Monday, October 22, 2012

Fairy Tale Retellings and Subgenres: Part II

No discussion of Fairy Tale subgenres would be complete without the twisted fairy tale. (Once again, a category I made up and not an actual term to my knowledge).

This is probably the most commonly used by modern authors: the idea is to take advantage of a plot that everyone is already familiar with and to surprise the reader by twisting one of the assumed elements of the plot. This can be done on several different levels.

In a traditional folk tale, things are pretty black and white. There's good and there's evil-that which is good is all good, from every action to their flawless appearance, and likewise that which is bad is evil through and through. Some stories take these ideas of black and white and totally turn them on their heads, such as Tanith Lee's short stories in her collection Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. In this book, Rapunzel and Snow White are evil and their stepmothers innocent victims of their Satanic activities. This kind of twisted fairy tale can be the most shocking, but can become predictable if overdone (Tanith Lee, in my opinion, does a very good job of twisting tales into very dark retellings but maintaining quality stories. This is very hard to do). But these worlds are still largely seen in black and white.
Other versions of fairy tales will abandon the traditional good vs. evil and set the stories in a more relatable world, where things are revelaed to be more shades of gray. I think Gregory Maguire's Wicked is a good example of this, which is ironic because the musical version turns it into the above category, where Elphaba is the unsung heroine, as opposed to the book where she is a complex character who isn't entirely good or evil. (And yes, technically Wizard of Oz is not a fairy tale. But I like it and so do most people who like fairy tales.)

Some versions will take be faithful in most elements of the tale but take one and twist it. In The Fairies Return, Robert Speaight's Prince Charming turns out to be less than honorable and Cinderella learns that a happy ending does not necessarily need a marriage in it (can I hear an 'Amen'?). Many modern versions of Beauty and the Beast end with Beauty embracing her animal side more so than the Beast conforming to the cultural terms of a gentleman; many modern versions of Sleeping Beauty interpret the pricking of the spindle as having sex or injecting herself with drugs (the latter also found in The Fairies Return-G.B. Sterns' idea predates Francesca Lia Block's by about 70 years).
The ironic thing is that many readers-and perhaps many authors as well-consider this approach to fairy tales to be very daring and to challenge the idea of what fairy tales are. When really, all they are challenging is the Victorian ideal for fairy tales and returning them to their more original state, which were often sexual and dark, and not all ended happily.


  1. Hi Kristin,

    Apologies for using a comment to contact you. I'm writing a university essay on Beauty and the Beast at the moment. I haven't been able to get a copy of the hardcover Zipes with the original de Villeneuve in it and was wondering if you knew of any source with even a usable English synopsis of it? I'm working from the original French at the moment but it's slow going.

    My email is mary.halton at yahoo dot com. I know this is cheeky - sorry! I've been tearing my hair out trying to get a copy of the text. How on earth can the original of such a well known tale have been allowed to fall out of print?!

    Kind regards,


  2. No worries about contacting me through comments! Sadly the hardcover Zipes is the only source I'm aware of with an English translation of the Villeneuve...what I want to know is how you got your hands on the original French!!! And what it says! You may want to try to contact a blogger much more knowledgeable, like Heidi Anne Heiner from Surlalune-heidi at

    Best of luck in getting a translation!