Fairytales for grownups
April 11, 2007 8:52 PM   Subscribe

I loved fairy tales as a child, and now that I am (nominally) a grownup, I love the "retellings" of fairytales — the fleshed-out versions which, for example, feature actual character development instead of lines like "she was as beautiful as she was good". I love Robin McKinley's retellings of "Donkeyskin", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Beauty and the Beast" (which she did twice for good measure), and Gregory Maguire's surprisingly political Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. What other good grown-up fairytales are out there?
posted by orange swan to Writing & Language (59 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Hah, I just finished reading Wicked.

Greg Maguire also has a few other retellings that I've been meaning to check out - Mirror Mirror and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Other than that, I'm drawing a bit of a blank.
posted by Phire at 8:59 PM on April 11, 2007

There's a series of books from several years back where fantasy writers take on classic fairy tales. My favorite was Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, the others didn't leave much of an impression on me but I'm not particularly drawn to fantasy. I believe Terri Windling edited the whole series, it might be easier to track them down that way.
posted by padraigin at 9:01 PM on April 11, 2007

It's not a retelling of a specific fairytale, but Lord Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow feels very much fairytale-like. You may also find a list like this useful.
posted by Paragon at 9:04 PM on April 11, 2007

Have you tried looking up individual fairy tales on Wikipedia? The articles tend to contain absurdly extensive lists of modern variants at the end.
posted by phoenixy at 9:05 PM on April 11, 2007

Padraigin beat me to it. Tam Lin was my favorite as well. There was one by Steven Brust called The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars that was part of the same series, I believe. Some Googling led me to this set of reviews of books that sound exactly like what you're looking for.
posted by booksherpa at 9:11 PM on April 11, 2007

Neil Gaimain's story Snow, Glass, Apples is a grown-up retelling of Snow White from the viewpoint of the witch. Many of his other works have a fairytale-like feel to them.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 9:16 PM on April 11, 2007

Snow White, Blood Red
Black Heart, Ivory Bones
Silver Birch, Blood Moon
Black Swan, White Raven

All edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

I think there may be more in this series. This is just what I could immediately pull off of amazon. These are anthology collections of adult fairytales/retellings by some of the best fantasy writers in the business. Some of them are quite dark/sexual, as I remember. But that was to my 15 year old sensibilities. :) I'd probably find them more tame now.

Also, Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins by Emma Donoghue. This is a collection of her retellings of common fairytales with a darker, vaguely feminist slant. Fairytales are so 'and the prince carried her off and they lived happily ever after.' Donoghue challenges this notion equisitely.

I'll try and rack my brains for some others. I use to love this genre. I'll also second the recommendation for Pamela Dean's Tam Lin.
posted by amileighs at 9:17 PM on April 11, 2007

While not retellings of classic fairytales, A.S. Byatt has published some collections of grown-up fairytales:

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice
Little Black Book of Stories

The first two are my favorites, and each has one fantastic fairytale in it, which manages to be true to the classic forms of fairytales, but also manages to ring true to adults.
posted by pombe at 9:18 PM on April 11, 2007

I'm not sure why you are surprised that Gregory Maquire's book was political since the original books were thinly veiled political commentary. He's just following the form as it were.
posted by Eekacat at 9:18 PM on April 11, 2007

I strongly recommend City of Lost Children. It's sort of like Amelie (done by same director), but as a scary children's story. Very magical, but with a dark twist.
posted by philomathoholic at 9:19 PM on April 11, 2007

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
posted by Lokheed at 9:19 PM on April 11, 2007

Tam Lin, definitely. For another version of Sleeping Beauty, try Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper.
posted by Ladysin at 9:22 PM on April 11, 2007

"Kissing the Witch" by Emma Donoghue is great. It's a number of short story classic fairy tales, told in such a way that each story lasts one chapter and runs right into the next one. And they're also told in such a way that you don't quite know what story you're reading a retelling of until partway through the chapter.

Alternately, the Stephen Sondheim show "Into the Woods", particularly its very dark Act II, might be up your alley. The original Broadway cast was filmed for PBS and the video/DVD is available for sale, along with the OBC, London, and ORC audio recordings.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:29 PM on April 11, 2007

Sleeping in Flame
posted by willnot at 9:31 PM on April 11, 2007

I would highly recommend the various trade paperback collections of the ongoing comic book series Fables by Bill Willingham under DC's Vertigo imprint. It's the saga of all of our favorite fairy tale characters trying to survive unnoticed in our modern world after their expulsion from their transdimensional homeworlds by the usurping Adversary.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 9:40 PM on April 11, 2007

Francesca Lia Block's The Rose and the Beast.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 9:44 PM on April 11, 2007

If you like fantasy, you might try Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series. I've only read The Fire Rose (Beauty and the Beast) and started The Gates of Sleep (Sleep Beauty, obviously), but they're retellings of fairy tales that are set in the early 1900s, and the characters all control one type of elemental magic (if the title of the series didn't make that clear). It's a neat concept, and while it's not great literature, they do make for some fun reads.
posted by natabat at 9:44 PM on April 11, 2007

Storybook International
posted by Afroblanco at 9:50 PM on April 11, 2007

Not sure if you'll allow yourself to do the comic book thing, but I've been a big fan of Fables for similar reasons. Basically, fairy tale characters are an organized bunch of refugees in our world after a tyrant has conquered theirs. Creative character development ensues.

I needed James Jean's cover art to pull me through its early stages, but it's really pretty endearing once you have some investment in it.

I can't remember when they got over the gimmick of it, but it's gotten pretty clever with how it uses the source material.
posted by pokermonk at 9:50 PM on April 11, 2007

Not a book, but you would probably enjoy the musical Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim. There's a concert video out there in the DVD world somewhere. The songs do a great job of the fleshing out you mentioned.
posted by crayolarabbit at 9:55 PM on April 11, 2007

You might consider two young-adult items, Ella Enchanted and The Sisters Grimm series.
posted by ilsa at 10:14 PM on April 11, 2007

At the extreme end of relevance, have you read Joseph Campbell's Hero with 1000 Faces? It examines fairytales from the standpoint of Jungian archetypes. It's a big book, but it's a fascinating look at world myths, legends and fairytales.
posted by lekvar at 10:16 PM on April 11, 2007

Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock references Tam Lin and is quite an enjoyable (if somewhat twisted) story on its own, about a girl whose imagination somehow makes things come true.

I just bought two second-hand books that were fairytale retellings. One is called "Feminist Fairy Tales" and another, whose name I've forgotten, looks at fairytales from a psychological perspective. Haven't read them yet but I'll tell you if they're any good.

I quite liked the Brothers Grimm movie; it was strange and gory but interesting all the same.
posted by divabat at 10:17 PM on April 11, 2007

Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber is a collection of dark, sensual, witty retellings of classic fairytales.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:20 PM on April 11, 2007

Anne Sexton's fairy tale poems.
posted by brujita at 10:20 PM on April 11, 2007

You can find the lyrics/script for "Into the Woods" here--although I'm sure that actually watching it is a very different experience.

Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents is a great riff on The Pied Piper (I think it's technically for children/young adults, but really all that means in this case is that there's less risque content), and his Witches Abroad is sort of meta about fairy tales and incorporates many of them (Cinderella in particular).
posted by Many bubbles at 10:28 PM on April 11, 2007

Pretty much everything by Patricia McKillip. If you only read one thing from her, make it the wonderful WFA winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
posted by kanuck at 10:28 PM on April 11, 2007

Nthing Fables, the A.S. Byatt books, The Bloody Chamber, and Snow, Glass, Apples.

If you don't mind the darker, psychosexual tone of something like The Bloody Chamber, I'd also suggest Tanith Lee's Red As Blood (short stories, various classic fairy tales including Snow White and Beauty and the Beast) or White As Snow. And if you're OK with overt erotica, the title story of Patrick Califia's Blood and Silver recasts Red Riding Hood as a werewolf dominatrix.
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 10:32 PM on April 11, 2007

Seconding Into the Woods & Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, although I would recommend Carter's work more generally, as it is almost always hovering around that adult fairy tale genre, if not always strictly re-telling familiar tales.

The movie Pan's Labyrinth is another "adult fairy tale", and was overthought extensively here on MeFi not too long ago.

There are also some fun feminist retellings of various fairy tales, but I forget the authors. May be able to get some names with an email or two...
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:47 PM on April 11, 2007

Gosh darnit, I just finished Robin McKinley's Spindle's End and was all set to recommend it until I read the rest of your question. :(

Re: Mercedes Lackey... Fire Rose is pretty good, the rest of her stuff mostly, uh, not so good. Sickeningly heavy on the Mary Sue characters. I would read Fire Rose and Firebird and give the rest a miss (or at least get it from the library and then never admit that you've read it, like me!, it is kind of like admitting that you ate the whole tin of cookies).

Patricia Wrede is good (OK, she also brushes with Mary Sueism somewhat, but it doesn't get on my nerves as much, and sometimes her characters even make mistakes(!))... Snow White and Rose Red is an obvious choice but the Enchanted Forest series is also fairy-tale like. Her Book of Enchantments has several short retellings.

Tanith Lee's Red As Blood, if you can find it, she is always fantastic.
posted by anaelith at 10:57 PM on April 11, 2007

Plenty of Terry Pratchett's discworld books are based on fairy tales, though meta-fairy-tales might be a better description. One recurring theme, particularly in the books dealing with the three witches, is that fairy tales have been told and retold so many times that they gain a primal momemtum that drags the world along according to how stories should progress. So some of the time, the characters have their work cut out to re-route events away from the natural progression of a fairy tale.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:02 PM on April 11, 2007

Check out Donna Jo Napoli, who has a whole series of fairy tale retellings. I love McKinley and very much enjoyed Napoli's Zel and Bound. I haven't read the others (yet).

I think they're aimed at a slightly younger audience than McKinley but they have a lot for adults to chew on. I'm thinking of her treatment of the theme of motherhood in particular.
posted by bluebird at 1:52 AM on April 12, 2007

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:00 AM on April 12, 2007

Angela Carter, Anne Sexton and "Into the Woods" are all fantastic.

And to get a sampling of many of the authors mentioned on this thread, you might like the anthology Spells of Enchantment, which compiles "literary fairy tales" from 2000 years of Western culture. Some are traditional tales re-told and some are originals. The authors include those known for working in the fairy-tale genre, as well as others that may surprise you (Thackeray, Twain, Wilde...)
posted by clair-de-lune at 2:01 AM on April 12, 2007

Second clair-de-lune on Angela Carter. I also recommend the anthologies Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and The New Gothic.

For more up-and-coming stuff, check out Endicott Studio. And for novels that extract the faerie potential from everyday life, I cannot recommend John Crowley enough, especially Little, Big. Little, Big is crucial.

And second the recommendation of the Datlow/Windling anthologies.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:45 AM on April 12, 2007

A strong seconding of Little, Big, as palmcorder_yajna recommends directly above me. Also, The Annotated Alice, which is an amazing footnoted parsing of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:59 AM on April 12, 2007

You absolutely must read some Robert Coover. He was a part of that whole Pynchon/Barth/Gass/Gaddis school of postmodernism, is an exceptionally inventive stylist, and has taken to reworking classic fairy tales (often grotesquely). He's also clearly one of the first to work in this genre: Pricksongs and Descants, which reworks Hansel and Gretel, came out in 1969.

Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)
Stepmother (Cinderella)
Pinnochio in Venice (Pinocchio. "Poor Pinocchio, his wish granted, is an aged, much-honored scholar who returns home to complete a book on the Blue-Haired Fairy and to die: He is returning to wood.")
Pricksongs and Descants (Short stories, includes one on Hansel and Gretel)
A Child Again (This is his newest story collection, and in nearly every story he revisits some children's tale, including Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Puff the Magic Dragon, Aesop, the Pied Piper, Little Red Riding Hood... one story is presented as fifteen cards in a pocket in the back of the book)
posted by painquale at 4:23 AM on April 12, 2007

The Mists of Avalon (King Arthur) and Firebrand (The Iliad) are not Brothers Grimm but are in a similar vein. both by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
posted by norm at 4:47 AM on April 12, 2007

What other good grown-up fairytales are out there?

Be sure to read a good (i.e., not cleaned up for kiddies) translation of the original Grimm's tales, if you haven't already. Some pretty adult stuff there, with lots of neat surprises if you only know the stories from the children's versions.
posted by mediareport at 5:39 AM on April 12, 2007

You may also enjoy The Arabian Nights. No book in recent memory has captured my imagination and taken it on such distant journeys as this one has. Be sure to get a copy that isn't edited for children, of course.
posted by bristolcat at 5:46 AM on April 12, 2007

Thirding the recommendation for Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, also, I strongly recommend Catherynne Valente's In the Night Garden, which is very dark & structurally complex, and reworks a lot of traditional fairy tale expectations. And she doesn't just stick to the Grimm-based stuff for her material, either.
posted by tigerbelly at 6:09 AM on April 12, 2007

Another vote for Willingham's Fables.
posted by junkbox at 6:12 AM on April 12, 2007

Sixthing Angela Carter. There's also the film The Company of Wolves based on her stories. Terrifying.

Neil Gaiman's play Snow Glass Apples, available on audio. Review.

I haven't read this, but Tracy Lynn has a version of Snow White, Snow. Excerpt on her website.

I've been trying to remember a modern version of the Selkie story that I've read - haven't managed it, but wikipedia says Sylvia Peck and Franny Billingsley have done retellings.

There's also Joan Aiken - her short stories are amazing, though I think mostly they use fairytale elements rather than specific plots. This review mentions a "three-wishes story".
posted by paduasoy at 6:14 AM on April 12, 2007

You might also be interested in Library Thing's books tagged retelling fairytales.
posted by paduasoy at 6:27 AM on April 12, 2007

Pity you're not here in DC, Studio Theater is putting on a production of a show called The Pillowman, about a writer of grisly faerie tales who is arrested suddenly by the secret police of the oppressive government of his country. They also did a companion reading (which I wrote about here) where a cadre of actors read numerous faerie tale stories, among them a few of Sexton's pieces that brujita mentioned above as well as one of the stories that the author in The Pillowman writes. They also did some of Hoffman's stories, which you might want to look up.
posted by phearlez at 7:09 AM on April 12, 2007

Pretty much anything by Neil Gaiman, even the comics.
posted by bigmusic at 7:23 AM on April 12, 2007

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Really nice. I've heard that the sequels aren't quite up to the level of this book (they're not, as far as I know, based on fairy tales, either).
posted by amtho at 8:26 AM on April 12, 2007

The Decemberists new album, The Crane Wife, starts and ends with two (beautiful) songs that retell that fable in the husband's voice.
posted by nicwolff at 9:37 AM on April 12, 2007

Someone already recommended another Francesca Lia Block, but let me specifically recommend the Weetzie Bat books. They're supposed to be for teens but they're pretty mature. They're written in a way that kind of skates between high school magical realism and a tragic yet erotic good night story. They were a series of short books, but they would probably be consumed quickly so just go straight to the one volume collection, Dangerous Angles.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:47 AM on April 12, 2007


In The Company Of Wolves
Pan's Labyrinth

Also, try and read some Neil Gaiman or Arthur Machen.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:55 AM on April 12, 2007

Seconding Patricia McKillip - Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

(If you like Robin McKinley's writing style, you should enjoy it -- I remember reading/discovering the two authors right after each other.)

Also, you might look up Grendel (retelling of Beowulf from the monster's view). I found Frankenstein also to be an entirely different story when read as an adult.
posted by ejaned8 at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2007

Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley: a graphic novel that starts by retelling the story of Sleeping Beauty. After she leaves with her prince, the castle becomes a haven for misfits and wanderers from other fairy tales. It's a lovely book.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:17 PM on April 12, 2007

Eudora Welty's short novel "The Robber Bridegroom" is beautifully written and sort of surreal, and very much a fairy tale for grownups.

It's very loosely based on a Grimm's story of the same name. (It was also made into a musical in the '70's, which starred the guy who played Brad in the Rocky Horror Picture Show).
posted by bubukaba at 4:35 PM on April 12, 2007

Orson Scott Card's "Enchantment" has a REALLY different (think very old Russian, with Baba Yaga) version of Sleeping Beauty.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:38 PM on April 12, 2007

Mercedes Lackey recently started a new series with a fairy tale theme. The first is The Fairy Godmother.

Edith Pattou wrote East. (As in, of the moon.)

And don't skip Levine's other fairy tale books, just because they are for kids. They are hilarious.

And I do love Wrede's Enchanted Forest chronicles as well.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:33 PM on April 12, 2007

There's a sequel to the Weetzie Bat books: Necklace of Kisses ( I'm not little, skinny, a Scorpio, don't have jacaranda colored eyes, but...I AM WITCH BABY!!!). These, The Hanged Man and the memoir about her baby girl are Block's best.
posted by brujita at 9:32 PM on April 12, 2007

Another brilliant book for adults with a fairytale flavor:

Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer. It's sort of comparable to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, but to me it feels richer. I love this book to itty-bitty pieces.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:45 PM on April 13, 2007

Re: Feminist Fairy Tales and the Psychologist Mother Goose recs earlier - don't bother. The Feminist Fairy Tales spoiled the whole mystique of fairy tales by assuming every story is misogynistic (and I'm quite a staunch feminist myself!), and the other's just fairy tales redone as self-help stories. Not terrible, but not the best either.

My recommendation for Fire and Hemlock still stands though.
posted by divabat at 4:17 PM on June 5, 2007

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