Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Goblin Fruit. She reviews short fiction bi-weekly on Mondays through her blog, Short Story Review, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Visit her website at bonniejostufflebeam.com.
by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Ever since I was a kid, I have always loved fairy tales. The fairy tales that most resonated with me back then were always the grittier ones: Anderson’s Little Mermaid, the original Brothers Grimm. I liked the tragic endings and the grotesque descriptions. But when I read them now, as an adult, I find the stories lacking in depth, in vividness, in complex characterization and psychological motivation. And while I still adore fairy tales, I adore even more the recent (as well as not-so-recent) fairy tale retellings I have stumbled across.
Here is a list of ten of my favorites. These retellings stand out for many different reasons; they shatter or play with the gender issues present in so many fairy tales or add layers to otherwise simple myths or even create a whole new tale from the well-worn tropes. They are all worth checking out and exploring for yourself.
1. “Halfway People” by Karen Joy Fowler
Originally published in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer (2010)
Reprinted in What I Didn’t See and Other Stories
Free read at Lightspeed
A story within a story, “Halfway People” is framed by a mother telling a story to her newborn baby, in the genuine fairy tale tradition. Though this story is set in a fairy tale world, the world’s wonders are only ever experienced by the main character, a girl named Maura, through the tales the summer tourists tell. These tourists force Maura and her father out of their home each summer, as Maura and her father cannot afford the summer rent on their beachside home. Maura relishes the stories and the trinkets that the summer people leave behind.
Then one day, the stories that Maura has always been so entranced by intrude upon her life when she encounters a man with one arm and one wing on the beach. They tell each other stories. But the winged man is still half swan, and longs simultaneously to be grounded and to fly; his spell is only half broken. The sense that not everything in the fairy tale world goes as planned, that sometimes this world is as flawed as our own world, lends the story a genuineness not found in many fairy tales, where spells are simple and love lacks the grit of real life. This sense of realism forced upon the fairy tale world makes this a particularly well done fairy tale retelling; class relations are a major theme, and the government of the fairy tale world is the cause of much of the trouble.
The distanced perspective of the main character, Maura, and her father, make “Halfway People” read like a fairy tale, and the effect is ultimately a beautiful metafiction about the power of storytelling. Although this story doesn’t retell one particular fairy tale, it borrows elements from many and expands upon them, layering the typical fairy tale tropes with real life trials and tribulations.
2. “Travels with the Snow Queen” by Kelly Link
Originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet No. 1 (November 1996)
Reprinted in Stranger Things Happen
Free read through Small Beer Press
Kelly Link’s “Travels with the Snow Queen” also revisits many of the fairy tale tropes. The main character, Gerda is searching the world for her ex-lover, who disappeared with the Snow Queen. Gerda’s map is a mirror which she reads by stepping on shards of its glass; one of the main themes of the story is that fairy tale travel is hard on the feet.
Interspersed with advertisements for a new travel agency geared toward women, “Travels with the Snow Queen” modernizes these fairy tale tropes, and does so in a straight-forward, hilarious way. The Snow Queen, ripe for villainy, is given her redemption; why should we blame her, after all, when it was the lover’s choice to go with her? “Travels with the Snow Queen” becomes, then, a story about women’s roles in a fairy tale world, and by giving the tropes those modern twists – the women who show Gerda the way to the Snow Queen talk of playing bridge, and one of the ways in which Gerda betrayed her lover is by failing to water his plants when he was gone – this story also becomes an exploration of a sort of women’s rights movement, fairy tale style, where the inspiration for the travel agency is to give women an alternative reason to travel: for leisure rather than love.
You’ll see the ghosts of several familiar fairy tales in Link’s modern fairy tale world; as it turns out, Gerda is the great-granddaughter of Little Red Riding Hood, and Gerda makes a stop at Briar Rose’s pink palace. But these allusions are subtle and serve mainly to reference the history of the story’s world, a history where women suffer time and again for others. Through these allusions, “Travels with the Snow Queen” builds a whole new fairy tale world, the richer for these layers.
3. “The Rose in Twelve Petals” by Theodora Goss
Originally published in Realms of Fantasy (April 2002)
Reprinted in In the Forest of Forgetting and Happily Ever After, edited by John Klima
In “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” the story of Sleeping Beauty is told in twelve sections, from twelve points-of-view; we get the story from the witch’s, the queen’s, the king’s and Sleeping Beauty herself’s point-of-view. We even get the point-of-view of the spinning wheel and a hound who finds the sleeping palace and lives out the rest of his days eating the food the frozen people left behind. What I like most about this rendition of Sleeping Beauty are the multiple points-of-view, because they leave no room for the placing of blame. The witch has her reasons for cursing the newborn child, and Sleeping Beauty is far from a victim in the act of pricking her finger on the wheel. Even the king, who is the easiest to blame for the wrong done to Sleeping Beauty in this version of the story – he has the chance to rid the kingdom of its spinning wheels but does not because it would hurt the kingdom’s economy – has his justifications for his actions, justifications which we understand, even if we don’t forgive them.
In fact, we are told by the narrator of this story that it is the king who we are supposed to blame the most for the curse. The narrator steps in throughout the story to offer its own take on the direction that the story might go. The narrator’s interventions suggest that the story is one each person must write for him or herself; the story refuses to be set in stone. And that is what makes this fairy tale retelling so powerful, that it admits to the malleability of fairy tales, of their need to change shape over time, of each reader’s need to take from them what we must at that point in our lives and come back for the rest, perhaps, much as the narrator does in the final paragraphs.
4. “Comes the Huntsman” by Rachael Acks
Originally published in Strange Horizons (July 2, 2012)
Free read through Strange Horizons
A series of short vignettes which explore guilt, love, sex, and letting go of the past. A story about a woman who, in her high school years, falls in love with her gay best friend. When he commits suicide, she blames herself, as the night before his suicide, angry at being rejected by him, she drew an ugly picture of him. As imaginative and grieving people are wont to do, she feels as though she might have caused his death. As a result, the young woman stops drawing.
This guilt and the difficulty the main character has letting it go is shown to the reader through fairy tale images which serve as metaphor; the huntsman appears to symbolize both the ghost of the dead best friend and a future lover and the grief personified. This poetic story plays with endings and redemption and the myth of fairy tale love.
5. “The Sisters” by Kevin Moffett
Originally published in McSweeney’s Forty (2012)
Two sisters live together out in the woods, where they edit the realism out of wedding videos to twist them into fairy tale keepsakes for clients. Every now and then, a man wanders in from the woods and sticks around until the sisters send him on their way. They long for their childhood, particularly for the fantastical stories their father used to tell them, before his death made them realize that reality was nothing like these fairy tales.
This story also borrows from fairy tale but does not stick to one particular story. The characters are certainly larger-than-life; the sisters are as one unit, not even given their own names, and the men who visit are summed up in three sentences at most as the sisters remember them. One man lives in their bathtub and bakes bread and promises them a wish when he leaves. Out in the forest, it seems as though time does not exist; the sisters are never sure whether they are old or not, though they well know that they are no longer carefree children.
I love this story so much because it successfully crafts a brand new fairy tale from the language of previous tales without taking directly from a familiar story. In that way, the story feels familiar even though it is not drawn from a story I read as a child but is rather a new and compelling statement on memory, family, and sexuality.
6. “Jack and the Mad Dog” by Tony Earley
Originally published in The New Yorker (October 1, 2012)
This story gives us Jack of the beanstalk myth, years after his fantastical adventures have ceased. He should have, by the time of this story, grown up and stopped his shenanigans – bedding women, picking fights, spending all his money on beans – but he’s as up to his old tricks as ever, nostalgic for his crazy past. He encounters a talking, mad dog and, in a surreal series of events, runs from the dog through fields where his mistakes literally come to make themselves known. Full of wonderful meta references which bring this Jack retelling to life.
I appreciate this story so much because it puts Jack to trial for his actions in the original fairy tale and paints him as a complicated, flawed character. It also paints the fairy tale world as a metaphor for naïve youth. Much like teenagers and young adults in our world, the young heroes of fairy tales think of themselves as invincible; they act as though nothing bad can happen to them. In “Jack and the Mad Dog,” Jack learns that the things he has done in his past do in fact have consequences that very literally come back to haunt him.
7. “The Erl-King” by Angela Carter
Originally published in Bananas
Reprinted in The Bloody Chamber
A dense gothic retelling of the German Erlking legend – the Erlking, depicted in several German poems and ballads, is an evil creature who kidnaps travelers in the forest and takes them to their deaths – Carter’s “The Erl-King” portrays the legend as a metaphor for relationships as well as our relationship with nature. A young woman ventures often into the woods, seduced by the Erl-King and his mastery of the forest. She visits his home and admires his caged songbirds, at first, until she realizes that the Erl-King means to cage her as well. Carter’s story suggests that there is a fine line in marriage between a partnership and a captor-captive relationship, but the message is obscured by the beautiful, lush description and the point-of-view shifts which suggest that there is much to this story that is buried beneath the surface.
That Carter bestows such complexity to the Erlking legend, and gives it such vivid description, makes this one of the most masterful retellings I have ever read.
8. “The Far Shore” by Elizabeth Hand
Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction (October-November 2009)
Reprinted in Errantry: Strange Stories
An aging ballet instructor loses his job and takes refuge at an abandoned summer camp from his youth. The Finnish myth this story draws its power from is “The Swan of Tuonela,” although those unfamiliar with the underworld myth of Tuonela will be awed by the language and poignancy of this story. The instructor finds an injured young man on the campgrounds and, thinking him a runaway, saves his life. What comes next is longing, both for the boy and for the youth he exemplifies.
The beautiful descriptions of the instructor’s love of dance will, I think, resonate with any creatively-inclined person. As with Carter’s “The Erl-King,” Hand also heavily describes the landscape of the Maine camp, along with the brief glimpse of the Tuonela underworld, a terrifying and startling shock of description. This, too, is what I love about stories based on fairy tale and myth, that they give us a much more vivid and adult glimpse into the worlds we visited as children.
9. “The Troll Bridge” by Neil Gaiman
Originally published in Snow White, Blood Red, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Reprinted in Happily Ever After, edited by John Klima
As an inexperienced child, Jack encounters a troll under a bridge with a strong desire to “eat his life.” Jack reasons with the troll that he has not lived enough to be worth eating and the troll, like all reasonable monsters, agrees to spare his life until he has experienced more of the big moments every person is supposed to experience. When Jack meets the troll again, he plays the trick again. And in the name of good structure, Jack, a sullen man by story’s end, going through a divorce, meets the troll one final time. An interesting take on the troll-bridge tale, where the question becomes: who would live Jack’s life better, Jack or the troll?
The comparison between Jack and the troll adds a whole new level to the typical troll story, and seeing the main character of the story turn from a naïve boy into an unhappy adult lends the tale an authenticity and a realism that many fairy tales, which typically do not span such a great length of time, do not have.
10. “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” by Genevieve Valentine
Originally published in Lightspeed (February 2013)
Free read through Lightspeed
Genevieve Valentine’s “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” is the most satisfying, resonant Little Mermaid retelling I have ever read. In Valentine’s haunting reinvention of the original, Anderson story, a teacher and a boy in her class forge a strange friendship. She is drawn to the boy because his “hair gleams like the hair of a drowned man” and “because of the way he looks at dead things with an air of sorrow.” She begins to write stories for him, variations on the Little Mermaid story. These variations form a refrain throughout, pausing but enhancing the narrative. In the main narrative, we get both the boy’s point-of-view and the teacher’s point-of-view, seamlessly intertwined. As a result, “Abyssus Abyssum Invocat” becomes a story about, among other themes, collaboration.