Once Upon a Time: Why Do Writers Love Fairy Tales?
By Chloé Rose Whitmore
Edited by Hannah Laker
“Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.”– ’Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, Anne Sexton
After our customary longer-than-expected pause, we’re ready to hit your inboxes again with the first letter from Volume 6, an atmospheric response to Anne Sexton’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ poem, written by the wicked stepmother herself. Ahead of publication, Chloé Rose Whitmore considers the influence of fairy tales on contemporary writers.
Evocative, poetic and even a little bewitching, Hannah Jansen’s letter addresses Snow White (named only as ‘S’), from her long-dead stepmother, the queen. Taking inspiration from Sexton’s famous poem, as well as the original Grimm’s fairy tale, Hannah’s letter follows a literary tradition of reimagining and repurposing classic fairy tales. From Neil Gaiman and Angela Carter to Carol Ann Duffy and Sexton herself, some of the best writers of our time have found themselves entrenched in that classic world of wolves and witches – often to extraordinary results.
Which got us thinking: Why do so many writers return to fairy tales?
Although maybe a better question is – why not? Rich in strange, fantastical details, these largely copyright-free stories offer a treasure trove of inspiration for writers. As long as poets and authors steer clear of any details woven in by Disney (or, indeed, any other modern entity), they’re free to borrow, twist and change anything they like from the classic fairy tale catalogue.
In many ways, fairy tales are also ripe with nostalgia. From beautifully illustrated copies of the original Grimm’s tales to the Disney-bright versions, most children grow up with at least a handful of these magical tales in their back pockets. With such vivid associations embedded into our childhood, it’s easy to see why the writerly brain starts wandering back into that deep dark forest.
But these writers aren’t just revisiting fairy tales – they’re turning them inside out. Think of the dark, gruesome twists in Angela Carter’s fairy tales, or the masochistic elements of Neil Gaiman’s. There’s something bigger at play than a stroll down memory lane.
In the foreword for her translation of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Carter wrote that ‘each century tends to create or re-create fairy tales after its own taste’. We can see this at work in Carter’s own retellings, each one reimagined to explore modern feminist issues:
‘Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.’
By drawing readers into the framework of a well-known story, fairy tales give writers the opportunity to subvert their expectations – to distort and crack open old morals and flood them with new meaning. In this way, retold tales hold up a lens to modern life.
If this has got you excited and you don’t want to miss out on the latest issue, subscribe to our mailing list and get Hannah Jansen’s letter delivered straight to your inbox.
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