Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Folk/Fairy Tale

Fairy Tales Reimagined: Essays on New Retellings

Edited by Susan Redington Bobby. 2009. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers. 270 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7864-4115-0 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Jeana Jorgensen, Butler University

[Review length: 910 words • Review posted on February 2, 2010]


This collection of essays will be of interest to scholars working on the literary fairy tale, but it appears not to have been written by or for folklorists, so some discrepancies in methodologies may appear as oversights to those of us who are accustomed to studying fairy tales from a folkloristic perspective. The editor's literary perspective is evident when she discusses the writers whose works are analyzed in the anthology, ranging from canonical fairy-tale authors such as Angela Carter, Robert Coover, and Anne Sexton to newer writers in the field, such as Neil Gaiman, Peg Kerr, and Kate Bernheimer. Bobby notes in the introduction: "The thread that binds all of these writers and their work is an awareness of the fairy tale tradition and their innovation as each reimagined tale reflects both our time and shapes the genre for years to come" (9). If only all of the authors of the essays had been similarly aware of the fairy tale tradition—and folkloristic scholarship thereon—this would have been a much sounder book.

The strongest essays are those that walk the fine line between close textual analysis and awareness of relevant scholarship. Martine Hennard Dutheil de la Rochère's essay on Emma Donoghue's collection of fairy-tale short stories, Kissing the Witch, provides a nuanced reading of the tales, grounded in queer theory and comparison of prior intertexts. Bethany Joy Bear's essays on Peg Kerr's novel, The Wild Swans, is similarly attuned to gender issues and contextualizes the contemporary novel in light of prior versions of the fairy tale, "The Maiden Seeks Her Brothers," ATU 451 (primarily Basile's, the Grimm brothers', and Andersen's), although I wonder why the author refers to the AT tale type index rather than the updated ATU index. The importance of previous intertexts is also a prominent part of the analysis in Bobby's own contribution to the volume, on the fairy-tale novels of Shannon Hale. However, the only author in the volume to look significantly beyond canonical fairy-tale intertexts is Helen Pilinovsky, whose essay on the fairy-tale novels of Kate Bernheimer displays a thorough awareness of the history of the fairy-tale genre in the English language. Pilinovsky discusses the evolution of fairy-tale discourse from the social commentary of the contes des fees, to the Victorian era's moralizing and utopian themes, to the modern retellings that emphasize dystopian and meta-narrative themes, exploring all of these themes in a close reading that is both rigorous and provocative.

Many of the essays contextualize contemporary fairy-tale works in specific social and historical conditions. Among the more interesting of these essays are Margarete J. Landwehr's essay on fairy tales as allegories of the Holocaust (analyzing Jane Yolen's Briar Rose and Louise Murphy's The True Story of Hansel and Gretel), Mark C. Hill's essay on American wartime masculinity in the comic book Fables, and Vanessa Joosen's essay on fairy-tale retellings as instruments of social criticism (analyzing Philip Pullman's I Was a Rat! in light of British politics). Christa Mastrangelo Joyce discusses women poets who revise fairy tales in order to reclaim literary history by exposing patriarchal themes in fairy tales and reviving a sense of aesthetics within the stories. This aesthetic focus is continued in the essays on canonical fairy-tale authors, ranging from Jeffrey K. Gibson's analysis of A. S. Byatt's fairy tales to Marie C. Bouchet's essay on Robert Coover's Briar Rose. The works of authors not primarily known for their fairy tales are also analyzed, as in Amie A. Doughty's essay on Robin McKinley's folktale revisions and Mathilda Slabbert's essay on Neil Gaiman's use of fairy tales in his fiction.

Certain topics, such as Joanne Campbell Tidwell's discussion of the Peter Pan "myth" and Maureen Topey's analysis of Jeanette Winterson's transformation of Alice in Wonderland intertexts in her novel, The PowerBook, seem discomfiting and out of place (despite Winterson's use of fairy tales in some of her other works). Especially disorienting are two essays that seem to have nothing to do with fairy tales: Lauren Choplin's analysis of the book The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches and Christopher Roman's analysis of the book Wicked in relation to theories of terrorism. Both books admittedly incorporate some fairy-tale motifs, but as with the Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland works mentioned above, their origins are literary rather than folkloric; hence, I question their inclusion here.

A folklorist reading this book will get twitchy at some things, such as the claim that "Jane Yolen has been a dominant writer in the field of folklore for decades" (58)—a superb writer of literary folktales, yes, but she is not a folklorist! The fact that the tale type index (and the older version at that) is mentioned only sporadically is upsetting. The folktale "Sleeping Beauty" is called a "myth" (99), and Bruno Bettelheim is cited as an authority on fairy tales (repeatedly). There is disappointingly little folkloristic scholarship referenced; Jack Zipes is the most frequently cited folklorist, and for good reason, but I expected to see more than isolated mentions of scholars like Cristina Bacchilega and Donald Haase, as well as any mention at all of our international colleagues working in folk narrative research, such as Bengt Holbek, Ulrich Marzolph, and Francisco Vaz da Silva. Vladimir Propp and Max Lüthi appear sporadically. However, despite its failings from a folkloristic perspective, this book does contain some interesting insights and intriguing readings of fairy-tale authors old and new, and hence I recommend it to scholars working in this area.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.