Bibliobitch: Fairy Tales Retold

Once upon a time, in an era that feminists called the "second wave," there was a group of women writers who thought that Western European fairy tales were pretty fucked up. Fascinated by this fucked-uppedness, the women decided to retell the stories in order to explore and combat the ancient -isms that lay deep, deep (actually not so deep) inside. Using fairy tales as their starting point, the women created awesome and super weird novels, poems, and short stories that would delight, perplex, and frustrate feminists forever after. In honor of the Make-Believe issue of Bitch (available now!), here are a few of my favorites.


 Cover illustration for The Bloody Chamber, featuring a graphic illustration of Red Riding Hood on a black background

Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber (1979)

Womb metaphor alert! The Bloody Chamber is a collection of ten short stories that take their inspiration from fairy tales, especially the really gory versions by Charles Perrault. The intro to my edition says that when the book was released in 1979, readers were upset to see "the bedtime stories of their childhood newly configured as tales of sex and violence." To which Carter responded that, hello, the original fairy tales were already full of sex and violence. Carter has also said that these aren't just fairy tales retold with a feminist message, but brand new stories that take their inspiration from the themes and images of the originals. 

It's The Bloody Chamber's images that are especially compelling—flowers and snow, puppets and phalluses, and plenty of bloody, bloody blood—but those images also date the book. The flower is really a vagina, you say? Haven't heard that one before. Overall, very much worth reading, especially the eponymous story, which is a retelling of the Bluebeard tale. Sort of reminds me of Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre for grown-ups, with a feminist bent that, though powerful, was perhaps more subversive for its time than it is now.

Cover of Transformations, featuring an intense black-and-white portrait of Anne Sexton 

Anne Sexton: Transformations (1971)

I'd never read Anne Sexton until this book was on sale at Powell's over the holidays and my mom bought it for me. My mom had also never read Anne Sexton, and probably grabbed it because it has that intense-looking portrait of Sexton on the cover and she knows that intense ladies are just my style.

Anyway, Sexton was a confessional poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath's, and from what I've read, the dark but often funny Transformations is not exactly representative of her work. Still, I think it's wonderful in its sarcasm and biting commentary on the damaging ideas that fairy tales plant in the listener's head: In Sexton's world, people, especially women, tend to have difficulty living happily ever after. Transformations retells some of the more famous of Grimm's fairy tales, like "Cinderella" and "Rapunzel" and "Hansel and Gretel," as well as a few of the more obscure ones (ah yes, who can forget those old bedtime classics, "One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes," and "Godfather Death"). And as a bonus, each poem is paired with its own ever-so-creepy illustration by Barbara Swan.

 Cover of The Changeling, featuring a painting of a tiny dog's head set on a blue background 

Joy Williams: The Changeling (1978)

This novel isn't a retelling of a particular fairy tale. It's a play on the Western European folk belief in changelings: children who were stolen by fairies and replaced with a member of the fairy (or troll or elf) folk. The belief in changelings was often used to explain something that was "wrong" with a baby, like a disability or an inexplicable illness.

Williams takes the idea of the changeling and infuses it throughout the novel. Everything feels out of place—nothing is as it should be. Pearl, the protagonist, is "rescued" from her mediocre marriage by a mysterious man who takes her to live on his island. Pearl's an alcoholic, so the reader constantly questions whether the subsequent odd happenings (little wooden sculptures turning into people, demonic puppet shows, and an island full of children that toe the line between adorable and terrifying) are drunken hallucinations or the island's warped reality. Is Pearl's baby really her own? Where did this pack of lost children come from? Is Pearl surrounded by humans or inhuman creatures? Is Pearl even human herself? Aaah!

When The Changeling was released in 1978, critics ripped it apart. Williams has said that her terrible reviews had something to do with feminism: Pearl is a "guilty young drunk," and "feminism did not need a guilty drunk!" Some critics today suggest that readers may not have been ready for the book when it was released, but that now it can be better appreciated. It's true that although the language is stunning, the story can be hard to get through. The fact is, despite its fairy-tale elements, this is a stiflingly close look at woman whose world is falling apart. But I think Williams' no-mercy examination of a damsel in distress is both fascinating and important.

So—thoughts? Have you read any feminist retellings of fairy tales that I didn't mention here (maybe some that weren't written in the '70s)? Is it feminist to do what Williams does, and take a close look at an old, painful pattern without changing the details of the story? Or should a true feminist fairy tale feature the princess galloping away from the prince to save her own damned self?

by Lindsay Baltus
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21 Comments Have Been Posted

Anne Sexton

Thank you for including Anne Sexton in your list! I have loved her ever since hearing Peter Gabriel's luscious tribute to her, Mercy Street, from his 1985 album So. Sexton is often overlooked and overshadowed by Sylvia Plath, and everytime she (Anne) is mentioned I feel satisfied. I've wanted to read Transformations for a while -- your article was a great reminder!

RE: Anne Sexton

I completely agree! I was so excited to see Anne Sexton on this list! This series of poems was the first "feminist" book I ever read and it had a HUGE impact on me. I firmly believe everyone should read it!

That being said, have there been any more recent novels that re-form fairytales? These are all a little dated :/

Kissing the Witch

Great list! I'm just re-reading Emma Donoghue's <em>Kissing the Witch</em>, which is another collection of fairy tales 'in new skins' that would be a perfect addition to this list. It's absolutely beautiful and haunting and exactly what you'd expect from this Booker shortlist author. Fairy tales reworked and rewritten to bring the women and girls to the forefront, to finally tell their stories and/or let them tell their own. All of the usual fairy tale princesses, witches, and lost little girls re-imagined.

"Kissing the Witch"

I agree about Donoghue's "Kissing the Witch." Gorgeous, eerie, sapphic stories. It was written in 1999, which may be why it wasn't included, but I'd second Mel M's recommendation.

I still remember my shock when reading the original fairy tales when I was an older child. I knew the Disney versions, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of violence and female oppression in the stories. They haunted me, as they probably did (and still do) many young girls, which is why I love to see modern female writers and artists put their own spin on them. It feels like we're taking control of a mythology that's deeply embedded in many of us and probably shouldn't be.

Kissing the Witch

Looks like I'll have to read this one. Thanks for the recommendation!

Robin McKinley

I was a huuuuge devotee of Robin McKinley as a young teenager and I still re-read her novels as brain candy when I get stressed out. They're often retellings of fairy tales but not always -- her classic, The Blue Sword, I'm pretty sure is original. She retold Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty I think a few different times, but always with incredible focus on really interesting female characters -- the first I'd ever seen when I was 14. I think sci-fi and fantasy drag a lot of girls into feminism because of the horrible princesses contrasted with badass (though still often problematic) lady warriors.

Fantasy got me into comics, which got me into being angry at comics, which got me into Karen Healey's awesome though now dead blog Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed), which I credit as my final push into full-blown radical feminism. Robin McKinley was the fantasy author I could count on not to tell me a boring story about a boring prince with flashes of blonde fairy in the background, the fantasy author who made her heroines as well as her villainesses powerful.

Adult readers would probably find these somewhat childish, but they're amazing YA novels and any future daughters of mine will probably get them around age nine. And if you're not in the mood for something super heavy, they're still fun for grown-ups.

Don't forget Deerskin,

Don't forget Deerskin, McKinley's retelling of Donkeyskin...

ya fantasy novels

I enjoy fantasy novels, YA or not, as something of an adult. I haven't read any Robin McKinley but I like Tamora Pierce and Cassandra Clare (though that whole falling for your sibling I can't really get down with. And so many authors, male and female, seem to be all about it. WHYYYYY?)

Patricia C. Wrede

She has a book of short stories called "Book of Enchantments," some of which retell fairy and folk tales (my favorite is "Cruel Sister," a retelling of an English folktale/song about sibling rivalry--Wrede takes it to a further psychological depth), as well as her "Dealing with Dragons" series. DWD isn't so much of a retelling of one story but an examination and satire of fairy tale tropes in general (a misfit princess runs away to be a dragon's apprentice, for example). The collection and the Dragons series are all YA books.

Francesca Lia Block has a collection of rewritten Grimm/Perrault tales called "The Rose and the Beast." Some are better and/or more creative than others, and if you don't like Block's writing style (I'm not sure if I do), you might not like it.

Nonfiction-wise, check out Catherine Orenstein's "Red Riding Hood Uncloaked." It's got just about every version of RRH out there, including the Reese Witherspoon movie "Freeway." I know this is about books, but the movie's worth a look, too.

Block and Levine!

Agreed about <i>The Rose and the Beast</i>. I remember enjoying it as a young teen, but the only story I still remember is the rewritten Sleeping Beauty in which the protagonist's undoing is not a spinning wheel but a needle of heroin -- compelling that she is a victim of her own habits rather than a human or witch enemy -- and she finally turns down Prince Charming for a woman.

Also for young folks: <i>Ella Enchanted</i>! Gail Carson Levine has rewritten other fairy tales in book form as well, but I haven't read them; the only other one of her books I've read is <i>The Wish</i>, which involves magic but does not mimic a particular tale to my knowledge. (I wasn't impressed with that one.)

There must be more; I'll keep mulling this over. I'm curious to know if anyone's read <i>Ash</i> by Malinda Lo from <i>Curve</i> magazine. I've heard about it a number of times.

yay francseca!

<p>yay! i was going to mention francesca lia block as well- her writing is VERY stylized, but the stories she reworks are humanizing to the characters, girls especially. i own this, lindsay, so if you haven't read the stories i can get them to you next week! </p><p>________ </p><b>Katie Presley, New Media Intern</b>
<p>&nbsp;</p>It's a bird! It's a plane! It's<a href="/comments-policy"> <i>Comments Policy</i></a><p>&nbsp;</p>

I LOVE this topic! Here are some modern suggestions.

I'm a performance artist/choreographer who's been working on this topic in one way or another through my work for 13 years... almost always inspired by literature.

By *far* my favorite recent books of this genre are The Orphan's Tales books by Catherynne M. Valente. Full of unforgettable feminist characters inspired by faerie tales from around the world (and plenty from Valente's own imagination) these were life-changing books for me. Especially the pirate ship crewed by women who were part-animal or part-monster in some way. Their captain is my answer to: "Who would you like to be in all of literature?"

I feel like another of my favorite books could also fit into this genre: The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary by Rebecca Brown. It is essentially what I might call a psycho-novel, a series of short tales about a single character and her relationship with a pack of symbolic (but visceral and quite deadly) dobermans. They tend to stand in for wolves in many of the stories and the faerie tale lineage of the book is one of its great strengths.

Looking for more good stuff? Do what I do: read every winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Awards. That's how I found Valenete!

A.S. Byatt

I love A.S. Byatt's short story "The Story of the Eldest Princess." The whole collection in which it's found, _The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye_, is gorgeous. And while it's not exactly a re-written fairy tale, her latest novel, _The Children's Book_ has a lot of really interesting stuff about fairy tales in it.

Bloody Chamber

LOVE The Bloody Chamber. My favorite story in it has to be The Erl-King. Beautifully written and such an interesting take on the idea of conflict between independence and relationships. Every time I read that story I'm completely awestruck.

Is it just me. . .

Is it just me or is it that my y chromosome just feels a little out of place here?


Since my personal loves have already been mentioned (right down to "Cruel Sister") I'm going to throw out something a little different. Vertigo Comics has a series called Fables which although not something I would consider a Strong Feminist work it still does fairly well by it's female characters. The plot is that the various fairytale lands of Europe have been conquered by an evil tyrant forcing many beloved fictional characters to flee to our world where they setup shop in New York city and plot the day they can defeat their enemy and go home. It's not perfect; does have some of those old comic book flaws ( no woman in the refrigerator thank goodness) but Cinderella as super spy is too good to pass up.

Fem Fairy Tales

Sherri Tepper, Emma Bull, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison (Jim Morrison & she once had a thing), and though it is based upon slave narratives, it does draw from the rich tradition of African American folklore of southern US~Kindred by Octavia Butler is a classic.

Barbara Walker's Feminist Fairy Tales

Clarissa Pinkola Estes' treatment of fairy tales in her book Women Who Run With Wolves

For Twilight age girls: Juniper & Wisechild by Monica Furlong

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales ed by Kate Bernheimer

Above are a few off the top of my head.

Janet Ryan

Plus 2 more

Don't bet on the prince : contemporary feminist fairy tales in North America and England ed Jack Zipes

Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies by Cristina Bacchilega


<i>Red As Blood: Or, Tales From the Sisters Grimmer</i> by Tanith Lee:

I especially like the twist on Red Riding Hood.

"Oh don't the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong
And isn't your life extremely flat
When you've nothing whatever to grumble at?"

--W.S. Gilbert

One more suggestion

Most of my very favorite fairy-tale re-tellings have been mentioned, but I wanted to throw out "The Moorchild" by Eloise McGraw, which tells the changeling story from the changeling's point-of-view. Moql, the changeling child, is fiercely independent and strong, in the face of constant teasing and torment by the other village children for being different.

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