I grew up reading fairy tales like the Brothers Grimm stories, Rapunzel and Cinderella, and just like many young women, my romantic ideologies centred on many of the characters and narrative structures contained within these tales. These magical tales had me believing that my prince would come and rescue me on a white horse and sweep me off my feet and I would live happily ever after. Not for one moment did I question the implausibility of a frog turning into a prince or that a young woman’s hair could be used as a rope so that the prince could climb up a tower to rescue her. But as I have got older, and maybe a little wiser, and due to my uncovering the hidden meanings behind many of these narratives, I have discovered the creative possibilities of rewriting fairy tales.
Some of the narratives within the Tales for the Sisterhood collection (like Sisters, and The Tale of Ruthie and Grace) are designed to transgress archetypal characterisation, fairy tale gender roles, and challenge traditional storytelling. So if you feel a little story barren, why not explore the creative possibilities of re-writing a fairy tale.
As a prime method of universal communication, storytelling has taken on many historical forms, stemming from oral folk tales, myths, legends and moral tales to contemporary literary narratives. More than any other narrative fairy tales have been subject to revision, due to cultural and social-political change. In the early nineteenth century, Edgar Taylor’s translation of the Brothers Grimm tales resulted in rigid censorship to overt references of violence, cruelty, supernatural and sexual thematics, as children were to be the prime audience for these stories.
A significant area of revision was the censorship of female roles. In the precursor to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Grimm’s Rose Red and Snow White tale depicted Rose (Snow White’s sister) as wild and unruly. Rose Red was then removed from later renditions as “her free-spirited, untamed ways” could be interpreted as “dangerous in the context of a patriarchal society” that attributed “femininity with docility, gentleness…good temper” (Friedenthal 2012, p. 163 pp. 163-165) and subservience. If you are interested, the studies of Friedenthal and other similar fairy tale narratologists provide a useful exploration into the power of belief systems, which can ultimately influence literature‘s form and style.
Almost in rebuke to these passive literary representations of female characters, post-modern authors like Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood present their own feministic literary critiques through their unique representation of female characters and story-lines. Carter’s Gothic style narratives twists, such as the sexual awakening of the not so innocent Little Red Riding Hood in ‘The Company of Wolves’, and the daughter who is rescued by her mother from a murderous husband in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, see passive females being transformed into active and heroic characters.
A. S. Byatt’s intriguing tale ‘The Story of the Eldest Princess’ is also a prime example of a major break with fairy tale tradition, where Byatt transgress the expectations of fairy tale lore. Byatt’s princess is aware of her fairy tale entrapment and ultimately decides to take control of her own narrative destiny resulting in a ambiguous resolution (Gooderson 2005).
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood offers a complex characterisation and narrative structure. The novel is set in the mid 1930s to 1940s and follows the conflicted lives of two sisters, Iris and Laura, whose relationship is bound by the endless cycle of abuse at the hands of Iris’s husband, Richard. This abuse is tragically intensified by the fact that Iris is unaware of this abuse until after her sister’s death.
Atwood’s literary rationale concerned the socio-cultural “power politics governing the lives of women” and the traditional representations of female roles. Her novels explore “the saintly, selfless, and utterly self-sacrificing” woman, or the female villain” and rejects these stereo-typical roles through her narrative complexity (Brooks 2010, pp. 68- 70). It is Carter, Byatt and Atwood’s overall rationale towards rejecting traditional fairy tale conventions, and their trail-blazing approach to re-writing female roles that have acted as a dominant influence on my writing.
Although the magical world of fairy tales may take its consumerist multi-million dollar form in the Disney films, they can also offer a world of promise for creative writers as traditional fairy tales can encapsulate twenty-first century ideologies. Old narratives can be transformed into new narratives that challenge and inspire. So be brave and discover the creative possibilities of rewriting fairy tales or even create your own.
Brooks, B J 2010, Continuum Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction:Margaret Atwood : The Robber Bride, the Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, viewed 19 November, 2014, via ProQuest Ebrary Online Library.
Friedenthal, A J 2012, ‘The Lost Sister, Lesbian Eroticism and Female Empowerment in “Snow White and Rose Red” in K Turner & P Greenhill (eds), Series in Fairy-Tale Studies:Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimm, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI, USA, viewed 18 September, 2014, via Proquest Ebrary Online Library, pp. 161-178.
Gooderson S, ‘Writing a tale’, The Guardian, Thursday 22 September 2005.