Like many, I grew up on fairytales. Inspired by a guest post on Tales of the Marvellous and because it’s Once upon a Time season, I thought I’d ramble on about fairytales and my relationship to them. I may, or may not, at some point make a list of favourite fairytale retellings. For the purpose of this post, I’ll stick to what are canonically considered Western European fairytales. A large part of the reason for that is that, though I grew up with some exposure to non-Western European tales (fairytale, folktale, mythology or otherwise) it wasn’t a lot and my favourites are all going to be Western European.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that, growing up, I was surrounded by many of the most well-known fairytales: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc. They’re stories that have endured and continue to endure for a reason. Some of that is that they’re good at what they do. They take a couple of fairytale elements and do them well. Unlike some other tales which gather up a mishmash and do them badly. Some of that is that they’re so well-known. Some of that is that they’re genuinely more coherent and possess more character than some of the others without needing too much adaptation to be suitable to small children. Jorinde and Joringel is lovely tale on its own, but it’s a bit sparse on motivation even for a fairytale and it’s not particularly memorable compared to some of the others out there. The Juniper Tree is one of the more detailed fairytales, but whichever way you twist it it’s a gruesome tale. It remains a story about a stepmother who beheads her stepson, makes her daughter think she did it, chops the dead boy up for supper, and then gets murdered by the dead-boy-turned-bird by having her head bashed in. There isn’t much you can sanitise and keep the plot intact. Sleeping Beauty is fairly easily sanitised and turned into a chaste kiss without touching much of the rest of the story at all. Rapunzel gets a little more complex. The story I grew up with took out the suggestion that she and the prince have had sex, but left in the kids she’s given birth to in the end. As a child I just rolled with it. As an adult, I kind of want to explore what happened to Rapunzel because she sure wasn’t pregnant when she parted from her prince. Perhaps one day I will.
I also had at my disposal two very big tomes collecting all of the fairytales the brothers Grimm edited and the ones Hans Christian Andersen wrote. I didn’t have quite as much exposure to Perrault until I was at uni and found a copy in the local second-hand story. Andersen never really captured my heart much outside of the ones you’d expect, really: The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen, though I have a big soft spot for The Tinderbox and The Swineherd as well. None of them are part of my group of favourites, though. Those belong quite firmly to the fairytales as collected by the brothers Grimm.
The Juniper Tree, since I already mentioned it, is one of them. I suspect it’s because out of all the fairytales I’ve read to me that’s one of the tales that has the most coherence. Also, I was a kid and it’s definitely one of the most gruesome tales I can remember, so I suppose there’s that to consider as well.
I have a big soft spot for Puss-in-Boots as well, though my favourite cat fairytale was probably a (very) abbreviated version of The White Cat. In any case, it’s not actually one of my favourite-favourites. (But, really. Cat princess who saves the day. How am I not going to love that?)
One of my absolute favourites is The Two Brothers and, unless it’s the sheer amount of animals in it, I couldn’t tell you what I liked about it so much. Maybe the way it smushes several tales together has something to do with it, but I doubt it. It’s always been the first half of the tale that’s caught my attention. This is the one that I had a bookmark in permanently so I could just flip open to the page it started on and get to reading without tracking it down in the index. I’ve never needed much sleep, and even though I went to bed an hour later than most of the other children around me I spent my time reading until I was tired. This was one of my go-to rereads. I’d reread others from my book, but I’d always start off with this one if I was in a mood for fairytales.
Another is Brother and Sister, which I did a loose (if fairly faithful) retelling of in Feather by Feather and Other Stories. Here it’s definitely the sibling relationship that’s done it. I love the wildness of the deer and the love and friendship between the siblings in this tale.
Some of my favourites are a little more well-known, though. I count The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Six Swans (or The Twelve Ravens, take your pick) among them as well. In the case of the former, it’s the dancing that always gets me. I love dancing and it’s so integral to the story here. In the latter, it’s, again, the love between siblings as well as the hardship of the way the princess breaks the curse on her brothers. Imagine trying to do what the princess does. (And then remember that she fails. How many fairytales end in failure? I mean, sure, it’s got a happy enough ending and all, but she didn’t finish that last shirt she was making.)
I also have a soft spot for Fitcher’s Bird. It’s a Bluebeard variant, but here the girl pretty much rescues herself. Sure. There are menfolk to do the killing, but she doesn’t go about locking herself up and hoping men’ll show up before the sorcerer breaks down the door and murders her. She goes about rescuing her sisters and sets up a ruse to trick the sorcerer into believing she’s not left his house. I think Fitcher’s Bird was probably one of the first self-rescuing heroines I ever encountered.
There’s also Frau Holle. (You may or may not know it under the name of Mother Hulda.) What I loved about it is… Well, probably much the same as what I loved about most portal fantasy stories, really: the portal. The idea of stepping (or falling) into a completely new world where apples and bread can talk to you. Also where you make it winter in the world you came from by shaking out down covers!
I have a massive soft spot for The Goose Girl as well. I loved Falada. Falada is also the only character I can remember gender-flipping. I loved the way the wind obeyed the princess and the solution the king arrived at to get the truth out of the girl. And the geese. I admit that tiny role though they play, I do quite enjoy the geese. (Geese, alas, do not like me in return.)
And The White Bride and the Black Bride! How could I forget that one? I loved the way the queen gets rescued and I appreciate some of the detail that’s gone into the backstory. How often do you see a fairytale where the siblings (well, one of them) has a job? It’s not that they don’t exist. They do. There’s The Valiant Tailor, or The Fisherman and His Wife, the peasant women being witty all have jobs, there’s a cobbler… But of those it’s The Valiant Tailor who’s closest to what we’d recognise as a fairytale, as opposed to a clever folktale. At least in layperson’s terms which are what I’m using. But having one of the secondary characters have a job? That’s a bit rarer. Again, it’s not the only tale to have this, but it is the one where it stood out the most.
Lastly, because I’m already on my tenth fairytale or close enough to it that my brain interprets it that way, One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes. I’m sure it’s the goat. (Are you noticing an animal theme running through my fairytales? I am.) But it’s also interesting in how it’s the middle daughter who is the heroine. This makes sense if you look at the title, but it’s still a pretty rare occurrence. The middle child never does anything. It’s also one of the few I know of where the evil sisters aren’t punished severely for their cruelty. They’re poor, sure, but they don’t get their feet mutilated or their eyes pecked out or anything like that. It’s just people learning to repent for being evil and nasty. To a child that’s been bullied, the idea that bullies can one day learn that their behaviour was wrong is a powerful one. I’m sure that struck a chord I never noticed it striking.
I could go on if provided with a list… My brain is mush, so I decided to stick mostly with the ones that I knew the title of along with the unmentioned cap of ‘feels like I mentioned ten tales’. I hope that was of interest and that, perhaps, it introduced people to some lesser-known tales! Not all of them are that unknown, I’d imagine, but still. I see them crop up only very rarely.
All these favourites aren’t to say, by the by, that I don’t love the more well-known fairytales. I do. (Unless it’s Sleeping Beauty in which case only retellings help me out there.) I also really like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella (the version with the tree rather than the fairy godmother idea of Disney), Rapunzel, Snow White, The Little Mermaid (either version, though I think I like the original most)…