Forever New: Old Tales Retold , Part 2
Hm. Seems as though I’ve had this “sequel” to Part 1 in my drafts for awhile, so maybe it’s time to publish it.
Angela Carter (1940-1992) has long been the acknowledged queen of fairy tale revisions, with the publication in 1979 of her mesmerizing collection, The Bloody Chamber. She has done more for the fairy tale than perhaps any other modern writer, but numerous writers of fiction and poetry have contributed to this fascinating, thriving and continually evolving genre.
A.S. Byatt, author of the novel Possession, has written a wonderful collection of inventive modern fairy tales entitled The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Jane Yolen’s epic collection, Once Upon a Time (She Said) contains original stories as well as riffs on well known fairy tales, and her stunning short novel, Briar Rose, refashions “Sleeping Beauty” as the story of a Holocaust survivor. Two remarkable pieces by Steven Millhauser, author of the novels Edwin Mullhouse and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Martin Dressler, are “Rapunzel,” in Voices in the Night, and “A Visit,” in The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, in which the narrator pays a visit to an old friend who lives in a remote isolation where he is happily married to a large frog named Alice. It’s a story that both humorous and haunting.
Margaret Atwood’s most notable fairy tale revision is the short story, “Bluebeard’s Egg.” Here she plays with fairy tale motifs in the darkly humorous collection of shorter pieces, Good Bones and Simple Murders. Ursula LeGuin, although best known as a science fiction writer, included several marvelous fairy tales in The Real and The Unreal — “The Poacher ” a poignant and innovative reworking of “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” in which desert animals drawn from Native American mythology come to the aid of a little girl who has survived a plane crash. ( I call this a fairy tale because it features talking, shape-shifting animals ). It’s one of my all-time favorites.
The poems in Anne Sexton’s collection Transformations, based on Grimms’ fairy tales, were ground-breaking when first published in 1971; in 2021 they remain as edgy as ever. What well- known and lesser known poets can do with fairy tales is demonstrated with great variety and freshness in The Poets’ Grimm, edited by Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer, offers a compendium of retellings and new fairy tales, but it’s something of a mixed bag. Some of the stories seem to strain for effect, but nevertheless it’s a collection worth owning, for people like me who can’t get enough of old tales retold.