On Retelling Thrushbeard in The Ice Princess's Fair Illusion
When I set out to write The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing. Sure, I had a rough idea. ‘Retell King Thrushbeard, but make it queer and less misogynistic’ is all good and well, but it’s hardly a plot. It took me a fair bit of brainstorming to come up with a plot that would make the fairytale work better for me.
King Thrushbeard is a tale that appeals to me in some ways and just… doesn’t work in others. For one, if it had been a prince who’d refused to marry, we would have had a radically different plot. On the flipside, the domesticity of the tale and the contrast between social classes appeals to me. I just… could do without the whole ‘This proud woman must be humbled through social humiliation and hard physical labour’ aspect of the thing.
It took a fair bit of brainstorming for me to figure out how to retell those aspects of the story in a way that worked for me and I’ll be forever grateful to the friends who listened to me ramble about it and watched me work out the chinks in my mind. But, eventually, I did figure it out.
The story, as a whole, leans more towards misogyny than I’d anticipated or set out to write. I’ve kept the more patriarchal setting, for all that I’ve shifted things to be more inclusive of queer identities in general. I needed that setting, both to keep one of the most striking elements of the original tale and to explore how that element affected Marian.
The whole thing spiralled from there, if I’m honest. Think about it a moment. In the original fairytale, the only character to get a name is King Thrushbeard himself. And, yes, it’s a nickname to mock him, but it’s still more than the princess gets. More, his nickname is the story’s title when fairytales are commonly named after protagonists. There are others, but naming a story solely after the love interest is fairly uncommon and usually involves princes rescuing enchanted damsels. (The Frog Prince is another well-known exception.) The princess’s emotional arc in King Thrushbeard then is a way to cast the story of how he gained his wife and changed her to be what he wanted her to be in a superficially more favourable light.
In the original tale, there is little nuance to the portrayal of the princess and, as said, the story is about Thrushbeard ‘humbling her proud spirit’ and ‘punish her for humiliating him’. (Because nothing says ‘I love you’ like revenge, I guess?) So, in The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion, I had to ensure that whatever else happened, the narrative as a whole was in service of Marian’s narrative arc, not her love interest’s. That means the driving event of the story, her father’s loss of temper, had to be tied strongly to Marian’s arc too. That’s how Marian’s sex-repulsion became the central theme of the story and the driving force behind events. It’s her strong desire not to have sex that sees her become haughty and cruel to the people around her as well as causing her father to lose his temper in public and announce he’ll force her to marry the first beggar at the gate.
That alone, though, isn’t enough to rework the original tale into something less… negative, however. Because the arc the princess in the fairytale experiences is subservient to the arc Thrushbeard goes through, that connection needed to be disrupted as well. One way to do that is to make sure that Edel’s arc, as it pertains to Marian, is supplementary to Marian’s arc. Indeed, Edel originally didn’t set out to marry or gain a spouse. She just decides on impulse that she wants to try and protect someone she correctly guesses is sex-repulsed. At first, Edel’s plan is to divorce Marian once the ruse has done its job even. Thus, The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion, rather than making Marian’s arc subservient to Edel’s, I made sure that Edel’s goal was complementary. (And then I added in a personal goal for Edel because, you know, people often have more than one.)
This approach has allowed me to, in my opinion, reclaim at least the most problematic aspects of the fairytale. Hopefully, readers will agree!