One of the most obvious recent trends in children’s publishing is the feminist fairy story. You know how the traditional narrative goes: Rapunzel waits in the tower for the prince (that goes badly, doesn’t it?); Snow White wakes at true love kiss; ditto the Sleeping Beauty; poor Little Red Riding Hood has to be sliced out of the wolf’s belly by the woodcutter (unless you have the bad luck to have a version of the story where she makes friends with the wolf). Much further back, you have the older stories of St George rescuing the princess from the dragon, and Perseus rescuing Andromeda. Well all that was never going to escape the gender revisionists, was it?
Once you’ve got the gist – for boys, read girls, and for girls, read rebels – there’s nothing more to them
For the past few years we’ve had a sustained effort to dismantle these old tropes. Last year Jessie Burton did a feminist take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses (spoiler: one of them takes over the kingdom from her patriarchal father). And for the benefit of those who haven’t yet encountered the genre, Faber has just published an absolute peach: Gender Swapped Fairy Tales by Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett. It’s got Sleeping Handsome rather than Beauty (clue to a sleeping prince) and Thumbelin rather than Thumblina – a charming little black manikin. On the front there’s a picture of Rapunzel, letting down his beard for the feisty heroine. But for the overall flavour, take this extract from Little Red Riding Hood:
Once upon a time there lived in a certain village a little country boy, the prettiest creature was ever seen. His father was excessively fond of him, and his grandfather doted on him still more. This good man had made for him a little red riding-hood which became the boy so extremely well that everybody called him Little Red Riding-Hood.
You get the picture.
Some unexpected people have gone with the trend. Philippa Gregory, best known for historical fiction, has written The Princess Rules about a feisty princess whose claim to the throne is challenged when the stork leaves a bouncing baby boy at the door. Her princely friend’s take is that “it’s a prince thing. We get the throne, no matter how many older sisters we have … and we get to fight all the dragons and monsters while the princesses can only watch.” Naturally the princess isn’t taking this lying down – note the picture on the front with her brandishing a sword next to a little prince wrapped in the dragon’s tail. You know, I don’t think this is going to be a winner with boy readers.
But the grimmest upending of the genre is a new series from Vintage, “A Fairy Tale Revolution” (Vintage Classics, £12.99 each) which features well known authors let loose on the old fairy stories and giving them the contemporary equivalent of a happy ending. Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit ends with Cinders turning into Meghan Markle, only she doesn’t marry the prince:
Cinderella runs a cake shop and sometimes she sits with the people who come into eat cake and asks them what their dreams are … and as she grew older she became good at understanding the wars in people’s hearts … She isn’t a fairy godmother but she doesn’t need magic to be a liberator…
The poignant thing about this travesty is that it has original illustrations by Arthur Rackham.
Jeanette Winterson’s Hansel and Greta is a parable about consumerism: the gingerbread house is “Evil gingerbread … when you eat it, you never want to eat real food.” The moral? That “our guzzling selves are a real threat to each other and the planet.” Greta is, obviously, Greta Thunberg.
Kamila Shamsie’s Duckling (not ugly here) ends up breaking out of all those damaging swan/duck binaries of the Hans Anderson story – This bird is a species-free adventurer.
These new fairy tales are intended to shock and provoke, which ends up simply being irritating
Malorie Blackman’s BlueBlood is a girl descendant of Bluebeard, who dismembers all her husbands. And unlike the original story, the latest spouse doesn’t get away. But it’s ok, because he deserves it on account of his previous “controlling, bullying, emotional and physical abuse”. She keeps his ear as a souvenir. The moral is that: “Men like you need to learn that when a woman has a space of her own, you should keep out unless explicitly invited in”. So, a homicidal husband is replaced by a homicidal wife. That’s a happy ending, is it?
This phenomenon drives me nuts. In the first place, the new fairy stories are rubbish stories. They don’t have the same narrative power of the originals which draw on very old roots of story (the plot twist of Beauty and the Beast is anticipated in a story in the Old Testament). They are bossy and didactic. They’re intended to shock and provoke, which ends up simply being irritating. They are, as fiction, a one trick pony; once you’ve got the gist – for boys, read girls, and for girls, read rebels – there’s nothing more to them.
Most of all, they’re a travesty of the originals, which serve a profound human purpose.
The American poet, Marianne Moore, in her clever translation of Charles Perriault’s fairy tales, quotes Padraic Colum in the introduction as saying that when a story solves a problem, it does more than interest us; it leaves “a pattern of order on the mind”. And Beauty and the Beast, The Frog Princess, Puss in Boots et al, all have a particular logic; a particular moral order, which is usually satisfactorily resolved at the end. The contemporary fairy stories only reinforce a dispiritingly trite point about personal fulfilment and gender equality.
And when it comes to Grimm, and others of the genre, you really don’t need to reinvent them; to escape the Disney princess thing, just try the original tales. They are already stuffed with the darker aspect of human nature, including homicide, incest and cannibalism. The point is well put by Adam Gidwitz, whose own take on the genre, A Tale Dark and Grimm (2010) is actually funny. He begins:
Once upon a time, fairy stories were awesome. I know, I know. You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you … Little girls in red caps skipping around a forest? I don’t think so. But then I started to read them. The real, Grimm ones. Very few little girls in red capes in those… Grimms’ stories – the ones that weren’t changed for little kids – are violent and bloody.
Pulling them up fairy tales by the roots in the name of feminism makes barren fare for the reader
Too true. In 2014 Jack Zipes published an English translation of the original folk and fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers, rather than the revised version we know best. In a couple of stories — Hansel and Gretel and Snow White — it’s the real mother, not the stepmother, who tries to kill her children. Elsewhere, the witch finds out what Rapunzel has been up to when her clothes get tight after making merry with the prince. There’s a particularly grim little tale, The Strange Feast, about the Liver Sausage who invites the Blood Sausage to dinner which has the makings of a horror story.
These stories don’t need to be subverted, just rediscovered. So what if the Brothers Grimm added a Christian element to the tales? It adds greater poignancy to the situation of the victims, a better moral to the narrative.
Hans Christian Anderson is another matter, but in The Snow Queen, it’s the boy Kay who goes over to the dark side, with a shard of ice in his heart (Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe does the same) while it is brave little Gerda who goes to rescue him.
Fairy tales bring us to the roots of story itself. By all means let’s have new translations, new editions, and retellings – but pulling them up by the roots in the name of feminism makes barren fare for the reader, girl or boy.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe