Monday, 9 May 2011

WHY FAIRYTALES ARE MAGIC

(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!).

Why are some writers drawn back to fairytales again and again, even when they also write original fantasies and books in other genres, like Shannon Hale (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.

I would have done anything to have that book for my own – but I didn’t have any money with me or any pocket money saved up and I knew that by the time I came back, the book would be gone. It was too magical for the Cancelled Box. On the point of tears, I was about to put The Wild Swans back, when it was plucked away by a familiar hand. “I’ll buy you that,” my sister said coolly. I still don't know if she realises how, in that moment of casual kindness, she completely changed my life.

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.

19 comments:

Alex Mullarky said...

I can't wait to read Shadows on the Moon. It sounds just like my kind of book. :) It seems silly for people to argue about how 'true to the original' a fairy tale retelling is when the original doesn't even exist. All we have are versions. If you go here http://endicottstudio.typepad.com/jomahome/ and go to the Nonfiction Archive there are some fascinating and really well-written articles about the history of fairy tales etc. It's really good. I'm hoping to study fairy tales and folklore after I've finished my English degree!

Vivienne said...

What a beautiful post.I think it is amazing how one act by your sister set you on the path to writing.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks! It *is* amazing how tiny things can often have the biggest impact on who people turn out to be, right? Kind of terrifying in fact!

Giada M said...

Great post! :D
I already read this post on The Book Rat and I have to agree with Vivienne.

Zoë Marriott said...

Oops! Forgot to reply to Alex: How true! I read a review of ASH by Malinda Lo, which is based on Cinderella, that said 'How dare this author change the fairytale to suit her wishes???' and it made me snork because the story of Cinderella has SO many different versions! And in several of them Cinderella runs away from an abusive father, or gets perved at by the Prince! I felt like replying 'You're not complaining that the author changed THOSE bits, are you?' but I restrained myself.

Giada: Thanks. I really enjoyed writing it, and had to hold myself back from going on for much longer!

Megha Z said...

Once again, LOVE THIS! Your sister did such a good thing, even though she didn't realise it.

Zoë Marriott said...

She still doesn't really realise it, Megha - I often think that it's a good thing people DON'T know how vital their tiniest actions can be, or we'd never dare do anything!

Jennifer Morian Frye said...

Thank you for this! Such a wonderful, eloquent post! I was so spellbound at your description of the picture book that you so wanted that I actually choked up when your sister said she'd buy it for you. Well written! I feel the need to read your books now. : ) Thanks again for sharing this. I hope you don't mind if I share a link to it on my blog.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks Jennifer - and of course I don't mind you linking!

Isabel said...

OMG. OMGOMGOMG. I AM SOOOOOOOOO EXCITED FOR SHADOWS ON THE MOON NOW. SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Deeeeep breaths. Okay.

That was an amazing post, Zoe. I've never really tried to retell a fairy tale before, and I really have no idea whether I would actually be relatively good at it or whether I would be a complete failure. You see, having to follow rules of any kind when it comes to my writing is really difficult to me. I don't like the idea AT ALL. I don't want to have ANY restrictions in the way I imagine my characters, my world, my story. But, in a way, I think maybe I should give it a shot sometime in the future. I really enjoyed reading your retelling of The Wild Swans, and I know that Shadows on the Moon is going to be even better. I am SOOO super excited for this book. Seriously. I'm practically DROOLING.

Lynn said...

Great post. Thanks. Personally I just think you have to write the story that you have inside you regardless of what criticisms might follow (although obviously it's always nice if everybody loves your book!!) At the end of the day you will never satisfy everyone, particularly when retelling fairy stories because people have treasured memories of being told these stories and so they are already holding up any new version in a critical light before they even begin to read. I love all these retellings. I haven't read your swan book yet but I've been looking forward to doing so.
Lynn :D

Shveta Thakrar said...

Excellent post! I'm excited for Shadows. :)

Kristina said...

I love The Swan Kingdom! I have never read the original story so I don't really know how closely it follows or doesn't, but I have read many versions of different fairy tales.
Beauty and the Beast for example I have read
Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
Beastly by Alex Flinn
Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Goddess of the Rose by PC Cast
There probably is a few others I am missing. Each author brings something new to the tale, a new twist or a new way to interpret the characters/tale. I love reading different versions, retold fairy tales are my favorite. I just read Wickedly Charming by Kristine Grayson and loved it. Cinderella was an idiot and very selfish and it was about the nerdy prince charming and snow whites "evil" stepmother.

I can't wait to read your version of Cinderella! It is my favorite Disney movie and I'm looking forward to seeing a new not so perfect character.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: It's funny you say that, Isabel, because I'm much the same way when it comes to following rules or being told I must do this or that with my writing - but retelling fairytales doesn't really strike me that way. Perhaps it's because, as I said, we all retell fairytales in our heads everytime we read them, so I feel as if they already belong to me...

Lynn: Well, I hope you enjoy TSK if you do read it! And yes, you're right - accepting that someone somewhere is always going to loathe your book no matter what you do is part of being a writer!

Shveta: Thanks!

Kristina: Looks like you've got a special place in your heart for Beauty and the Beast there - nearly all the titles you list are based on that. I might do a re-telling of that fairytale one day, so I'll have to cross my fingers that I don't mess it up with such an expert around!

Isabel said...

(Agh! My comment just got deleted! I suppose I'll just have to write it all over again...)

Zoe: Hehe. I suppose the only way to find out is to give it a shot. Maybe when I finish my current WIP I'll try experimenting a little bit with it.

You shouldn't feel discouraged from writing a retelling of Beauty and the Beast just because there have been so many other great versions of it. You're an amazing author -- I'm sure you'd do a great job of it. :)

When I was in fourth grade, my sister bought a copy of Beauty, by Robin McKinley, and we both tried to read it and couldn't finish it. I think it was just a little too advanced for me at the time. And I think my sister just didn't like it. But since I tried to read it a few years ago and never even finished it, I'm not going to judge the book until I've tried to read it again. Unfortunately we no longer own it -- I think we gave it away at some point -- but I'll put it on my to-read list and try to read it again one of these days. :)

BTW, have you read Eragon? I remember trying to read it and absolutely hating it. I wonder why...

Zoë Marriott said...

Sorry about that, Isabel! It's not in the spam-filter, so there must have been a glitch on Blogger.

Well, I'm not discouraged so much as feeling that if I DID write a version of B&tB, it'd have to be really different and special to stand out. Which is all to the good!

I love BEAUTY by Robin McKinley and I'd definitely recommend that you give it another shot. But I agree about Eragon. I couldn't get on with it.

Isabel said...

That's okay -- I probably pressed a button or something... don't worry about it. :)

Yes, well, it's best if it pushes you to your limits... I honestly would be really intrigued if you did a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I really think you should consider giving it a shot!

I will put it on my to-read list on Goodreads... speaking of which, I meant to ask you -- this morning in my update feed on Goodreads I began to get updates from this person called Ashley Whitmore. Apparently she's my friend, but I don't remember ever sending or receiving a friend request from her. I'm rather concerned about it and wonder if you could help me out.

I'm glad somebody agrees with me about Eragon! I couldn't bring myself to finish it.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel, that is worrying. I'm not sure how to resolve it, since it's never happened to me, but I if you don't want to be friends with this person, go into 'Friends' and then click 'Edit Friends' and if you click on the little cross in the top right hand corner of that person's details, they will no longer be on your friend list - and they won't be notified or anything. But maybe they're someone you friended before, and they changed their username? I would double-check, just in case.

Isabel said...

Wow, it's a relief that I can stop being friends with her... obviously I don't think she's a creep or anything as I looked at her profile and stuff, but I'm rather disturbed as to how she possibly became my friend and I'm quite sure that I've never friended this person before. I only have a few friends. :) I'll go do that... thanks so much.

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