When I was a child I was fascinated by fairy tales, and I still love them today. I love anything with a fairy tale feel to it, from Stardust or The Princess Bride, to C.S. Lewis’s tales of Narnia, or romance novel retellings such as The Cinderella Deal, by Jennifer Crusie.
A lot of people have written about the Freudian meaning behind these stories, or the feminist aspect, or the post-modern, or the Jungian, and I’m sure that lots can be learned by digging deep into these simple stories, but what I love most about them is that they are simple. The stories are short and direct, and the characters are black and white. Good people are good, bad people are bad, foolish people are foolish, and terrifying ogres are terrifying. I can still today remember the trepidation I felt when Jack climbed up the beanstalk to steal the goose that laid the golden egg, knowing all the while that the giant was up there. And the witch in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is one of the most frightening characters I ever saw as a child.
I love fairy tales so much that when I won a prize at school for English, and was allowed to choose a book, I chose as my prize Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales
In this book, the Opies choose twenty-four of the best-loved fairy tales and give a historical introduction to each one, showing the development of the story over the ages, and asking questions such as:
Was Cinderella’s slipper made of glass, or was it really fur? (Answer: it’s been made of lots of things over the years, from fur, to satin, to silk, and in the first ever Cinderella story in China,as long ago as 850AD, the slipper was gold. It was author Charles Perrault who changed it to glass, in the 17th century.)
Was Red Riding Hood really devoured by the wolf, or was she saved? Answer: there are lots of versions of the ending. In one of the most horrible, in nineteenth century Brittany, the wolf kills the grandmother, puts her blood in bottles (!) and gets Red Riding Hood to drink it! I’m so glad this version hasn’t survived. In the Brothers’ Grimm version, the wolf does eat both grandma and Red Riding Hood, but he falls asleep, and a passing huntsman guesses what’s happened, and rips open his stomach with scissors. Red Riding Hood and her grandma jump out (unscathed, of course!)
Fairy tales usually have a happy ending, with the prince getting the girl and the bad people getting their come-uppance. Along the way, though, some very terrifying things happen. Here are a couple of totally chilling illustrations which the Opies reproduced in their book:
After wallowing in these terrifying stories and illustrations as a child, when I wrote a Hallowe’en story for an anthology for Accent Press, then of course retelling a fairy tale sprang to my mind straightaway. What better source for all things gruesome and macabre? In my story, The Pumpkin Hacker, the heroine has to guess the name of a sinister man from the fictional country of Valdovia, in order to access a malicious and destructive computer program he’s written. If you want a further clue to the fairy tale I’m retelling, then here’s a marvellous illustration of the original, by the brilliant Mervyn Peake.
Did you enjoy reading fairy tales as a child? Which one is your favourite, and which did you find most frightening? And have you read or watched any great fairy tale retellings? If you have any questions or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!