Countdown: Top 3 Fairy Tales Used in Retellings
Written by
Laurine Bruder
October 2017
Written by
Laurine Bruder
October 2017

Fairy tales are my bread and butter as a writer. When I was young, I was introduced to them via the Disney Renaissance movies: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, most notably. As soon as I saw them in theatres, I had to read about them. As I grew older and the internet became a thing, I read more about fairy tales from other parts of the world and gained access to some of the older versions of my old favorites. These tales are my foundation as a fantasy writer.

My favorite tales were always full of magic and wonder. I even liked some of the pure morality tales, like "The Girl Without Hands" or "The Red Shoes." My imagination flew as a child and the very first story I wrote was about a girl who lived in a magical volcano. I didn't even know who Pele was at the time, otherwise I would have given her credit. I devoured any book that had to do with witches, wizards, magic, and mystery.

So the surge in retellings has made me a happy reader indeed.

Retelling tales isn't a new concept, given how often fairy tales were translated into different languages and adopted to different cultures, but the modern upswing has gone far beyond that. Favorite, beloved stories are transformed until they're almost unrecognizable. Some are used more often than others, but which ones are the most popular? What elements about them draw writers and readers alike into their worlds? Welcome, dear reader, as we look at the 3 most popular fairy tales used in retellings and why we keep coming back to them.

Certain fairy tales have a more timeless feel than others. Their stories resonate within readers for generations. They inspire us centuries after their creation and touch the most fundamentally human parts of our hearts. When talking about fairy tales, these could be considered “The Big Three” in how often they're used in retellings.

1. Beauty and the Beast

Thanks to Disney's critically acclaimed animated feature, this tale catapulted to popularity, but even before then, people knew of it. Whether it was the more commonly published Marie Leprince de Beaumont or Andrew Lang version, the original publication by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, or even the myth of Eros and Psyche, the tale of a girl who falls in love with a monster, only to discover he's in truth a handsome prince, has been known for ages. It has charmed and enchanted readers with its magic, romance, and mystery.

But what about this tale encourages so many retellings?

Let's take a look.

At its core, “Beauty and the Beast” has a universal message: the transforming power of love. It isn't just the Beast's transformation to handsome prince, but it's how a person changes themselves for someone they love. It's about how we as people want to be our best possible selves when we're in love and how that change takes time. “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the few fairy tales where love grows over time. It reflects real life and that powerful message of love is something that resonates with humanity as a whole.

There's also the message of kindness and how it shouldn't be denied to anyone, man or beast. To deny kindness is, in itself, a beastly behavior and what caused the prince to be transformed in the first place. When he is shown and gives kindness, he becomes less a beast and more a human being. This kindness resonates in a secondary message of looking beneath the surface of a person to see the beauty within.

Fairy tale heroines were the original beauty queens. They were fair, delicate, and good. They shone with virtue. The heroine in “Beauty and the Beast” is no exception. She is a good, dutiful daughter, the most beautiful of her sisters, well-read, and the purest of heart. Their princes were handsome, strong men, to match the heroine's beauty. Not the Beast. The Beast was such a prince, but becomes what would usually be the monster of the tale. It takes kindness and courage on Beauty's part to look past his exterior and see who he really is. Her strength and caring resonates with readers young and old.

“Beauty and the Beast” has the most potential to be shaped into a new version of itself. Its basic, touching messages combined with elements of magic, romance, and mystery are wonderful ingredients to create new tales as old as time.

2. Cinderella

Although I love “Beauty and the Beast,” I have to admit that “Cinderella” is my favorite fairy tale of all time. “Cinderella” has always spoken to me in ways that other stories didn't. There are thousands of versions all over the world, from every culture, but the oldest recorded version is of Rhodopis, as told by Strabo, a Greek geographer. The most well known versions are by Charles Perrault (“Cendrillon”) and the Brothers Grimm (“Aschenputtel”), but the first European version was published by Giambattista Basile (“Cenerentola”). Each version has its differences, but what is it about the story of a young girl who goes to a ball that compels writers to retell it so many different ways?

The core of “Cinderella” is no less powerful than “Beauty and the Beast” but it has a dark side: this is a fairy tale of abuse and the power of hope. In both Perrault and the Grimm versions of the tale, the Cinderella character is forced into a life of servitude after her mother dies and her father remarries. Also in both tales, and what makes it far worse, is that the father survives and allows this abuse of his only child. It's a sad state, but often seen in reality: children neglected and abused by their parents, the people meant to protect and love them. When, or if, they survive, it's a marvel of personal strength and character.

Despite all of the insults, chores, and sorrow heaped upon her, Cinderella never gives up hope. She never loses her kind nature, which takes strength all on its own. To resist abuse, to resist falling into the pit of hate and hopelessness and anger, requires an iron will and great courage, something often overlooked in Cinderella tales.

The message of hope, of never giving up, is one that also resonates through the changing times. Humanity itself exists on hope, going all the way back to the tale of Pandora's Box, and it's the one thing we keep with us, always. Because Cinderella has hope and courage, she is able to retain her good heart in the face of adversity, and is rewarded for it. While the real world isn't so kind, and having a good heart isn't a guarantee of reward, we still hope. We hope that somehow, someday, that strength will be rewarded.

Cinderella may have wanted a night off and a pretty dress to go to a party after a lifetime of slaving away for her family, but she's so much more than that. She's strong. The kind of strong modern readers want in their leading ladies.

3. Snow White

I have to admit, “Snow White” isn't one of my favorite fairy tales, although I do like some of the recent retellings. Originally published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 and called, “Schneewittchen,” it obtained its final version in 1854. It's one of the few fairy tales that doesn't have prior origins but is strictly native to its homeland of Germany. In comparison to the other two on this list, it's relatively young. Funny that, because it suits the main character perfectly. Snow White was around 7 years old when she was chased from her home by her stepmother (originally her mother in the first published version) and while Disney aged her to 14 years, she's still incredibly young and innocent.

Not to mention beautiful.

On the surface, Snow White embodies little of the strength of character that Beauty and Cinderella do. In the original tale, her father remarries and her stepmother comes to hate her, she is not made into a servant. She is still allowed to live as a princess. It's only until the queen can no longer contain her jealousy that she orders Snow White killed.

While Snow White faces greater hardship, in that someone actually attempts to murder her, she never saves herself. Her innocence leads her to fall for the queen's tricks 3 times, making a total of 4 attempts, if you count the huntsman. The dwarves are the ones who save her from herself and naivete. The prince saves her when the glass coffin she sleeps in is dropped and she spits out the bit of apple. The core message could be about innocence, and how the wicked try to kill it, but I think “Snow White” has a different appeal.

Rather than a universal message, it has a villain who has become beloved by the masses: the evil queen.

Jealousy is one of the basest human emotions. Everyone, myself included, has been jealous of something or someone at one point in life. The sheer dislike, anger, and sense of injustice against someone else possessing what we covet is the darker side of the human psyche and one that's explored briefly in the Brothers Grimm tale. The queen's jealousy is fueled by her obsession with two things: beauty and, to a lesser extent, youth.

In the original fairy tale, the queen is a pure villain. She has no background to justify her motives behind wanting to be fairest in the land. She simply wants it. When Snow White becomes more beautiful than her, she wants to kill the child and eliminate the problem. She has no qualms about murdering her own stepdaughter and attempts to do so multiple times. At the end, she goes to the wedding to kill the young bride, not knowing it's Snow White, so deep is her obsessive need to be the fairest of them all.

But why? What drives this obsession?

That's what writers around the world have done when reimagining and retelling the “Snow White” tale. They delve into the backstory of the queen. Writers are drawn to this type of character, who can be given a complex and compelling background to explain how she came to be and the reason behind her obsession. The possibilities are endless and it frees the imagination in a way that “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” don't. Neither story has such open characters. Both the queen and Snow White can be reinterpreted, Snow White could be given a gun and a backbone, the queen could be a lonely girl forced to marry a man she doesn't love, the list goes on and on. That, I think, more than any universal message is what draws writers into using Snow White in their retellings.

Plus, who doesn't love a story about a wicked queen trying to poison our heroine and the heroine actually doing something about it?

With 3 such rich tales, it's no wonder the market has exploded with retellings. Some of the more recent ones include the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, and “The Shadow Queen” by C.J. Redwine. More are being released every month. I, myself, am looking forward to reading, “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns” by Julie C. Dao, released just this month. Funny enough, it's a “Snow White” retelling, featuring the Evil Queen and set in East Asia. Fairy tale retellings are emerging from all cultural backgrounds and to a voracious book dragon like myself, that is the best tale of all.

Thanks for stopping by, dear reader, and look for new blog posts on Tuesdays. I've got a secret project in the works that I'll be posting updates about with my posts so look for that in the future too. Please like, comment, or reblog if you enjoyed this post, and until next time, take care!

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