How to Re-tell a Fairy Tale

Editor's Note: Jean Thompson is the author of six novels, among them The Humanity Project and The Year We Left Home, and six story collections, including Who Do You Love (a National Book Award finalist). Her most recent book is The Witch: And Other Tales Re-told. Jean shared with us insight into re-telling old tells and pondered the importance of classic tales for children.

For most writers most of the time, our audience is somewhere out beyond the page, an idea, not a presence. Unless there’s some kind of public performance, our readers are invisible to us: imagined, hoped for, courted. In silence we work and with silence we are received. Of course there are times when readers make themselves known to us via fan mail or hate mail, or online versions of the same, and certainly there are always the book reviewers. But most often our writing goes out into the world like a blindly aimed arrow, landing we know not where. We’re used to this arm’s-length relationship with readers, or at least, resigned to it.

But when we were children, if we were fortunate, someone read to us from a storybook about giants and magic bean stalks, castles and enchantments and animals with the power of speech. Or maybe we explored the storybook on our own. And there seemed to be no distance between us and the words, intimate and immediate.

I say fortunate and I mean it. Any acquaintance with the great tales is a good thing, and I suppose that if today’s children come to them by way of video by way of Disney, that’s better than nothing. But I wish everyone’s first exposure to the classic stories might come in the form of words on a page, so that reading becomes a source of the magical and the wondrous. A child’s openness to delight, that uncritical love of story, is something our adult selves can only hope to recapture. That delight is a power that all writers would dearly love to wield, the magic wand surely within our grasp, if our reach be bold and worthy.

I suppose I set out to write a series of stories based on fairy tales in the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. I wanted to examine what was compelling and timeless about them, what made us want to hear them again and again, the reassurance that the witch was still wicked, the princess still beautiful, and bags of gold still available to the enterprising and virtuous. (Who is always some plausible version of ourselves.) I wanted my readers to inch closer and then be unable to look away.

Children are not my audience because I am no longer a child. But fairy tales embody hopes and terrors that are not only the province of childhood – but which carry forward into our later lives. So my challenge in constructing the stories became trying to locate the nexus between child and adult, or rather, the heart of any tale, its particular fear or longing, that would carry the force of a child’s response, while still resonating with a grown-up reader.

For example, “Little Red Riding Hood” seems very much about the seductive qualities of danger, or perhaps the dangerous qualities of seduction. There was, for a time in the 1970s (and maybe it’s still around), a pop psychology notion that women might be sorted out according to fairy-tale archetypes: Cinderella was a striver, Sleeping Beauty was passive, and so on. In this construction, Little Red Riding Hood was a temptress, although one who denied her own intentions. Why, all she did was put on her pretty red cloak and walk through the woods with that basket of goodies. The wolf could hardly resist her. And so my protagonists were transformed into teenagers grappling with all the confusions of sexuality, with impulse and guilt and the power shifts between two would-be partners. It’s true that this construction does absolve the wolf of the crime of Grandma-eating found in the original. But it was my story, after all.

There were other such transformations and re-writings throughout. It seemed to me that “Hansel and Gretel” was a story about the fear of abandonment, that is, the fear that we might not be loved by those who profess to love us. In some versions of the original tale, it is the children’s stepmother, not their actual mother, who proposes to their father that the children be conveniently lost in the woods, and the father only eventually and reluctantly agrees. And by the end, when the children return, the stepmother is either long gone, or else waiting around to be unpleasantly punished. But the central fact remains: the children are cast aside by their parents. I had a great deal of fun writing about my witch, now a very bad foster parent. Still, she was only the necessary fulcrum for the plot, and the emotional center of the story lay elsewhere.

By now I was on a roll. “Sleeping Beauty” was about the consequences of past misdeeds and about parental overcompensation. “Bluebeard” only murders his wives through emotional bullying, and the wives’ unfaithfulness, as in the original, is confined to metaphorical suggestion. The prince in “Cinderella” is as hapless and love-bedeviled as any of us. It was a great pleasure, in the writing, to see how the end of the story would either conform to or subvert the fairy tale ending. And though my own versions are, variously, either lighthearted or bleak, I tried to keep in mind those principles that appeal to the original audience. Namely, that although appearances can deceive, virtue and compassion will guide us to the right choices, goodness will be rewarded, and justice, no matter how bloody, will be done.

You cannot think for very long about fairy tales without imagining their origin, or origins, because certainly they came into being a very long time ago, and in a great variety of geographies and cultures. It has been a worthy project to try and tap into the magic, not just of the stories themselves, but of the first storytellers, those who transfixed their listeners back when the tale was brand new, and anything might happen.