Photo credit: Ellen B. Wright
We love fairy tales, we always have. These are the stories that grabbed our attention when we were young readers, and then hooked us anew when we were older and discovered their darkness. We’ve always been fascinated not just by the stories themselves, but by the bones underneath — by how those bones stay the same when you clothe them in different costumes or shapes, and by how, in a retelling, the heart of the story remains the same. Retellings allow us to explore new truths, to tell the stories we want or need in a particular moment, using structures that are intimately familiar. We have played with them, explored them, read them, and retold them over and over again. And we know we’re not the only ones who feel this way.
One of the pleasures of editing an anthology of retold fairy tales is getting to see 18 incredible writers perform feats of literary archaeology, building up new stories from the skeletons of existing tales. We meet Little Red Riding Hood traveling through the desert, Hansel and Gretel hallucinating on drugs made on a 3D printer, the Pied Piper ensnaring children through a video game, the Little Match Girl wreaking havoc in the old west, fairy tale princesses saving each other, a space elevator instead of a beanstalk, and many more wonders.
In the spirit of retellings, we’ve asked a few of the contributors to The Starlit Wood
to lend their perspective on what makes fairy tale retellings so addictive, and what gives fairy tales their staying power. Here are their thoughts.
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Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author and critic. Her story “Seasons of Glass and Iron" won the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo awards. She lives in Ottawa with her partner and two cats, and on Twitter as @tithenai.
Every time we tell a story, we choose at least three realities: one to draw on, one to represent, and one to change or confirm. Tell a story of someone stealing something, and you’ve drawn on a world where property exists. Now: Is the thief rich or poor? Noble or reprehensible? Is the theft a violation or retribution? If Jack is poor and steals gold from a Giant who has loads of it, is he a hero redistributing wealth or a criminal breaking and entering? Or both, or neither?
Fairy tales give us templates for choosing realities, give us bones to arrange and dress in flesh. They give us, too, the beautiful and the terrifying, the great and the small, the kind and the vicious, pressed into our hands like so many coins. Every head has its tail, and every tale has a thread to be tugged and unraveled differently, plucked and varied like a melody. We transpose tunes into our range, we cover songs and infuse them with our truth, we tell and retell fairy tales until the world’s wealth has been touched by as many hands as the world holds, washed in the current of our fingertips.
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Max Gladstone is the author of Ruin of Angels, the latest book in the Hugo Award-nominated Craft Sequence.
Fairy tales have always been there, waiting. You stumble into them when you're a kid, not knowing their sources; maybe you hear one story at bedtime, or the version of it your parents remember. Maybe you find another in a book, maybe you read a third in school. There's no author, seldom an authority. Each teller is a vector and a transformer. Authorless and strange, these tales serve as your guides to a broader world of story. You spring off their forms into new ideas. They become your cornerstones, the tools you use to understand the world: witches and trolls, fairies and goats, youngest daughters and eldest sons.
And as you get older, and learn notions of authenticity, of genealogy, of textual inheritance, you follow the threads of story back until they quicken and lose gentility, until there's blood on the wolf's teeth, until the Sleeping Beauty's not wakened by a kiss. But if you want the original, if authenticity's still your grail, don't stop. Follow the roots of the thing back, and further back, and the further you trace them, the stranger these stories that form your cornerstones become, until you find that the foundation stones of the story you've built are in fact the pinnacles and parapets of temples to gods you do not know.
The world's a lot stranger than we guess, and we taste that strangeness first in fairy tales.
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Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard is the award-winning author of The House of Binding Thorns, a Gothic dark fantasy set in a ruined Paris, and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a space opera set in an intergalactic empire based on Vietnamese culture and myth.
When I was growing up, fairy tales propped up my world. Scholars spoke with dragons and women became foam on waves, persimmon trees, white birds. And all of it spoke to me because it was true — because life is sometimes unfair, but also because sometimes mothers watch from beyond the grave and send advice and gifts so a poor girl can rise in the world and marry a prince.
I think that much of the continued appeal of fairy tales is that grain of truth, combined with powerful and memorable motifs: Snow White's poisoned apple and glass coffin, Hansel and Gretel's house of confectionery, the Buddha's golden fish... These are haunting images that continue to have power, because they are both symbols in their own right and reminders of the stories beneath them — of sibling rivalry and parental hatred, self-sacrifice, and of loves so strong they transcend species, silence, and death. This is why retellings continue to work too — sometimes they work even better than the originals, since they build upon familiar story lines but adapt them to a modern context in a way that speaks to the audience's preoccupations. I have children now, and I'm telling them the same tales I heard growing up — and the stories are still going as strong as ever.
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Genevieve Valentine writes novels, short stories, comics, and cultural criticism. Visit her at genevievevalentine.com.
Fairy tales are at war with themselves. This is partially because so many different stories are asked to perform the duties of a fairy tale for readers. It is also because certain tales spark the public imagination at crucial times and become curiosities all their own, shaped and reshaped, sometimes reflecting the moment in which they were most famously retold more than the moment they were born. (Little Red Riding Hood once freed herself from the wolf and sank him in the river with his belly full of stones. You know why that story changed.)
Even fairy tales told in the same moment are likely still at war — both moralizing and surreal, proscriptive and full of the glee of misrule. The Bavarian story I retell in The Starlit Wood
— "The Wolves" — manages to be all these things at once, which hints, perhaps, at a war between the original teller and the scholar who wrote it down. (Fairy tales are also about power, a struggle as often behind the story as within it.)
But as much as the history of a story is important — and illuminating — retelling is the natural state of the fairy tale. It's how the stories lived long enough to be written, to be cultural touchstones, to be theme park franchises. You do it yourself. We bring our own understanding to every fairy tale; to read one is already to be retelling it.
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Seanan McGuire lives on the edge of an enchanted wood, where she writes books and argues with the coyotes in her backyard.
Here is a truth about apples: When I tell you that I have one, you can picture the general shape of what I mean without even trying. Maybe the apple in your mind is red and the apple in my hand is green, maybe I’m eating a Honeycrisp and you’re thinking of a Lady Alice, but the idea of “apple” carries without pause.
Fairy tales are the apples of literature. We have eaten so many of them, followed their logical expression into so many glass coffins, that we no longer need the details to get the shape of the story. They are the fanfiction of the acceptable literary world. When we retell Snow White’s journey into the woods, we don’t need to explain it, only to sketch the barest shape in the air and watch the rest of the story unfold without pause. It’s a sort of magic, seeing that apple appear. Fairy tale retellings have power because they are spells that we have cast so many times that we no longer need to think about the spinning of them; we need only to focus on what we want to have happen at the end. And while they can be very difficult to do well, they can be very easy to do simplistically, which makes them a training tool as well as an instrument for the established. I adore them. I think they’re going to last forever.
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is a Hugo- and Locus Award-nominated editor at Saga Press, and the coeditor, with Dominik Parisien, of the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales and Robots vs. Fairies
(forthcoming). Find her on Twitter at @navahw.
is the coeditor, with Navah Wolfe, of the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales
and Robots vs. Fairies
(forthcoming), as well as Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction
with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. He is a disabled French Canadian living in Toronto.