Cinnamon Rolls and Crystal Chokers: 6 of Our Favorite Fairy-Tale Retellings
August 25, 2020
We are still in FULL SWING talking about creative writing here at Carterhaugh, and one of the things we’re *definitely* super excited to talk about in Spellcraft: A Folklore and Creative Writing Workshop (which is open for enrollment now!) is FOLKLORIC RETELLINGS. And, admittedly, especially fairy-tale retellings, because you all know we are absolutely obsessed with fairy-tale retellings (and that we have some OPINIONS about what makes a retelling really sparkle!)
But while we’re going to talk about a lot of exceptionally creative and unexpected fairy-tale retellings in the workshop, sometimes we just love a fairy-tale retelling… because we do. Because something about it speaks especially to us. It’s a favorite, whether it’s the “best” or “most creative” or “most unusual” or not. Sometimes you don’t know why something is a favorite… you know just know it is.
So for our blog post today, we’re going to each talk about three of our favorite retellings… and why we love them so very much.
Sunshine by Robin McKinley (“Beauty and the Beast”)
I’ve been obsessed with Sunshine since I read it for the first time at seventeen. This is partially because it’s one of the first vampire novels that really captured my imagination, partially because it’s an incredibly clever riff on my favorite fairy tale, and, honestly, partially because I read it for the first time when I was on vacation in Ireland for the first time. I was staying in an old, beautiful house, full of dark wood and twisting hallways, and I stayed up all night devouring the book while an ancient clock ticked and the house made all kinds of groans and settling sounds around me. What better atmosphere can you ask for?
There’s no denying that Sunshine is a weird book. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea… but it’s my exact cup of tea, PLUS scones. And cinnamon rolls. (Rae is a baker, and I always end up surrounded by snacks by the end of the book.) I love the subtlety of the fairy-tale intertext and the Gothic aesthetic that merges with techno-decay. I love how prickly both Rae (Beauty) and Constantine (the Beast) are, and watching their relationship transform from terror to tolerance to partnership is a joy, every time I re-read it. And I love the strange, rambling first person narration, and Rae’s reluctant journey into her own history and powerful brand of magic.
Basically, if you love a good vampire tale or Beauty and the Beast or dessert and you’re up for trying something a little experimental, Sunshine is a gem.
“The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter (“Sleeping Beauty”)
If you haven’t already figured it out, I love a good vampire tale, and here’s another. In “The Lady of the House of Love,” the masterful Angela Carter takes the story of “Sleeping Beauty” and inverts it. Instead of a sleeping princess, the protagonist is a female vampire, suspended in a kind of dusky half-life. She’s not asleep, but she sleepwalks through life, caught in a pattern of repetition that she can’t break free of. Teetering between innocence and monstrosity, she wields her ancient wedding dress and her tarot cards, sadly devouring the men who stumble upon her home because of inertia and narrative inevitability.
Imagery is everything in this short story. It’s perhaps the most gothic offering in Carter’s fairy-tale collection The Bloody Chamber (which we’re going to talk about A LOT in our upcoming writing workshop!), and the addition of tarot cards and vampire teeth to the more standard Sleeping Beauty fare of roses and enchanted sleep give this retelling a deliciously chilling and innovative edge.
The Girls of the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (“The 12 Dancing Princesses”)
When I first read this book, I hated it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Within a week, I re-read it, and I began to appreciate what an incredible, intricate story Valentine has woven. The story of the Hamilton sisters, locked away by their monstrous father and kept afloat by the sheer willpower of the eldest sister, Jo.
Set against the glittering backdrop of the 1920s, the novel challenges our ideas about what spaces are safe. Speakeasies become the sisters’ refuges – the only places they can go and be free, make noise, exist as more than silent shadows – while their house is a tense place of threat and silence. And Jo tries desperately to take care of her eleven sisters, teaching them to dance, providing them with an outlet in the form of clandestine visits to clubs and trying to keep them safe.
As Amal El-Mohtar says in her brilliant review of the novel, “Jo’s father is, functionally, both patriarch and patriarchy: an unseen, controlling presence that makes women police each other to enable and ease their separation and subjugation. But this is not reductive allegory; it’s a clear, unflinching depiction of invisible forms of abuse. Jo struggles with this, throughout the book: wondering whether she is jailer as well as jailed, nicknamed “The General” by her sisters for the ruthless efficiency with which she moves them from house to club and back. Her self-imposed constraints and the impossible responsibility.”
Once I learned to feel more compassion for Jo, I learned to appreciate the novel, and the love between the sisters – and for dancing and rebellion – that radiate from every page.
Waking by Alyxandra Harvey-Fitzhenry (“Sleeping Beauty”)
I’ll come right out and say it. Waking is not the most brilliant “Sleeping Beauty” retelling in the world. It doesn’t have the power of Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, the fascinating experimental structure of Robert Coover’s Briar Rose, or even the innovation of A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, which sets the story in a sort of sci-fi dystopia (yes, I’ve read a LOT of “Sleeping Beauty” retellings!) What it does have, however, is a lot of heart and a spirit that seems to speak directly to me.
Like the vampire of Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love” (discussed by Sara above!), the protagonist, a teenage girl named Beauty, is “suspended in a kind of dusky half-life. She’s not asleep, but she sleepwalks through life” due to the trauma of her mother’s suicide and the control her father has exerted over her ever after. What finally brings her out of her shell is finding a best friend, an eccentric and wonderful girl named Luna who “wakes her up” to the person she wants to be. I’ve long identified strongly with this book – mostly because when I first read it I was in the process of waking up to the weirdest/best in me too, but also, admittedly, because the things Luna introduces Beauty to (the Pre-Raphaelites and red hair dye and crystal chokers, to name just a few) are just SO up my alley it’s not even funny!
I also love that this story reimagines “Sleeping Beauty” as a tale of waking up to your true self, to the person you want to be. That’s always been a favorite interpretation of the story for me, so to read a retelling that really centers that absolutely delights me.
“The Color Master” by Aimee Bender (“All Kinds of Fur” / “Donkeyskin”)
One of my favorite retelling styles is when writers take a seemingly unimportant, or even totally hitherto unmentioned, character and expand their part of the story. It’s difficult to do well, but when it works it opens up an entirely new piece of a story you thought you knew. In this short story, Bender explores the people who make the beautiful dresses that appear in ATU 510B stories – the dresses as golden as the sun, as glowing as the moon, as shimmering as the stars, and/or as blue as the sky. These characters never appear in the traditional versions of the tales – we are just told that the king is able to get his daughter’s outlandish requests, which are meant to thwart him but somehow never do. Here, Bender brilliantly explores the story of the women behind the dresses.
Bender’s story actually inspired me to write my own ‘other character’ story, retelling “Sleeping Beauty” (of course) from the perspective of a family of people who made their income from spinning… and what happened to them after all the spinning wheels in the kingdom were burned to try to thwart the princess’ curse. I need to rework it a bit, and eventually send it out, but though it’s still not quite perfect it remains one of my favorite things I’ve written, and I’m eager to keep playing with it!
Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip (“Snow White and Rose Red” / “Tam Lin”)
I often love it when folklore of one kind mixes with folklore of another kind in a retelling, but the best for me is when a retelling mixes fairy tales and fairylore, which is exactly what Winter Rose does. Simultaneously a retelling and remixing of the fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red” and the fairylore ballad “Tam Lin” (of “Carterhaugh” fame!), this novel completely indulges my love of beautiful, haunting language. Enchanting and enchanted from page one, this poetic novel is a love letter to magic and winter and folklore – all things I desperately love.
Some have criticized this book for being a bit too pretentious, a bit too heavy, over-the-top, or even too hard to follow, but to me it’s like a strange dream I want to fall into over and over again.
Okay, so we’re dying to know – what are YOUR favorite fairy-tale retellings and why? Give us your best recommendations in the comments below!!
P.S. There are only two spots left for the higher tiers of our folklore and creative writing workshop, AND early bird pricing goes away at midnight tonight!! If you’re a writer who loves drawing on fairy tales, you’re seriously not going to want to miss this. Click here to join in on the fun now!!
Try “Ever After” by Alma Alexander – four retellings of four VERY familiar princesses… reimagined as refugees…
Awesome, thanks for the recommendation! :).
So, so very many. Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, is probably right at the top. But I figure the Carterhaugh School is probably well familiar with that retelling already.. i also adore Carter’s Bluebeard retelling in the title story for Bloody Chamber.. 😀
I love fairy tale retelling and retelling and storytelling in general! This list has certainly given me some new reads! Coincidentally Color Master plays well with a framed narrative story I was imagining of Seamstresses/Dressmakers and Embroiders (all a form of heart I absolutely love and yet have not divulged myself, though my best friend has and is quite talented) being characters of different fairy tales similar to that of Kissing the Witch who gather to meet, share tea and of course talk with the welcoming of a new member and hows embroidery in general is such a huge party of women’a history but also a huge part of early women’s story telling.