(Note: This post was originally written as part of Fairytale Fortnight and posted on The Book Rat and Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing. I'm re-posting in full here in case anyone missed it the first time around. Enjoy!).
The Goose Girl, The Book of a Thousand Days, Rapunzel's Revenge)? Why do some writers love a particular fairytale so much that they retell it more than once from different perspectives, like Robin McKinley (Beauty, The Rose Daughter, Sunshine)? Why are writers able to pull a fairytale to pieces, take the bits they like, discard the rest, put everything back in an entirely different order, and still call it a retelling, like Jackson Pearce (Sisters Red, Sweetly)?
It's because fairytales are more than just the stereotypical trappings that first spring to mind when we think about them. More than the carriages and ball-gowns, the beautiful princesses, handsome woodcutters and wicked stepmothers. More than just spells, enchanted castles, fairy godmothers and happily ever after.
Fairytales have a magical quality that is entirely separate from the magic that goes on within them. They have been passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, for hundreds of years. Like a stone staircase burnished and worn by the passage of a thousand feet, fairytales offer us a familiar path which we instinctively follow - and yet, unlike stone steps, they may take us to a different destination every time we travel them. Each successive generation has retold these stories in their own way, often pulling and warping them out of all recognition. A modern-day girl who reads the original story of Sleeping Beauty (which you can find in Italo Calvino and George Martin's Italian Folktales) would be shocked, disgusted and disbelieving to realise exactly what Prince Charming did to the sleeping princess (I know I was!).
But instead of wiping that sickening story from our oral traditions and our imagination as our societal mores and our moral standards have changed, we have brought it with us, retelling it again and again until it has become a story symbolising the strength of true love and patience and the triumph of good over evil. We can't leave fairytales behind us. Something within them is stronger than the outer trappings. Something - some universal truth - always goes on.
When I was a little girl my big sister and I fought like cats in a sack, and barely a day went by without our house being shaken by screams and complaints. One day when I was seven or eight, our mother sent us both out of the house with instructions to go to the library - TOGETHER! - and for heaven’s sake, STOP ARGUING. In tense silence, we walked the short distance to the shabby little building and went in. My sister abandoned me to browse the adult shelves. I poked around in the children’s section, and then, without much hope, looked in the Cancelled Box (where the librarians put books for sale). There I discovered a very special book. It was a large, hardback picture book, a bit peeling and worn on the outside, titled The Wild Swans. Within, children played in a fairytale castle. A wicked enchantress cast a spell. Horses tossed their manes, leopards and hawks hunted across the pages. A little girl became a beautiful woman, and wandered through a deep dark forest.
It was magic.
Seventeen years later, my version of the fairytale The Wild Swans was published under the title The Swan Kingdom. In my own mind, I acknowledge that very little from that beloved picture book actually made it into The Swan Kingdom unaltered. But I've read reviews which claim the story follows the original fairytale too closely and therefore lacks originality and suspense. I've also read reviews that say The Swan Kingdom is nothing like the original fairytale and that the changes I made destroy the story! The lesson I learned from these contradictory review is this: the universal truth within a fairytale is different for each person who reads it.
When I wrote The Swan Kingdom I kept all the elements which I felt were truly important to the
original story. I kept the quiet, valiant strength of the little sister, the idea of the brothers turned into swans, the painful task required to free them. I kept the idea that the heroine would be persecuted for actions which some people felt were 'witchcraft'. I kept the wicked stepmother, and I kept the handsome prince from a different kingdom with whom the heroine falls in love. Those formed the skeleton of the fairytale within my mind. But for others, my important points are not important at all. They’ve found different points of reference within the story, different ways of navigating through the landscape of fairytales. The fairytale is different for them. In their heads, it was already retold before I ever came along.
In July my second fairytale retelling will be published, and this time I've made life even more difficult for myself by picking a very well known story - that of Cinderella. The book is set in my magical version of Japan, and it's this which has most people excited about it. But the real heart of the story is the universal truth which I saw behind the trappings of the Disney Cinderella we've all grown up with. The truth that no girl, no real, human girl with a beating heart, could possibly be as spineless, as obedient, as perfect, as Cinderella pretends to be. Her perfection must be hiding something. Passion. Hatred. Intelligence. Fear. And a desperate desire for revenge.
I know that many people will be recoil from reading about a Cinderella who isn't beautiful, who isn't the slightest bit sweet or perfect, and who couldn't care less about putting on a pretty dress and dancing with the prince. Maybe people will be shocked to read about a Cinderella who lies, steals, cheats and fights her way to revenge for the wrongs done to her. A Cinderella who is broken and scarred - by her own hand. But I hope that others will see their own reality and their own universal truth reflected in my Cinderella's choices, and that in telling the story as I see it, I will allow her story to become part of the greater, timeless fairytale which mothers have been telling their daughters since before my grandmother’s grandmother was born.
That’s why writers can’t leave fairytales alone. Because fairytales ARE magic. Their magic is that of timelessness, of immortality. And by retelling them, we mere humans get a taste of immortality too.