I’ve been grazing through a recent and rather large collection of “new fairy tales,” stories inspired by classics like “The Snow Queen” and “Bluebeard,” called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (catchy, no?). The stories in here range from a take on The Swan Brothers (the tale where six royal brothers are changed into swans by their evil stepmother), in which the swans’ sister is a modern-day performance artist, and “The Mermaid in the Tree,” where a yearly Mermaid Parade celebrates the creatures that wash up on the shore, and a child bride talks to the ghost of a mermaid.
Reading these stories, I recalled other favorite collections of fairy tales and their retellings, the stories of monsters and heroines that have lasted for so many years. One of my favorite memories of visiting my grandparents’ house when I was a child was getting to read my grandmother’s giant book of fairy tales, Shirley Temple’s Storybook. The story “Bluebeard,” the tale of a murderous and conniving husband who tempts his new wife with the key to a room she is forbidden to enter, both horrified and fascinated me. “The Snow Queen,” with its intrepid heroine who braves icy wilderness to try to rescue her best friend from the sliver of enchanted mirror that has entered his heart, touched me with its poetic story of love and loss.
When I grew a little older, I discovered a writer, Robin McKinley, who reinvented fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast.” I read her story collection “The Door in the Hedge” first, which contains a standout version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” McKinley has actually written two different versions of “Beauty,” but I prefer her first one, with its many details of the enchanted castle. “Beauty” is my favorite fairy tale because the heroine is smart and brave, and because she develops a real relationship with her beast, so that in the end, when she says she loves him and wants to marry him, breaking the spell that has imprisoned him for so long, she truly means it.
So, in reading that gigantic book of fairy tale retellings, I found myself wondering why it is that I still, after so many years, find fairy tales so interesting. What is it about these stories that makes them endure?
I believe that the recurrent themes of enchantment and transformation in fairy tales are one reason that these stories have lasted so long in our collective imagination. For example, in “The Princess and the Frog,” the frog is a prince, and only the princess’ kiss will set him free. In “The Snow Queen,” Kay changes from a loving boy to a cold minion of his ice queen, all because of that bit of poison mirror in his heart. “Sleeping Beauty” has its enchanted spindle, “Snow White” has its magicked bad apple, and in “Cinderella,” a pumpkin becomes a coach and mice become the footmen.
Through the enchantment comes change: transformation. And in that transformation, many things may mutate. At the end of “The Snow Queen,” Kay changes back to a loving best friend to Gertie – but will he ever forget his journey to the Snow Queen’s icy palace? For that matter, will Gertie?
The transformations in fairy tales are so profound, they resonate beyond the prescribed happy endings of weddings and children. After all, in the original ending to “Snow White,” the evil stepmother is made to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead. Who decided she should wear those shoes? The tale doesn’t tell us. But perhaps in her enchanted sleep brought on by that poisoned apple, Snow White changed a bit from that gentle soul who ran into the woods and started keeping house with seven dwarves.