Curiouser &

Shaping the Shape of the Future: Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales for Young Adults and the Acculturated Reader

Evelyn Perry

Evelyn Perry teaches at Framington State College in Massachusetts.

"The Mock-Turtle's Story": Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales: A Definition

T. H. White's The Once and Future King, is a retelling of Arthurian legend. Book One of The Once and Future King, "The Sword in the Stone," characterizes King Arthur as a boy. As such, White's novel marks the first time in the legend that King Arthur's boyhood is imagined for the reader. But White's novel also carries another mark, the stamp of White's handling of Arthurian legend.

In his retelling, T.H. White had not only to create and describe any particular boyhood, but to understand--to a significant degree--what kind of disposition, what educational possibilities, what developmental experiences this particular boy must have in order to become the legendary King. An English teacher in a boy's school, T.H. White was ethically and psychologically challenged by Britain during the wars [1]. He was losing his students to senseless violence during a time in which it was popular to instill nationalism with references and allusions to popular folk heroes. The irony was not lost on T.H. White. His handling of the Arthurian legend includes rationales and appeals for pacifism, diatribes against the horrors of warfare, as well as descriptions of the absurdity of arms. T.H. White's retelling tells several stories (about Arthurian legend, about the Arthur of White's time and experience, about boyhood, about peace and division) as it carries the imprints of the author and as it shapes the continuum of the legend.

C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche told from the "ugly" sister's point of view. Ellen Kushner's (Mythopoeic Award-winning) Thomas the Rhymer is a retelling of the Scots ballad "True Thomas" that treats the reader to a description of Scottish folkways and a vision of Faery (a place to which the "original" ballad does not travel). The World Fantasy Convention Grand Master Evangeline Walton's The Children of Llyr is a retelling of the second branch of the ancient Welsh Mabinogion and outlines the ancient social politics inherited by the Celtic world. Robin McKinley's celebrated Beauty is a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" in which Beauty's trip to Beast's castle begins the coming-of-age experience that ultimately allows Beauty to develop intellectually, emotionally, and morally (and without the distraction of enforced expectations of gender).

The above exemplify retellings of folk and fairy tales, reworkings of long-standing stories that have been carefully adapted to current literary standards (psychological characterization, sense of place, point of view), current literary forms (the novel, most popularly), and current socio-political attitudes (human rights, for example). Contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales describe the shaping influence that human beings have on story over time, as well as the shaping influence that story has on human beings over time.

"Down the Rabbit Hole": Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales for Young Adults and Young Adult Fantasy: A Brief Anthropology [2]

It should be noted that contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales are rooted more in fantasy than they are rooted in the "original" tales--but only because fantasy is rooted in "original" folk and fairy tales. The relationship between fantasy and tale has a long and profound memory. Fantasy and tale are mutual informers. Moreover, the relationship between fantasy and tale is synonymous. Fantasy is synonymous with the art and craft of retelling, just as the names of retelling authors--Robin McKinley, Donna Jo Napoli, Pamela Dean, Dianna Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen--celebrated writers, all--are synonymous with fantasy. We can even read this synonymous relationship in the business of literature, for the fantasy/tale relationship has been marketed. Contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales are generally assigned to the young adult sections of bookstores (both Border's and Barnes and Nobles follow this practice).

While contemporary retellings for adults (such as those authored by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Gregory Maguire, Parke Godwin, and Jennifer Roberson) are gaining in popularity, they pay a certain respect to science-fiction, to political, artistic, and social history, and to adult sexual perspectives. Admittedly, contemporary retellings for adults promise their own fascination, but the fascination of interest here is the relationship between fantasy and tale, and the point is: for better or for worse, tales belong to fantasy and fantasy belongs to young adult literature. This textual interaction is at the heart of contemporary retellings for young adults.

With little distinction made in the encrypted interior design of booksellers, young adult literature is generally treated as its own genre. But, of course, genres and distinctions within young adult literature do exist. This is true from the broad category of young adult literature, to the sub-genres of fantasy. Even as a sub-genre, contemporary retellings of tales for young adults, too, celebrate an internal network of borders and systems. And there are definite schisms within retellings. Often it is a sexual schism--and sexually descriptive or explicit texts have a better chance of getting shelved in the adult fantasy/sci-fi section. Otherwise, while there is a shared thoughtfulness, retellings for young adults expose less sexually explicit schisms, such as history (Sutcliff), and fairy--both folkloristic (McKinley) and literary (Yolen)--in order to assert their internal sense of genre and sub-genre.

Ultimately, each contemporary retelling of a folk or fairy tale defines its relationship to fantasy/tale (complete with its own literary history and anthropology). Denied access to the adult canon, retellings for young adults assert an internal sense of genre that is both borrowed and bent; they shape and they reflect, they model and they mirror. Retellings remind us that, over time, we are important to fantasy/tale and it is important to us. But our interaction with fantasy/tale should not be near-sighted; it should be handled with care and respect. One must accept certain conditions and rules.

"A Mad Tea-Party": On Young Adult Fantasy

In characterizing the protagonist as an adolescent, by frequently removing adult perspectives and by opposing adult systems of controlled behavior, and in allowing the fantastic (transcendent and Just) to defeat the realistic (especially as enforced by adult thought worlds), young adult fantasy rejects us. But that which rejects us fascinates us. Anyways, the genre welcomes all readers as temporary and interactive collaborators. Thus we are delighted when that which rejects us wins. For then the rules are suddenly much fairer. Then, we are a team.

"Pig and Pepper": On Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales for Young Adults

Now that we're a team, here are the rules: our relationship to folk and fairy tales must be equitable. As we are in a developmental relationship with the anthropology of the tale, our retellings are merely a point on the continuum. Jane Yolen believes:

that culture begins in the cradle. Literature is a continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work sprung full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. Further, I believe that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity's past, is to have no star map for our future. [3]

What we know "right now" is both ancient and forever. It is really only important right now, but it is so important that we must live in a relationship of mutual respect with the tale--if only so that the tale will continue to be of immediate importance to future readers.

One serendipitous result of that relationship of mutual respect is, through our handling of the tale, our retelling, we can see ourselves "right now." We respect the "right now" because assessing it and describing it enables us to understand how art and human beings are shaped over time. As a result, retellings describe what is important to us. Additionally, as we read both backwards and forwards, we respect the continuum of a tale. And when we respect the continuum of a tale, its retellings tell us a bit about what has been important to us in the past (the historical schism raises its head), and what we understand about our narrative arts and ourselves "right now" (literary [fairy] schisms).

In addition to respect and to self-reflection, there is a touching honesty to the relationship between reader and retelling. As acculturated readers of contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales for young adults, we know that we will never see the future, but we understand how time is shaped. We have been taught (or, rather, we have been reminded) what the rules are. From that time forward, our work becomes the game at hand--but never begrudgingly. The game of reading contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales for young adults is highly democratic; there is something for everyone, from chief fantasists:

The Brothers Grimm, Andersen, and Collodi--with regard to fairy tales--have been among the great liberators of children's literature, freeing it from pedagogical tasks that were assigned to it as public schools began to be established. (In the domain of "adventure," pioneers and explorers, the avant garde of colonialism, have revealed themselves to be valuable allies of children, along with pirates, corsairs, and other rough characters.), [4]

to theoretical purists:

Neither Andersen nor Collodi--and this demonstrates that they were brilliants writers--knew the fairy tale material the way we know it today--catalogued, dissected, and studied under the psychological, psychoanalyticical, formal, anthropological, and structural microscope, et cetera. [5]

Better yet, acculturated readers can be both chief fantasists and theoretical purists. By playing, we liberate characters from a perceived 2-dimensionality, we construct relevant metaphors from the enduring symbols in the "original" tale, we reimagine--according to our needs--villainy, corruption, and heroism. The goal is to win our own game. The truth is, playing the game teaches craft.

"Alice's Evidence;" or, "Advice from a Caterpillar"

Analyses of contemporary retellings of folk and fairy tales must also enjoy a mutual and equitable duality. The analyses must consider what a comparison between an "original" tale and a contemporary retelling of that tale for young adults tells us about what's important "right now" (and, ultimately, what we think is--or should be--important to young adults "right now"). Additionally, the analyses of contemporary retellings for young adults must consider how the form allows (even requires) a retelling author to acknowledge his/her debt to the genre of young adult fantasy. Retelling authors must describe--in the body of their retellings--where they position themselves within the young adult fantasy genre. Acculturated readers must pair the comparisons and the contrasts between an "original" tale and a retelling of that tale, with an examination of how the author has shaped his/her retelling in response to the "original" tale and to the genre of young adult fantasy. How the text and cover art are in agreement regarding the face of fantasy/tale is a warranted conclusion to any analysis of a contemporary retelling of a folk or fairy tale for young adults. For, even at the close of the game, we must end in fair treaty.

Because retellings chart a literary anthropology over time, feature mirroring and reversal, and describe our handling and the shaping of fantasy/tale, I have titled this column "Curiouser and Curiouser." All references to the work of a great fantasy master, Lewis Carroll, are intentional. To the coming-of-age adventures of his young protagonist, Alice (who journeys also through the reflective device of a mirror), all references are intentional. To the fantasy/tale connection described by the Alice books (the child-hero whose adventure to and from the other world proves that the child can be a hero and allows both the hero and the reader to gain the self-confidence necessary to negotiate the adult world), all references are intentional.

"The Queen's Croquet Ground"

Next at Bat: "Translating Mythic Tale into Contemporary Expression: Robin McKinley's Spindle's End"



1. See Norman F. Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages.

2. See Wolfgang Iser's Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology and The Fictive and the Imaginary for a detailed, theoretical discussion of how text enjoys its own anthropology--separate from, but parallel to, human anthropology.

3. Quotation taken from Jane Yolen's Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, 9.

4. Rodari, Gianni, An Introduction of the Art of Inventing Stories, "Popular Folktales as Raw Material," 31.

5. Rodari, Gianni, An Introduction of the Art of Inventing Stories, "Popular Folktales as Raw Material," 32.


Evelyn Perry

Volume 7, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January, 2003

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2003.
"Shaping the Shape of the Future: Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales for Young Adults and the Acculturated Reader" © Evelyn Perry, 2003.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor