Friday, February 3, 2012

Reading Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales are “in”. If you don’t know that fact you must be living in a dark, dank tunnel with blinders and earmuffs on. With dueling Snow White movies about to start showing, a 3-D reissue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a Jack in the Beanstalk in the works, a 2013 Hansel and Gretel film; and that’s not even mentioning the two television shows with fairy tale ties—Grimm, the fairy tale cop show and Once Upon a Time (my personal favorite), the sprawling epic from the writers of Lost. It seems as though Hollywood has found it’s current muse in the realm of fairy tales and not surprisingly, so has the book world.

Actually, I should change my wording on this one—the book world has never forgotten this magical realm—there have always been new editions of Grimm’s, Hans Christian Anderson stories, and so forth; there have also been some great retellings, although it’s more typical to find them in the children’s section of your local bookstore, than with the classics or fiction—it’s just that as usual Hollywood takes the credit (at least in the eyes of the non-readers). In reality, Hollywood is running a half second behind publishing, taking its cues from what’s hot in books (as an example: Hunger Games, The Descendants, Hugo, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), so it’s really no surprise that there are a few really good retellings of classic tales out right now in book form.

I have long been a fan of fables. Starting with my old Read-Along versions (cassette of course) of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and Aesop’s Fables, to the Leslie Anne Warren version of Cinderella (which I have on dvd), to the old Fairy Tale Theater with Shelly Duvall, and graduating to my hardbound edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (all 700 pages of it), I have never outgrown, and can never quite get enough of the fairy tale world. Since I’ve always had a free flowing access to books, thanks in first to my Book Buyer grandmother, and then to my own employment, I have been fortunate enough to have an unusual amount of opportunities to read these retold fairy tales—and there are more of them than any of us could possibly count. So, in light of the renewed fairy tale craze, I thought I might mention a few worth visiting. This idea, I have to say was not quite my own, I have to give credit to my seven year old nephew who recently spent the night at my house and started an interesting conversation about fairy tales, and how so many of the tales are told in such different ways. Not your typical conversation with a 1st grader, but one that spurred me to search my memories for all the different Snow White/Wicked Queen punishments, The Little Mermaid endings, retelling the stories from memory to my young nephew. Now, I do owe him a couple of readings from my original, and rather dark Complete Grimm’s (sorry, buddy, running behind on that one), but it also prodded me to think through the new stuff and what’s worth a read.

Brand new, and the start of what is to be a quadrilogy, is Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, a fascinating reimagining of the Cinderella tale (made popular by both the Brother’s Grimm and Charles Perrault), taking place in a rather bleak future, where our heroin is a cyborg with an unusual and rather special past. I know, “cyborg’ probably turned many of you off, it did me too, but having promised to read it, I was surprised to find myself completely captivated by the characters and the rather fantastic tale. Cinder holds that undercurrent of darkness from the original tale, actually, there is more death in this book than you might imagine, and it unwinds itself just enough to pull you in as a reader, and then dump you off into an abyss of endless possibilities at the end when it makes you wait for the next in the series. This one is highly imaginative, and perfect for those readers who like a bit of that sci-fi, dystopic edge to their fantasy tales. Now, I understand that the word dystopic is overused and is now turning many a book buyer to drink, so if that’s not your cuppa, I suggest an older retelling of the Cinderella story, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This is a slightly more feminist version, gritty, grounded more in reality, without the traditional magic, or in the case of Cinder, science. Just Ella is a quick read, but it is unforgettable and wonderfully told; a perfect way to revisit an old favorite.

Diane Zahler is also a wonderful author who reworks lesser-known tales very well. In February 2012 she has a great new book based loosely on Grimm’s The Six Swans, called Princess of the Wild Swans, and in 2011 she released another novel The Thirteenth Princess that retells the more well know story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Both books are aimed at a younger audience than the two mentioned above, but hold enough of the magic of the original tales to charm more mature readers.

These three authors do a fantastic job of reinventing well-loved stories, but there are those that sell the originals short. Just like director Catherine Hardwicke nearly ruined Little Red Riding Hood for us with her atrocious film Red Riding Hood (who knew Gary Oldman could be bad in a film?), there are authors who adapt and destroy, instead of building new offshoots. I won’t go into too much detail, but author Jackson Pearce, whom I have now given two chances to wow me with her re-interpretations of Little Red Riding Hood (Sisters Red) and Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly), has proven that not all adaptations are magical, in fact some, like those two mentioned, can be abominable, taking the word “grim” to a new and unappealing level. Fortunately, with the plethora of offerings, we as readers (and watchers if we’re looking at film/TV) can be more discerning, avoiding those types of disasters more easily.

If, like me, you want a taste of the original to go with the new, there are some beautifully made editions of these fairy tale collections put out by Dover Publications, currently available; English Fairy Tales retold by Flora Annie Steel, Grimm’s Fairy Tales with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales retold by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, and Norton’s edition of The Annotated Hans Christian Anderson. Each of these is a beautiful addition to your bookshelf, but more importantly they are filled with wonderful stories capable of transporting you to other lands and times, if only for as brief moment.

Fairy tales aren’t going anywhere. They will continue to exist and expand into whole new concepts. These stories offer us the baselines to so many of our favorite forms of entertainment. So why not take a moment to revisit these tales of old—whether in their more original form, or in one of the retellings available out there, you are sure to find a nugget of brilliance, or at least a moment of enjoyment.

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