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Forever New: Old Tales Retold, Part I

In a thoughtful and enlightening afterword to her little book, About the Sleeping Beauty,   P. L. Travers (best known as the creator of the immortal Mary Poppins),  offers this explanation of why  she chose to write her own version of that fairy tale:   “It was written not at all to improve the story….but to ventilate my own thoughts about it.” 

Many writers of fiction and poetry have done just that, and many readers who grew up loving fairy tales turn with pleasure to contemporary versions — reworkings of these timeless stories. Fairy tales have been fertile ground for twentieth century writers.   Some revisions  expose cultural myths: that young women want, or need, to be rescued;  that a happy marriage bestows the greatest happiness; that hard work is virtuous even though the ultimate reward of being good is never having to work again; that wolves and stepmothers are wicked.   Others explore  the ways in which fairy tale protagonists cleverly undermine authority, to advance the cause of the poor and oppressed. (Folklorist Jack Zipes has written extensively about the subversive nature of fairy tales).  

It’s clear that these stories have survived, thrived and evolved over time because so many storytellers, poets and artists are eager to “ventilate their thoughts” about them. Fairy tales have always been a fluid form. They migrated orally as well as in print, and were changed by different tellers to suit their particular audiences. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm claimed that  their fairy tales were native German literature, yet they freely borrowed from the French Charles Perrault, who borrowed from the 17th century Neapolitan Giambattista Basile. (Basile’s great work, The Tale of Tales, is fabulously wild and much bawdier than Perrault). It was the inspiration, by the way, for an interesting film version of the same title). The Grimms rewrote the tales they collected from German storytellers to make them more suitable for children, and in the final version of “Nursery and Household Tales, “ they  poeticized the “oral” voice.  These stories are regarded as canonical —- the classic fairy tales — but there is really no such thing as an “original” fairy tale.   

Any list of the re-tellers of fairy tales will be incomplete, but for starters,  here’s mine — in alphabetical order by author or editor. These are all short stories, or short story and poetry collections.

Margaret Atwood,   Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson, eds., The Poets’ Grimm, Kate Bernheimer, ed., My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,  A.S. Byatt , The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye;  Angela Carter ,The Bloody Chamber; Tanith Lee,  Red as Blood, Ursula K. LeGuin, Wolfgang Mieder, ed., Disenchantments (poems) Steven Millhauser, Anne Sexton, Transformations (poems) Wendy Walker ,The Sea Rabbit or The Artist of Life,    Jane Yolen. Once Upon A Time,  (She Said).

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