Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.
Fairy Tale Favourites
A few years ago, I wrote a post about my favourite fairy tales. I figured that, with two more fairy tale retellings published and a third in planning stages, it would be a good and fun idea to revisit the topic.
Like many, I grew up on fairy tales. Notably, those that are canonically considered to be Western European fairy tales and the English and Germanic tales in particular. Those are, after all, the tales I know best and they make up the majority of the stories that I grew up with.
Growing I was surrounded by retellings of many of the most well-known fairy tales: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and so on. None of that is particularly surprising. These fairy tales are exceptionally good at what they do and they fit neatly into the Victorian-era recasting fairy tales as something for small children, as nursery and bedtime stories, and their ideals on proper behaviour. The violence in earlier versions of Cinderella is, after all, much easier to pare down than the violence in The Juniper Tree. The visual gruesomeness of Cinderella happens at the end, when the stepsisters cut parts of their own feet and have their eyes plucked out by Cinderella’s feathered friends. None of the violence is integral to the central narrative of Cinderella’s hard work and good heart being rewarded. The visual gruesomeness in The Juniper Tree, however, drives the plot. Without the stepmother in the story cutting off her son’s head, there is no story.
That is not counting all the simply plain weird fairy tales, such as The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage or The Louse and the Flea or The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean. And then there are the anti-Semitic fairy tales, and the ones that are barely stories such as A Riddling Tale. That’s not to mention the ones that are like more well-known tales and yet didn’t gain the same popularity, such as All-Kinds-of-Fur. My point is that there are a lot of fairy tales that didn’t – and don’t – get retold as much as the ones we all know, and it isn’t all because of Disney’s influence on fairy tale retellings as a whole.
All of that isn’t to say that these stories never get retold – they do. It’s just that they rarely gain the popularity of retellings of the more well-known tales. One of the most impressive feats about Jim Henson’s The Storyteller is that none of the fairy tales it retells are the ones you might expect. The closest the series gets is Sapsorrow and the meshing of All-Kinds-of-Fur with Cinderella and Donkeyskin works exceptionally well because they’ve all got similar beats.
To me, one of the most fascinating things about fairy tales and their retellings is how much individuality authors can pour into what is, at its core, the same narrative. It’s what draws me to the tales again and again. Though I grew up with a lot of books containing fairy tales and retellings, notably complete collections of all the stories collected by the brothers Grimm and those written by Hans Christian Andersen, most of my favourites all come from Grimm’s collections.
The Juniper Tree is actually one of them. I couldn’t quite explain why. I suspect it’s largely the combination of a story that is exceptionally gruesome and yet has an element of whimsy to it.
I have a big soft spot for Puss-in-Boots as well, though my favourite cat fairy tale was probably Madame d’Aulnoy’s The White Cat. Because it has a cat princess who saves the day for the prince. How was I not going to love that tale?
One of my absolute favourite remains The Two Brothers, largely because of the sheer amount of animal helpers in it. The Two Brothers is a fairly long fairy tale, smushing together several different motifs, but it’s always been the first half that holds my interest. This is the fairy tale that I’ve got bookmarked in my collection to this day.
In the first third of the story, we’re introduced to two identical twins who, because it’s a fairy tale, end up being able to find a gold coin underneath their pillow every night. They get kicked out of their home and taken in by a kindly huntsman, who raises them as his own. Now adults, the two brothers leave. They come across five animals, all of whom they decide not to kill after the creature begs for its life, and they’re both given a young animal in return, which they keep as pets.
In the second third of the story, the two brothers have split up and we mostly follow the younger of the two in his adventures to defeat a dragon and marry a princess. He defeats the dragon, with the help of his animal companions, but a marshal was watching and steals the proof that he’s done so. Or so the marshal thinks! Anyway, a short story made shorter the younger brother marries the princess and becomes a king. One day, he goes out riding and manages to get himself and his animals turned into stone.
Cue the third part of the story which focuses on the older brother. He returns to the village where they parted and discovers something is amiss with his brother and he goes off to discover what happened. He gets mistaken for his brother and, somehow, cannot get out of sleeping in the same bed as the princess. His brother, after being rescued, is really rather upset about it, lops his head off, then regrets it and the animals help him magically restore his brother back to life. They go back home, get recognised for who they are, discover the princess did not sleep with the brother not-her-husband, and happily ever after has been reached!
Trust me, the last part is incredibly unsatisfying to read in its full form as well. The first two thirds are delightful, though, and I’d happily recommend it if you enjoy fairy tales with animal companions. They’re really the star of the whole thing.
Another of my favourites 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 that remains between the siblings even then.
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 still 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 and her sisters. 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. Again, I mean, sure she gets help, but the vast majority of the story is about her outwitting her sorcerer husband-to-be and succeeding. Mostly by decorating a skull with flowers to pretend she’s watching the sorcerer from afar. It is the gothiest of Bluebeard variants.
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! Look, I’m not fond of winter, I admit that, but if I could make it winter by raining feathers down onto the world? Sign me up!
I have a massive soft spot for The Goose Girl as well. It takes a lot for me not to want to pick up a retelling of it, or not to like it when I read it. I loved Falada. I also always interpret Falada as a mare rather than a gelding, but there you go. I loved the way the wind obeyed the princess (and only the princess) and the solution the king arrived at to convince the princess to talk about what actually happened. It’s such a fun play with loopholes. Also the geese. They may play only a small role, but I do enjoy their presence.
I also have a deep love for The House in the Woods. Partially it’s because this is one of the stories I recall listening to on audiobooks and I can still hear the soothing cadence of the narrator whenever I think of this tale. Largely it’s because it’s a story about the importance of kindness. While that’s not an uncommon staple of fairy tales in and of itself, in many tales there’s a strong current of “If you are kind to others, others will be kind to you” and it’s not that that strand isn’t here at all, but it’s comparatively muted.
You see, The House in the Woods sees three sisters all stumble across a house in the woods where they ask for shelter. This is agreed to, provided that they cook supper. The eldest two cook supper for themselves and the old man living in the house. The youngest also cares for the animals without being prompted. She wakes up in a palace and learns that the old man was a prince cursed to be an old man until he meets a woman kind to both people and animals. Though, like in the other fairy tales, kindness to animals is rewarded, the animals don’t set out to help her win trials in return. They just go to sleep, fed and contented. It disrupts the general concept set out by more well-known fairy tales that the reason to do good deeds is because others will do good deeds in return.
Lastly, because I have to stop at some point, one of my favourite tales is One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes. I'm sure it's the goat. (Are you noticing an animal theme running through my fairy tales? 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. It’s usually the youngest child or, in a pinch, the eldest. This is also one the few fairy tales I know of where the evil sisters aren’t severely punished for their cruelty. They’re left poor, sure, but the story ends on both of them repenting of how they treated their sister. The sisters don’t get their eyes pecked out or shoes they’re forced to dance in until they die or anything like that. It’s just a small note about people learning that what they did was wrong and showing remorse. To a child that’s been bullied, the idea that those bullies may one day learn to be better people can be a powerful one.
Those are just some of the tales I’ve loved and enjoyed and continue to love to this day. While I do greatly enjoy the more well-known fairy tales as well, it’s often the lesser-known ones that truly hold my heart.