tale in German folklore, telling the story of a beautiful young maiden named Lorelei who threw herself headlong into the river in despair over a faithless lover. Upon her death she was transformed into a siren and could from that time on be heard singing on a rock along the Rhine River. 
One Thousand and One Nights includes several tales featuring ‘sea people’, though they do not have fish-tails, but only the ability to breathe and live underwater. 

China has tales of a mermaid who ‘wept tears which became pearls’, while in Thai storytelling traditions there is a character called Suvannamaccha (lit. golden mermaid).  Mermaids and mermen also appear in Philippine folklore, where they are known as sirena and siyokoy.

From Scotland and Ireland come tales of selkies, said to live in the sea as seals but able to shed their sealskins and walk on the land in human form. (I have just had a children’s picture book published called Two Selkie Tales from Scotland). 


Melusine is another mermaid-like creature found in French fairy tales. She is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, or with the lower body of a serpent, and usually lives in forest pools and rivers. The story of Melusine inspired the very popular 19th century book Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, in which Undine, a water spirit, marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. 

It is said to have inspired the most famous mermaid tale, Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" which was first published in 1837. Anyone who only knows the story because of the Disney remake will be shocked to read the original, which is far darker and crueller.  



In the original version, The Little Mermaid is the youngest daughter of a sea king who lives at the bottom of the sea. She saves the life of a prince on a ship and falls in love with him, and so goes to the sea-witch to ask her for a spell to give up her tail. The sea-witch cuts out her tongue, and tells her every step she takes will be like stepping on knives:

"I know what you want," said the sea witch. "It is very foolish of you, for it will bring you to grief, my proud princess. You want to get rid of your fish tail and have two stumps instead, so that you can walk about like a human creature, and have the young Prince fall in love with you, and win him and an immortal soul besides … But every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow. … Well, have you lost your courage? Stick out your little tongue and I shall cut it off. I'll have my price, and you shall have the spell."

However, the prince marries another and the little mermaid has sacrificed all for nothing. Her sisters come to her with a dagger and tell her she can only become a mermaid again if she stabs him in the heart, but the Little Mermaid cannot bear to do so. She flings herself in the ocean instead and drowns.The spirits of the air save her and tell her that mermaids who do good deeds become daughters of the air, and after 300 years of good service they can earn a human soul.

It is thought The Little Mermaid was written as a kind of love letter to Hans Christian Andersen’s dear friend Edvard Collin. Andersen, upon hearing of Collin’s engagement to a young woman, wrote to him: 
‘I long for you as though you were a beautiful Calabrian girl … my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.’

Edvard Collin turned Andersen down, disgusted. Andersen then wrote The Little Mermaid to symbolize his inability to have Collin just as a mermaid cannot be with a human. He sent it to Collin in 1836 and it goes down in history as one of the most profound love letters ever written. When he died, Andersen’s will left most of his money to Collin. 

The Little Mermaid, as it was originally written, had an even more tragic ending with the Little Mermaid dying. 


Motifs & Meaning Of Tales
Unsurprisingly, most feminist scholars see Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as both violent and misogynist. 

The Little Mermaid sacrifices her voice, her mermaid tail, and ultimately her life, for the Prince, thus reinforcing a cultural stereotype which subordinates women. 

The scholar Robert W. Meyers describes the cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue as “the relinquishment of her right to be heard, the loss of her creativity and the wound of castration”. 

According to Meyers, Andersen had a strong feminine identification which he repressed. He then instilled his own subconscious desires into his characters. The cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue is essentially Andersen’s way of repressing his own feminine identity and sexual desires. He metaphorically removes sexuality from his character.



However, some feminists see the tale as a warning to women to choose not to be like the Little Mermaid – i.e to not accept any kind of abuse in the name of love.

Others focus on the spiritual transformation of the heroine, from a creature of the sea, to a creature of the land, to a creature of the air – showing her spirit’s progress up towards God. This is reflected in the themes of wounding, self-sacrifice and the idea of love defeating death. 


Modern Retellings
In 1961, Shirley Temple Theatre broadcast a television version of "The Little Mermaid", starring Shirley Temple as the Mermaid.

In 1989, Walt Disney made a very popular animated musical fantasy based on the story (though in it the mermaid gets her prince). ‘The Little Mermaid’ was the first Disney fairy tale retelling since Sleeping Beauty in 1959. The film rights of 'The Little Mermaid' had been a Disney property since 1941, with Walt planning to include the much darker Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale in a planned anthology film of his works. The idea was shelved in 1943. 

My novel Dancing on Knives draws upon the Andersen tale in allusion and structure. 


Favourite Books of Mine which feature mermaids or selkies:

Ingo by Helen Dunmore

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli

Sea-Hearts by Margo Lanagan (selkies)

Secrets of the Sea House (selkies)


You can listen to me talking about mermaids with Natasha Mitchell on ABC National 'Life Matters' or read my blog on the History & Meaning of Sleeping Beauty


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

 

BOOK LIST: The most gorgeous fairy tale books in the world

Friday, May 02, 2014

I was asked by a fan to post a blog about my favourite fairy tale picture books absolute ages ago, but I’ve been so busy I simply haven’t had time. 

I thought I’d celebrate the launch of my own fairy tale picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND by doing it now!




I'd love to add to my collection so if you know any other utterly gorgeous illustrated fairy tales, please tell me in the comments so I can add them to my collection. 

Here are my favourites (in no particular order):




This is the most beautiful version of 'The Singing, Springing Lark', the Grimm Brothers' variant of 'Beauty & the Beast'(here titled 'The Lady & the Lion')  - the illustrations are utterly exqusite!




Paul Zelinsky's gorgeous 'Rapunzel' which sets the story in the Italian Renaissance which is, of corue, what I did to in my historical novel BITTER GREENS




More by Paul Zelinsky, one of my favourite children's illustrators - this is a brilliant rendition of 'Rumpelstiltskin'




Paul Zelinsky's 'Hansel & Gretel' - doesn't the witch's cottage look delicious?




My absolute favourite fairy tale artists is K. Y. Craft - I'd give almost anything to have her illustrate one of my books. They are so gorgeous, intricate, mysterious and magical! This one is 'Twelve Dancing Princesses', which is also one of my favourite fairy tales 




A swoon-worthy 'Cinderella' from K.Y. Craft




'Sleeping Beauty'from K. Y. Craft



A lovely version of the 'Tam Lin' ballad, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft - I also have versions of this story by Susan Cooper and Jane Yolen 





This exquisite retelling of 'Persephone' is retold by Sally Pomme Clayton and illustrated by Virginia Lee 






My favourite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, 'The Snow Queen' is illustrated here by Vladyslav Yerko in a mesmerisingly beautiful edition 




Oscar Wild's fairy tale 'The Happy Prince' is illustrated beautifully by Jane Ray





Finally, this utterly beautiful version of 'Wild Swans', retold by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert 


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

SPOTLIGHT: Two Selkie Tales from Scotland

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Today is Launch Day for my new picture book, TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, gorgeously illustrated by Fiona McDonald.

To celebrate, I’m devoting the blog to Selkie and other fairy tales for the next few days. Enjoy!



The Story Behind the Story of TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND ...

My grandmother’s grandmother was Scottish. 

Her name was Ellen Mackenzie and she grew up on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Her home was edged on all sides by the waters of rivers and firths leading out to the sea. 


Ellen’s mother was called Margaret McPhee, and as everyone in Scotland knows, the McPhee clan was descended from Selkies. The name McPhee is derived from an older version of the name MacDuffie, which comes from the Gaelic term MacDubhSithe, meaning ‘son of the dark fairy’. Family legend says that the first McPhee took a Selkie as a bride! 

Ellen emigrated to Australia in the 1850s and, apart from some books and clothes and a sprig of heather, she brought a head stuffed full of old tales. She told these stories to her daughter Jinny, who told them to her daughters, Clarice, Gwen and Marjory (nicknamed Joy), and they – my great-aunts and grandmother - told them to me. 

I always loved the tales of selkies, who were seals in the water and humans upon the land. It seemed the best of both worlds. People drowned if they sank beneath the waves, and mermaids could only flop about helplessly on land. Selkies, however, could plunge through the fathomless deeps, and then shed their sealskin and run and dance on the shore. I loved wondering if I had Selkie blood in me, and if one day I’d find the way to transform into a seal. 

Like many Scottish fairy tales, ‘The Selkie Bride’ is full of love and loss, magic and mystery. A Selkie woman is seen dancing on the shore. A man steals her sealskin and hides it from her and so she is trapped in human form. 



Though the Selkie bride pines for the sea and her own kind, the man marries her and they have children. Eventually, the Selkie bride finds her sealskin – often with the help of one for her children – and so she returns to the sea, leaving her human family bereft. In many tales, her descendants are seers and singers, poets and players. Often they have webbed hands and feet, or may have been born with a caul of skin over their heads. If so, their families hide or destroy their caul so that they will not run away to the sea. I always loved that story, and wished that I had been born with Selkie blood so that I could swim through the waves with all the sleek grace of a seal, but still dance in the moonlight whenever I wanted. 



A lesser known tale is ‘The Seal-Hunter and the Selkie’. A man who makes his living by slaughtering seals finds himself transformed into a Selkie for a night, and charged with the task of saving the life of one he has injured. He is overcome by remorse and promises to never kill a seal again. This was always one of my favourite tales, for I’ve never liked the idea of killing such beautiful creatures. It was also, I thought, more joyful and hopeful than many of the Selkie tales, which are often tragic, and so was a bright counterpoint to the melancholy feel of ‘The Selkie Bride’. 


I loved retelling these two old tales, and tried to recapture some of the lilt of my grandmother and great-aunts’ voices in the story’s cadences and rhythm.  They are stories I will love to tell aloud.

All the illustrations above are by Fiona McDonald for the book - here's the link to her blog.

Want more Selkies? Check out this blog I wrote last year ...

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