Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Original fairy tales

So, obviously, in addition to the “retold” or “novelized” forms of fairy tales, where an author takes an old fairy or folk tale and puts their own spin on it, we have new (modern) original fairy tales. These are stories that capture the feel of fairy tales, but aren’t based on any specific Brothers Grimm type of story.

In order to be a fairy tale, a story must:

1. Have ineffable magic, not magic-as-science. This is relatively rare these days, as authors are pushed to explain and codify their magical systems, but it’s essential for a fairy tale.

2. Have powerful magic that hovers around the edges of ordinary life, a continual presence.

3. Follow enough fairy tale tropes that the reader can recognize the type of story they’re reading. If there’s a forest, it’s probably enchanted. If an animal speaks to you, you should probably listen. If you have a chance to help someone in need, you probably should do that.

4. Have a moral center where the good guys are not the same as the bad guys and where the good guys win, or mostly win.

5. Have a bucolic setting.

I just made all that up in a couple of minutes, but it seems right to me. What do you all think? I’m not sure I’m really committed to a bucolic setting, but I think that’s typical and kind of expected and I’m not sure you can capture the feel of a fairy tale in any other setting. Oh, wait, I can think of one example, which I’ll mention in a moment, but bucolic settings are surely helpful for establishing the feel of a fairy tale.

What else does a story need in order to be a fairy tale?

Let’s test out the definition with half a dozen obvious examples.

1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

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Not really a Beauty and the Beast retelling, this is actually an original story with just faint echoes of Beauty in the first third. It develops in ways that are very different. I think it basically fits all the criteria above.

2. Jinx by Sage Blackwood.

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Definitely original, but the enchanted forest is SO different from the one in Uprooted, you really see how differently the fairy tale tropes can be developed by different authors. I’m so much looking forward to re-reading the first two books of this trilogy so I can go on with the third. Soon, I hope.

3. Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell.

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Haskell’s other books were retellings . . . more or less . . . with a lot of originality in them, but still, retellings. This one was original, drawing on the feel of fairy tales without echoing any particular tale.

4. A Face Like Glass by Francis Hardinge

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Okay, fine, the setting could hardly less bucolic. But still, this is, I think, a fairy tale. And quite, quite original.

5. The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip

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How many of Patricia McKillip’s books count as fairy tales? Not sure, but this one does. The setting is not *exactly* bucolic, but of course a far more ordinary setting than in Hardinge’s book. No enchanted forest, but plenty of enchantment. And so beautiful.

And one more, which I could hardly leave off:

6. The City in the Lake

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4 Comments Original fairy tales

  1. pete mack

    You missed one frequent attribute: Metaphor. Talking animals are often less magical and more metaphorical.

  2. Rachel

    Robert, I’ll have to look that one up. I wasn’t too crazy about Pierce’s Birth of the Firebringer, but that was because I didn’t care for the protagonist, not because of any issue with the writing.

    Pete, I don’t know, maybe. I don’t think I necessarily pay that much attention to metaphor in fantasy, including fairy tales, so you could be right, but I never noticed.

  3. Elaine t

    Two of Pierce’s DARKANGEL books also qualify. (Forget the 3rd.) I didn’t care much fo the FIREBRINGER books either, but the Darkangel ones were gorgeous. (Even if the protaganist was a bit dim.)

    Joan Aiken wrote a lot of shorts that would qualify as modern fairy tales, but I’m having trouble coming up with a novel length work that has that same feel. Same problem with Jane Yolen.

    Franny Billingsley’s CHIME, I think.

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