I have a special interest in fairy tale retellings. It falls somewhere between misfit romances and World War II novels on my list of literary preoccupations. Like so many girls of my generation, I grew up watching Disney movies, and I must admit that the so-called “princess movies” were my favorites. Fast forward to college and a class about fairy tales, myths, and legends. The class helped me to think intellectually about the stories that I had been encountering—in one form or another—for my entire life.
The girls in my fourth grade class were obsessed with Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. We liked the plucky heroine and familiar fairy tale elements arranged in surprising ways. In my college course, we read multiple versions of stories, spanning different cultures and time periods. Studying fairy tales makes it clear that while retellings aren’t a new idea, they are a tradition. After all, fairy tales began as oral tales that could be embellished by each storyteller.
This summer I borrowed some young adult books from my friend Jenny, an avid YA reader herself. One that came highly recommended was East by Edith Pattou. I didn’t realize until I picked it up a few weeks ago that it was inspired by “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” I first encountered this Norwegian folk tale in my college course. The tale bears some resemblance to “Beauty and the Beast,” but it features a polar bear and an additional quest for the heroine.
Edith Pattou takes the appropriate steps to transform a tale into an epic novel. She creates an historical setting and shares the narration between several characters. Most notably, she adds a reoccurring theme of map making, compass directions, and navigation. The heroine’s father is a failed mapmaker, and her mother is deeply superstitious about “birth direction” determining the personality of a child. Additionally, navigation plays a part in the heroine’s quest later in the novel. Fairy tales are often short on specific details, which leaves room for creativity on the part of storytellers.
With regard to fairy tale retellings, I can almost hear the cries of “unoriginal” and “overdone.” Personally I find this argument irrelevant to what these authors are trying to do. For example, how many books, movies, and TV shows follow the basic romantic plot of Pride and Prejudice? Two characters initially dislike each other, but eventually change their minds and fall in love. That doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy those other stories if they are told with compelling characters and unexpected details.
If we try hard enough, one story can always remind us of another. There are so many other factors that create an enjoyable tale. What are your favorite fairy tale adaptations or retellings?