A while ago (as I post this; not so much as I write this) I discussed some of my favourite fairytales. This time around, as I hinted at then, I’d like to discuss some of my favourite retellings as well as spend some time nattering about some of my own attempts. That’ll be interesting. For this post I’ll make things a little broader in that I don’t want to rely solely on retellings of Western European fairytales. For one this allows me to include Tam Lin retellings, which are some of my favourites. (I have a Theory about Tam Lin retellings. One day I will reassemble my collection, reread them all and natter about this theory. Maybe. We’ll see. But so far I have yet to read a retelling that failed to live up to the Theory.)
I feel a little odd naming these as my favourite retellings, actually, since by and large I often haven’t read these books more than once yet. I just fell in love with them when I did and I am filled with squeefulness that has me pass these suggestions on to everyone I can when the topic comes up. This post is still written in honour of Once upon a Time season. I hope everyone’s been having a great challenge! We’re… about halfway through when I’m posting this, I think? Time sure does fly! :O
Because this is a two-part post, I shall be using subheadings to divide the two. Fun times!
Retellings that I’ve Read and Enjoyed
Because I made such a fuss about Tam Lin earlier, let’s start with Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. It wasn’t, at all, what I was expecting of a retelling and I really enjoyed it, the more so, I suspect, because I’m an English lit major myself. I won’t flatter myself by thinking I caught even half of the references, but all the same. The connection remains. It’s a book that I’m not sure I’d have loved nearly as much as I did had I not experienced university before I’d read it. It’s not exactly the kind of style I prefer to read. I really liked the characters in this and the way Dean built on the original ballad.
Seven by Jennifer Diemer is gorgeous. Both the Diemers’ retellings are, actually, but Seven is the one I love most. It’s a lesbian take on Snow White and no it doesn’t happen how you think it would based on that. (Well, unless you have superpowers of intuitive plot determining in which case you might be spot on.) This is so powerfully and clearly Snow White and yet, at the same time, it is nothing at all like Snow White. I love that combination.
One of the most powerful retellings I’ve ever read was Deerskin by Robin McKinley. I have mixed feelings about McKinley’s work. The books I’ve read by her are gorgeous and I want to love them unconditionally, but I really don’t get on with her writing style for some reason. It’s sad. Deerskin was the first McKinley I’ve tried. It’s a gorgeous and oftentimes painful (but in a healing way) retelling of Bearskin or Allerleirau, or at least a retelling of that type. It’s sensitive and, as it lives in my mind, gentle and beautifully written.
Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner was my first foray into Kushner’s work. It’s a retelling of, well, Thomas the Rhymer. It’s also been a while since I read it, but I remember loving the first person narration in it. (Those of you who’ve known me for some time will know what a feat that is.) I remember loving the structure and the way the characters all interacted with one another.
Wildwood Dancing and Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. Yes, I did just name two Marillier books that aren’t related as one item. Shush. It’s my list. I’m allowed. Besides, I’m afraid Marillier’s first person narration all sounds the same to me, so the ones I’ve read all run together a bit. Anyway. Wildwood Dancing is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Daughter of the Forest retells The Six Swans. Both are utterly, utterly gorgeous. If they’d been written in third person, they would be two of my all-time favourite books. Marillier has a gorgeous eye for detail and setting as well as character relations. It helps that these are some of my favourite fairytales as well.
Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl is one of the most faithful retellings I’ve ever read while still making the story into an entire novel. In some ways, I think Hale’s retelling of The Goose Girl is the way it’s always lived inside my head plucked out of the world of dreams and poured into written form. In most ways it isn’t, of course. I never dreamed of Bayern or the way magic works in them. But if Seven was the novella that taught me just how different you can make a fairytale retelling while keeping it recognisably its original then Hale’s was the book that taught me the power of staying true to a story’s core. I’ve never read a retelling that felt, so keenly, like it was an unabbreviated version of a tale.
Another book I loved for the way it’s recognisably one of the stories I grew up with and yet is nothing like the original fairytale at all is Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose. When I spoke about fairytales, I mentioned that Sleeping Beauty is a story that only really works for me in retellings. I bawled reading this retelling. As I finished it something like half an hour before I had a meeting about my thesis, reading it at that moment was probably not the best timing in the world. I didn’t know it was going to upset me as much as it did. Anyway, I don’t really want to spoil this one too much. I don’t think anything I could say about the plot is particularly spoilerish, but… At the same time one of the reasons it hit me as hard as it did was because I knew nothing about it beyond what the back blurb said and that several people I knew had recommended it separately. I want it to hit people in the feels the way it hit me. It’s a slim book, but an incredible powerful one. There’s so much packed into its pages. This isn’t my favourite on the list, by quite a ways I don’t think, but if you pressed me to recommend you just one, I think I’d go for this one.
I’m not entirely sure whether Deathless by Catherynne Valente is based on a single Russian tale, though I think so. If I recall it’s a retelling of Marya Morevna (or The Death of Koschei the Deathless, if you want an alternative title). I don’t have my copy anywhere on hand to check what Valente said on the matter. It matched closely with what I know of Russian and Slavic folklore, and gave it a firm historical setting. It was a fascinating read, all delivered with Valente’s powerful voice.
Iron and Gold by Hilda Vaughan is a book that I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard of. It’s a retelling of a Welsh fairytale, Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, and is utterly, utterly gorgeous. If you enjoy fairytales, especially an exploration of the fairy bride trope in fiction, I strongly urge you to track down a copy of this book. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking as well as emotionally gripping. The introduction of the Honno edition is well worth your time too if you’re normally the kind of person who skips introductions.
Lastly, I’ll add Jules Watson’s The Raven Queen to this mix, retelling The Cattle Raid of Cooley. More or less. It’s closely tied to Watson’s The Swan Maiden and though it’s a perfect stand-alone novel I do think it’s worth reading that one first. (The Swan Maiden retells Deirdre of the Sorrows/The Sons of Usnech.) Both books are historical fantasy. The Raven Queen was an incredibly powerful read, though it’s been a few years since I read it.
Other books, which I’ve either loved dearly and/or enjoyed greatly that didn’t make this list for some reason or another yet still deserve a shout-out are: Anna Elliott’s Trystan and Isolde trilogy, Cheryl Mahoney’s The Storyteller and Her Sisters, Elizabeth Conall and Anne B. Walsh’s A Dinner of Herbs, Niko Silvester’s Three Variations on ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle, Charles de Lint’s Jack in the Green (and, um, any retelling he’s written that I’ve read and can’t think of right now), Caleb Fox’ Zadayi Red and the collection Alternative Alamat. Have fun exploring them all!
Retellings and My Own Writing
For my own retellings I tend to prefer staying close to home. These are the tales I know best and the ones I’m most comfortable retelling. It’s a strange situation because part of me wants to tell you that I don’t really write retellings. But I do. A large portion of Feather by Feather and Other Stories is made up of retellings in some form or another. It starts off with You Were Mistletoe, which is based on Tam Lin, for example, and when it’s not a retelling some of the stories are still based around those same tropes. The Swan Maiden even has the two to what it retells in the title!
But retellings aren’t necessarily my strength. I like retelling them when I have an idea to, but that doesn’t mean they live up to my standards. I’d love to write retellings such as Briar Rose and Seven which I mentioned earlier in this post or include as much detail as Daughter of the Forest or The Raven Queen, but those are all kinds of stories and retellings that I’ve never leaned towards writing. Those are my standards; I don’t meet them, but that’s okay. I enjoy what I do anyway.
And sometimes I do get ideas that are a little beyond giving my own twist to an existing tale. Feather by Feather contains several stories that I’d like to return to someday and in some fashion.
I plan to expand Sea Foam and Silence into a proper novel one day. That mermaid’s got a longer tale to share. (Whether she still will a few years down the road we’ll see. I hate being so slow at writing nowadays.) For now, I foresee it going reasonably like the original fairytale, except with an asexual protagonist who doesn’t so much love princes as she does being human.
The First Great Deed of Coen of the Stars is a retelling of Brother and Sister. While that particular fairytale is retold, I’m not entirely sure what else is in store for Coen. It’s part of a (much) larger story that loves going off on fairytale and folktale tangents, so this isn’t the only tale it retells throughout its narrative and I get to make up some of my own as I go along too!
One of my favourite retellings is probably Breadcrumbs, an acrostic retelling of Hansel and Gretel that doesn’t quite turn out as you’d expect it would. It’s pretty creepy. But I really like it. It was a lot of fun to work on and polish up into the state its in. At the risk of shouting out my gratitude too often, I shan’t name the person who made this poem as wonderful as (I think) it became again, but still. You know who you are and thank you so much. <3<3<3<3
I also have about a quarter of an m/m retelling of The Frog Prince that amuses me greatly. I just need to figure out how the teen character that’s in it ticks and I’ll be able to finish it without too much trouble. I hope. It’s hard to tell with my stories. My most frequent comment when I poke this is “Bless Bors”. I hope people will find him as endearing as I do when I get this finished and published. (If I get it finished and published. *eyes it* It’s nothing like what I normally write.)
Since I’m talking about my own retellings, I really should mention The Swan Maiden in more detail. It takes the swan maiden myth and plays with it. Just a bit. I had fun with it. The narrative style isn’t for everyone — personally, I’m not very fond of the protagonist — but I enjoyed working on it and seeing the story unfold. It’s changed a bit from the original drabble that wanted expanding which was a very interesting experience.
Hmm… What else? I did tell you I don’t really write a lot of them, yes? Mostly they’re short. I have a short story about kelpies kicking about. It’s based on a Dutch legend I heard a long time ago. I have several unfinished stories based on fairytales or folktales lying around. I have one that’s loosely based on Tam Lin (and when I say ‘loosely’ I mean ‘no one but me is ever going to think so’) and one that’s based on The Six Swans/The Twelve Ravens. They’re all in various stages of unfinished, and I’m determined to work on at least one unfinished piece a year along with everything else I work on, so I’ll get around to them eventually. ^_^
I’d like to get Kara to tell me a few more stories, but she seems to be all talked out. Pity. I liked the grumpy old lady. But there you are. Some of the fairytales and stories I’ve been playing with. Like I said, I tend to stick to the ones I know particularly well or feel comfortable retelling for some other compelling-to-my-brain reason. I’ll probably prioritise the retelling of The Frog Prince in the next slot because a couple of my friends have expressed interest in that one in particular. ^_^