When people think of fairy tales they generally think of the fluffy, Disneyfied stories of beautiful damsels being rescued by handsome princes. And they’re getting bored with them. Modern retellings often seek to make these stories darker and grittier, sometimes without realizing just how dark and violent the original tales were. In some early versions of Red Riding Hood, Red never makes it out of the wolf’s stomach. In others she ends up there after being tricked into eating what’s left of her grandmother. Gotta love medieval Europe, they did not shy away from putting the cannibalism in their stories. Whatever versions you read (or watch), they can be a rich source of inspiration, especially when you’re trawling for ideas.
Fairy tales can be excellent springboards for the imagination because they give you a root idea or an interesting element that you can expand on or twist. There may only be seven or eight true plots, but there are hundreds of fairy tales, mixing and matching plots and standard set pieces like wolves, orphans, and dark forests. There’s everything from evil old crones to kindly grandmothers and plenty of room to give these characters motivations, and maybe even names.
Probably the easiest way to find different fairy tales is by using the Aarne-Thompson classification system. It sorts and numbers fairy tales based on motifs and basic plots. It divides tales based on things like what sort of supernatural elements are included (eg. family members, tasks, helpers) and then subdivides them. Within each classification there are usually several variations or separate stories which are numbered. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is AT 306, Aladdin is AT 561, and The Robber Bridegroom AT 955. Along with the usual suspects there are ones like AT 317, The Princess and the Sky-tree. Anyone ever heard of that one? The title makes me want to find out what it’s about! AT 570 is apparently called Bunnies Beware of the King. It’s about herding rabbits. Which just serves to remind me how boring nights must have been before electricity.
I, for one, love retellings and re-imaginings along with the originals, but not everyone does. For those who don’t want to try setting Rumpelstiltskin in a suburban high school, you can use motifs and stock character traits to resonate with readers. Margaret Atwood does this while also doing a gender-swapped retelling in The Robber Bride.
The most challenging thing I’ve done with fairy tales was try to write my own. I created a fantasy world, populated it, gave it history, architecture, and even fashion. But that wasn’t enough to make it feel real. I wanted to know what stories kids heard at their bedtimes and everyone knew. So, I wrote a fairy tale, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be!
So, here’s a prompt for you all: pick a fairy tale type and write your own version! Post a link in the comments if you want to share or just chime in with your favorite fairy tale!
Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time querying and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.