Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Fairy Tales and Folk Tales: Types of retellings

This post at By Singing Light caught my eye, since I also really enjoy fairy tale retellings. And folk tale retellings etc. What’s a more general term for this kind of modern story that riffs on something else — fairy tale, folk tale, mythology, whatever? Is there a general term?

Anyway, Maureen’s post is about fairy tales retold “on the slant.” Stories that “Don’t so much destroy the original as remake it.” In this context, Maureen refers to The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein, which is a wonderful story based on the Arthurian legend; The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine, which I have on my TBR pile; and Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, which has been very much on my radar and just moved up the TBR pile because hey, it’s a retelling? Who knew?

But all this opens up four basic categories of retellings, all of which I can really enjoy or really dislike, depending:

1. Retellings that stick very closely to the original fairy tale.

These can be wonderful, but, for me, only if I like the original fairy tale. Here I mean stories like Beauty by Robin McKinley, in contrast to stories like Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl. Both stuck quite closely to the originals, but it turns out I really dislike the original Goose Girl fairy tale, so sticking closely to it was not an asset for me.

I read the original after reading Hale’s book; I hadn’t remembered much about it, and no wonder, because I thoroughly disliked it. For me, Hale’s story would have worked a LOT better if she had departed significantly farther in certain specific ways (*cough* saved the horse *cough*).

What about Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn? That’s a retelling of Jane Eyre, a rather close retelling considering that it’s SF. It has some wonderfully artistic touches. I don’t particularly like Jane Eyre as a story, so the pleasure in reading Shinn’s version comes specifically from seeing how she put her story together while sticking to the original. But if we’re going to include a book like Jenna Starborn, we need a term that encompasses retellings of fairy tales AND folk tales AND classics. I guess maybe we can just say “retelling” and let it go at that?

No matter what, though, stories where the protagonist is ineffectual, where the protagonist has to cheat to win (Rumpelstiltskin, say), or where the ending is necessarily tragic . . . those aren’t likely to work for me no matter how beautifully they are told. So if the original tale drew on any of those things, then if the retelling departs from that, great.

2. Retellings “on the slant.”

Let’s say that these are stories that echo the original in important ways while departing from it significantly. I agree that The Winter Prince is a good example. It has almost nothing to do with the original story. That’s very different from, say, Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day, which is also a Mordred story from Mordred’s pov. In the latter, the story does stick closely to the familiar legend. I like both, although Wein’s book does not end with a tragedy, which for me is a biiiig plus.

Another “on the slant” fairy tale, I think, is Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse. That one draws on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it departs dramatically from the original — in contrast to, say, Robin McKinley’s “Twelve Dancing Princesses” retelling, which I also loved and which stuck very, very closely to the original.

3. Retellings that destroy the original.

My understanding is that Sarah Prineas’ Ash and Bramble is like this. Here’s what Goodreads says:

No one has ever broken free of the Godmother’s terrible stone prison until a girl named Pin attempts a breathless, daring escape. But she discovers that what seems to be freedom is a prison of another kind, one that entangles her in a story that leads to a prince, a kiss, and a clock striking midnight. To unravel herself from this new life, Pin must choose between a prince and another—the one who helped her before and who would give his life for her. Torn, the only thing for her to do is trade in the glass slipper for a sword and find her own destiny.

You can see that although Cinderella is a starting point for this story, Prineas then goes off in a dramatically different direction.

Another is the play “Into the Woods.” I’d say that absolutely destroyed all the fairy tales that were involved in the play. In a fun way, of course. My personal favorites in that play are the two princes. They are so egotistical and ridiculous.

4. Stories that contain a faint but identifiable echo of a familiar fairy tale or folk tale.

That would be like Cinder by Marissa Meyer. It’s definitely got some echoes of Cinderella, but it departs so substantially that I wouldn’t say it’s a retelling at all. It’s a story that contains recognizable elements of the original, but that’s all. This particular story didn’t really work for me, but the extreme departure from the original fairy tale wasn’t the problem.

Other stories, such as Laura Florand’s romances, definitely benefit from containing faint echoes of one or another fairy tale. Keeping an eye out for the fairy tale references just adds to the delightfulness of the story. You know, just thinking about this makes me want to go re-read Once Upon A Rose, which btw I wrote in for The Goodreads Choice Awards. I just mention that in case any of you want to do the same, though I expect it would take quite a write-in campaign to get a book through to the second round.

Anyway, the point is, Once Upon a Rose would be fragrant with the scent of roses and warm and charming no matter what. But the echoes of the fairy tale that drift through the story are an added pleasure.

So, four basic categories. Did I miss any? Got a favorite fairy tale that fits into one or another of these categories?

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5 Comments Fairy Tales and Folk Tales: Types of retellings

  1. Hélène

    I’m not sure about folk tales but mythology is retelling : Homer, Aeschyleus, Euripides… each gave his story (fairly different stories sometimes!). Levi-Strauss showed how the same myths morphed and evolved over the American continents.
    For me, it’s impossible to think of mythology without thinking of retelling. So, there’s no need for a new word!
    I guess the same thing is true with folk tales: Paul Delarue identified more than thirty versions of Little red riding hood in chapbook literature!

  2. Elaine T

    For a category 4 I offer L. Shelby’s PAVANE in PEARL & EMERALD. I got a sense of the 12 Dancing Princesses from it – there’s a princess with an odd obsession for dance – the rest is rather different, although not as extremely so as the Prineas sounds.

  3. Rachel

    I’ve got PAVANE on my Kindle, it’s just finding time to read it… but I like the idea of an echo of the 12 Dancing Princesses.

    Mythology may be retelling in that sense, but I’m using “retelling” in the modern sense of a current-day writer taking an old story and making a novel out of it while setting their own stamp on it. I think we do need a word for that. I don’t like using “retelling” as that word, but what else is there?

  4. Rachel

    Okay, maybe. Although I think of novelizations of movies, which is not the same thing as novelizations of fairy tales. But maybe we should steal the term and see if we can make it stick…

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