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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.  
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