Why fairy tales?

On May 16, 2010, lilyofseafoam wrote, I suppose this is a question of meaning…so I will post it here because I’m not sure where to send questions.

    I am working on an undergraduate project on fairy tales involving normative social control, Humanism, and some other aspects that I’ve yet to find a name for. I read your Princess Tales and fell in love with the humanity of all of your characters, and I wondered why you chose to re-tell old tales. Is there any meaning to your experience or any message you are trying to send children through them? (I guess the real question is “Why fairy tales?”)

I suspect this answer is much too late for your project.  Sorry!

Normative isn’t a word I often use, so I looked it up on www.Dictionary.com and read this:

1.    of or pertaining to a norm, esp. an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.

2.    tending or attempting to establish such a norm, esp. by the prescription of rules: normative grammar.

3.    reflecting the assumption of such a norm or favoring its establishment: a normative attitude.

These seem like two definitions rather than three: reflecting norms – standards, morals – that exist, and setting up new ones.  I’d guess that when fairy tales were first told and when they were originally collected and written down, part of their purpose was to pass on community values to children.  I’m thinking of folk fairy tales, the kind that the Brothers Grimm put in their books, not original fairy tales like the ones Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

It was reasonable then and still is to warn children about wolves in whatever form they may take and to let them know the possible serious consequences of lying.  Probably reasonable to laud courageous boys and docile girls during times when women had few options; if one’s lot is constricted and rebellion is doomed, an accepting attitude may be the only route to happiness.

I looked up humanism too and found this definition among others: “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”  Some fairy tales are religious, but most aren’t.  They’re generally about coping in this world with the help of fairies, genies, seven-league boots, and other magical paraphernalia.

Last winter I was invited to be the guest speaker at a tea at Yale.  Before I spoke, the young woman who invited me said that most of her classmates hadn’t read the classic fairy tales in their original versions.  Instead, the stories were known through Disney and other modern interpreters, like me.  Many parents are keeping their children away from the grimness of Grimm.  This could mean that norms have changed or that the ways the old norms were transmitted have changed, as we now have movies and television.  Parents may no longer want to scare their children witless in order to teach them to obey (“Little Red Riding Hood”) or to be truthful (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) or not to lose themselves in rage and jealousy (“Snow White”).

As a child I read jillions of fairy tales.  They didn’t scare me.  The most horrific tale, in my opinion, “Hansel and Gretel” because the parents abandon their children, didn’t trouble me.  I was just glad the witch got her comeuppance and that Gretel was clever enough to give it to her.  But I did soak up at least some of the fairy tale messages.  I wanted to be blond and tall and have a handsome prince fall wildly in love with me on sight alone.  If I was blond and tall and gorgeous and he loved me, then I would never say anything awkward, my blouse would never come halfway out of my skirt, I wouldn’t get hives on my face; I would never be ordinary or imperfect again.

I’m glad my parents didn’t keep the fairy tales from me.  My imagination is richer for them.  And they connected me to the fundamental struggles we all face.

Then I grew up and didn’t look at fairy tales again until I started writing at the age of thirty-nine.  But when I did start, my imagination zipped right back there, to revising fairy tales and making up my own.  The first fairy tale I fooled around with eventually turned into the first of The Princess Tales, The Fairy’s Mistake, which is based on “Toads and Diamonds.”  If you remember the story, there’s a pretty and sweet sister who has jewels and flowers coming out of her mouth and a mean and ugly sister who has snakes and toads exiting between her lips.  Naturally, the prince falls in love with the pretty and sweet one and decides that the falling jewels can be her dowry.  They marry and live happily ever after.  And the mean, ugly sister goes into the forest and dies of mean ugliness.  When I thought about it, I realized the prince would really fall in love with the jewels rather than a girl he just met, and the terrible sister could make the creepy crawlies work for her.

In that book I was writing about three character types we experience in real life: people who take advantage of others (the prince), people who have to learn how to stand up for themselves (the sweet sister), and people who know what they want and go after it in a direct way (my favorite, the mean sister).  There’s also the bumbling fairy who tries to help, who stands for ineffective do-gooders.

Not that I thought of any of this while I was writing; I just got it right now.

If the idea had occurred to me, I could have developed modern characters who exemplify these traits.  I like contemporary stories.  So why not frame this kind of situation in a twenty-first century way?  My novel, The Wish, is set in New York City in recent times.  There is a fantasy element, but the action focuses on eighth graders in an invented middle school.

Writing The Wish was hard!  I don’t feel I know popular culture.  I rarely go to the movies and haven’t listened to many current musicians.  Weirdly, I have to do more research for a contemporary novel than for a fantasy one.  Still, I might write a sequel to The Wish someday.  I’m proud of it, and I left openings for a follow-up.

But I have other reasons for writing fantasy in addition to laziness.  Exaggerated gestures and unrestrained feeling work in fairy tales.  The jewels and flowers and the toads and snakes dramatically represent the natures of the two sisters in “Toads and Diamonds.”  In “Snow White” the queen expresses her fury and jealousy and desperation with a poisoned comb, a deadly corset, and a poisoned apple.  That kind of grandness is hard to achieve in a modern setting without slipping back into fantasy.

In fairy tales big ideas can be worked out on a big stage.  And there’s clarity.  Even though I don’t think about themes when I write, they’re still there.  Of course, my meanings aren’t the same as in the original tales, and they’re more complex, I hope.  I never extol beauty for its own sake or submissiveness and certainly not obedience.  Often I let the villain off the hook, according to some.  The meanings are generally aimed at me.  For example, I’m a worrier and The Two Princesses of Bamarre is about finding courage.  Other people worry too, so the story reaches them as well.

And then there’s the fun factor.  I loved writing how it felt when a snake exited from the evil sister’s mouth.  Or how it was to turn to stone in Fairest.

Here are some prompts:

•    Think of what the characters in a fairy tale might represent.  For example, take “Rapunzel.”  This is only one interpretation, but maybe the witch stands for despotism, the maiden in the tower for despotism’s victim, the prince for an outside liberator.  Can you think of other possibilities for this tale, like maybe the maiden represents fear?  Pick a different fairy tale and think of what the characters represent.  Write down more than one interpretation.  If you feel like it, pick another tale.

•    Now take the fairy tale and the archetypes you’ve identified and put them in a contemporary story.  Write a scene or the whole story.  Notice how the change affects the story.

•    Going the other way, take a contemporary story you’ve written or a novel or movie or TV show by someone else and recast it as a fairy tale.  Write a scene or the whole thing.  Notice how it changes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I enjoyed reading this post immensely. The Fairy's Mistake is a hilarious story, and the prince is really, really annoying in the way he's so selfish, and the way the girl is unable to stand up for herself (in the beginning, at least). And I'm surprised to hear that the mean sister is your favourite! I liked her only in the end when she helped her sister. 😉
    I loved the description you used as well. I mean, we read fairytales and think, Gosh, it would be so cool to have jewels come dropping out of your mouth. Yeah. But the sensations and the 'realness' that you add to your fairytale retellings is always refreshing and interesting.

  2. I love this post! Unfortunately most of what I know about fairy tales comes more from Disney and some re-tellings than anything else. (Ella Enchanted is one of my favorite books of all time, by the way… back from when I was seven or eight years old and had to ask my mother what "obedience" meant.) The whole idea of wanting to be that perfect princess has definitely crossed my mind throughout my life, but I don't think that fairy tales ever influenced me in a negative way. I definitely want to learn more and read more of them… the themes remain pretty universal!

    Great post. I can't wait to try your exercises!

  3. Thanks for posting the definitions of "normative" and "humanism." I needed them. 😉

    And I think you're saying that you "don't think about themes as you write" is maybe an important clue to how the themes don't repulse by hitting the reader over the head. Something to think about….

  4. I've never actually tried retelling a fairy tale, probably because whenever I see a retelling of one, I think "Wow, it would be so cool to retell that story!", but I read the retelling, and I have a hard time thinking of anything original after that, and if I try it just feels to forced. I find it easier to write stories with a unique plot because I have room to make it my own.
    I still found this post helpful, though! I want to try your exercises, especially the first one, with the characters standing for something.

    I know this is kind of off-topic, but I have a question about clichés. I just read a writing book that had a very strong opinion about clichés. It said that you should never have any clichés in your writing, and that everything should be absolutely original and unique. Nothing that might seem familiar to a reader, because it would be boring. I found it a little confusing, because I thought that a familiar term or metaphor would make a reader feel more familiar with a story, like 'oh, I know about that.' Is some degree of cliché such a bad thing to have in your writing?

  5. I really really enjoyed this post! It's so interesting to hear what inspires an author to write what they do. I admit it – I'm one of those people who grew up watching Disney fairy tales (Cinderella was my favorite of the princess stories) and for a long time I hadn't a clue they were all based on books. Teehee!

    I love writing fantasy because I'm such a creative person. I think all those Disney movies must have helped. I love inventing and imagining, so I think if I wrote "real-life" stories, I'd feel restricted by the rules of the real world. I like books to be an escape from real-life, which is why I don't a lot of other kinds of books. I'd love to write a sci-fi someday, and I could see myself doing historical fiction if I had the patience to do enough research.

    Jenna, I personally have to disagree with the cliche thing. Although I think it's good to come up with new refreshing ways to say things, the plot of a the story itself can't always be completely original. If you think about it, lots of books share the same basic plotline. But it is the details, the author's voice and the characters themselves that make each book unique and special.

  6. THANK YOU for this post!! It means so much to me that you answered my question–and I actually don't have to have my project completed until next semester! This will help me immensely, and I couldn't be more grateful.

    I never thought about "Hansel and Gretel" that way before, and you are right! That is terrible!I like the idea of big gestures and getting to play with things that just don't happen or work in real life. I also love the prompts because they show how significant the setting is.

    Thank you again! Your perspective was wonderful to hear!

  7. This was a really cool post. I personally love fairy tales of all shapes and sizes. I have to say, I never really read the Grim Brothers when I was little. Now though, in my Theater Arts class, I have to do a reinactment of a fairy tale and I'm doing Hansel and Gretel and I have to play the part of the witch. I never realized how disturbing that story is until I had to pretend I wanted to eat small children. *shudders*
    Anyway, very interesting post, I enjoy retellings though I don't think I could ever write one. My all time favorite retelling, "Wildwood Dancing" by Juliet Marillier, is a retelling of "The Tweleve Dancing Princesses" and has very unique twists and was totally enthralling. I would highly recommend it. ^.^
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine, fairy tales are the best!

  8. I'll agree with Grace on that one! Fairytales ROCK. They're my favourite 'genre' to read! My favourite has got to be Ella Enchanted. It's very well done, and so unobtrusively that it doesn't scream out at you that it's a retelling. I didn't find out till the second last chapter! And I think retellings should be like that. They shouldn't scream out 'I'm a retelling!'

    On the topic of cliches, I agree, cliches are never old. One should just see what works for the story. However, seeing new forms or twisted versions of cliche-phrases is even more fun! You expect the writer to write something when he changes it and goes on to say something else! Classic Example – Eoin Colfer. He's very witty with words, or so I find. (Oh, yeah, and he writes for kids. Here, I'm talking about the Artemis Fowl series.)

  9. As regards the poor, under-appreciated CLICHE: I believe there're only 5 or 7 basic plots in the world, and I've also heard that there are only 2 ways to begin a story ("our hero set out on a journey" or "some strangers came to town."). Especially for us fans of fantasy, a lot of characters and twists crop up often. I'm sure everyone has their own list – if not, you can find them on the web or in Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
    But in all that, I think it's not how original your idea is. Think of all the times you've read a wonderful fairy-tale retelling. You've heard the plot a thousand times. But it's new because the author has (hopefully) told it through new eyes, and put a bit of themselves in it.
    Don't worry about cliches. Just make sure you're saying something with them!

  10. Do you ever find that themes/lessons/etc. often find themselves? It seems like if a character's journey is fleshed-out, the writer shouldn't have to stop the reader and say, "Ok, kids, here's what we learned today…"

    It doesn't surprise me that people who set off to tell a moral, rather than a story, often end up with only that. But you begin by telling a good story and the rest seems to come to surface naturally (and no doubt differently for each person). You allow the reader to find meaning for themselves, which, whether conscious or not, is admirable.

    Just a thought I had while reading this post. Thanks for sharing, Gail.

  11. @ Jenna Royal — cliches vs. tropes is something I'm extremely interested in. Cliches are boring, but tropes are familiar ideas that can be reflected in many different ways (in one amateur's definition). Very fun to play with and exploit — something that's great for rewritten fairy tales — and an intriguing thing in principle.

    One thing I have more problems with is theme. When I write, I don't try to bring in themes, so I'm glad to hear that you (Mrs. Levine) don't either. But I have a hard time recognizing it in books unless it's pointed out to me. Any thoughts on themes?

  12. Jenna Royal–I'm just a little annoyed with the author of the book you read. The one absolute about writing is that there are no absolutes. You can do anything if it works, and anything includes cliches. I posted about cliches early in the blog, on 7/29/09. To understand that post completely you need to look even further back to my post of 5/20/09. I posted about originality on 7/14/10, so you may want to look at that one too.

    Wendy the Bard–I'm with you. I don't recognize a theme unless it leaps out and bonks me on the head, and I don't go looking for themes–because I'm not taking English Literature classes. But I did touch on the subject in two posts: 6/10/09 and 9/2/09.

  13. Thank you for your feedback on cliches, I really needed it! The book I read was really good, I just wasn't sure what to think of the whole cliche thing. Ms. Levine, I will check out those posts.

    @ Grace and F – fairy tales are awesome! I love reading retellings of them, and my favorites are definitely Ella Enchanted and Fairest. I don't think a fairy tale can be retold too many times. I'm not really sure why this is, but I have read many versions of fairy tales, and they all seem unique and interesting. Maybe it's because they're fantasy and tons of different strange things can happen? Or maybe the stories are good enough that they don't get boring? Or maybe I'm just really easy to please . . .

  14. I can't remember when you said this exactly but I think you said it more than once. I loved how you said you came up with ideas for retellings because you had a problem with the original. Before you said that, retellings were my worst nightmare(writing wise of course, I love to read them). After you told us to find something you don't like and change it, retellings became a breeze. For some reason all the English teachers I have ever had love to make us retell fairy tales or short little sories we read. Everyone else in my class sturggles and I feel super awesome so thanks for helping me pass english!!!

  15. Nice post Mrs Levine.=)

    Fairy tales have been a huge part of my childhood. I grew up with the original ones though, which were definitely more grim than any disney movie. There was the Little Mermaid especially, in which the princess sacrifices herself instead of killing the prince she loved, who wed another. That taught from a very young age, without parental guidance, of life and how it wasn't posible to get everything you wanted.

    But the main thing was the fact they got me interested in writing.=D

    I was actually a little worried, about the version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses I've been working on, since the post ages ago. I was afraid of my plot not being original enough, and the fact it seemed to have too many magical aspects. But this post has given me new confidence, and I remind myself of the fun in writing a fantasy.=)

    @ Mrs Levine: On a rather unrelated note, I've just remembered a question I've been dying to ask. Will be be writing any of the Princess Tales again?

    @Grace: I love Wildwood Dancing too! That was an amazing book, incorporating so many tales and creatures.=) Its definitely one of my favourite retellings too, though Ella Enchanted will always be my all-time favourite. Its way too cool!

  16. Thank you for, once again, offering inspiration. I love your blog posts, and your prompts have been amazing starting points for me! I've used some of them for my own writing, and I use your book "Writing Magic" with my students (I teach middle school).

  17. I was actually inspired a while ago by a post of another writer about fairy tales and I really wanted to do Sleeping Beauty and remake it like you do, but I still don't have any ideas! Could you possibly tell me how to get some great ideas? Thanks!

  18. Thank you for this post! I've loved fairy tales and their retellings for years. Ella Enchanted is one of my favorite books, and I just finished reading it (again) today for a Children's Literature class. Needless to say, it was the best homework assignment ever. Thank you so much for providing another perspective on the art.


  19. I love this blog 😀
    I wasn't sure where to post questions, but I have one that's been bugging me for a while. I have a character who seems perfect; I like her too much to give her any flaws. (Every time I try, it ends up screwing up the plot or making my story weaker.) How believable is a "perfect" character? I know there's a point in my story coming up when I can introduce flaws, but I don't want the audience to think my story is unrealistic or something. Is it ok to wait, or should I hurry up and find some flaws? Does anyone else have this problem, or some suggestions?

  20. Mya–I don't know about more PRINCESS TALES. I had trouble figuring out what to do for the last one. But who knows?

    Jen–I'm so glad you're using WRITING MAGIC with your students!

    Kara–You might take a look at my post called Idea-ology and also the one called Spinning Fairy Tales, plus the chapter on fairy tales in WRITING MAGIC.

    Maddie–I don't ever deliberately introduce a flaw. I suggest you finish your story, and then what you need to do may become clear. Also, you might read my post and the comments that follow The Dreaded Mary Sue.

  21. @Mya: I am trying my hardest to stick with the original fairytale with The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I'm not changing any small aspect if I can help it. Ten days to solve the mystery would be more convenient – I'm sticking with three. Three princesses are easier to handle than twelve. I'm sticking with twelve. The princesses are disobedient and cruel – I'm sticking with that.
    BUT. My story is as different as can be!
    I suppose what I'm trying to say is, don't worry about originality, and so much for trying to stay close to the original story. XD

  22. F – sounds interesting! I'd like to see how you manage it. The whole thing of the 12 princesses is always what threw me. My largest number of MCs was 7, and they were enough trouble to keep up with!

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