Everyone knows the rules of fairytales. Heroines are beautiful. Princes are noble. Witches are evil. Stepmothers are cruel. Moving from a lower social class (scullery maid) to a higher (princess) is a good thing. The forest is dangerous and contains things that will eat you—usually in a nasty tricky way like pretending to be your grandmother first, or by building a house made of gingerbread.If someone mentions a ‘fairytale ending’ we know they mean ‘happy ever after’. You might want to check, though—they might mean the fairytale ending of the first print version of Little Red Riding Hood, by Charles Perroult, where Red Riding Hood doesn’t escape the wolf.
Which is the interesting thing. There’s a lot of darkness in fairytales—even in the ones that do have the ‘happy ever after’ endings.
It’s the cruel stepmother who insists Hansel and Gretel must be abandoned in the forest, but it’s their father, who loves them and grieves for them, who complies with her demand.
In Rumpelstiltskin, the scariest villain is, of course, Rumpelstiltskin, who tries to take the heroine’s baby. But coming in close second and third are surely the heroine’s stupid father who boasts that she can spin straw into gold, and the greedy king who threatens her with death if she can’t manage it—and whom she ends up marrying (now there’s an abusive relationship for you).
In Rapunzel, the witch doesn’t even need to steal the baby from her parents. Rapunzel’s father gives her away instead, in exchange for some salad for his pregnant wife.
This is in contrast to the wholly good characters—who are, sadly, often a bit disappointing. Heroines who are beautiful but kind of dull, and who sit patiently waiting to be rescued. And heroes who—well, I can’t be the only reader who prefers the Beast to the handsome prince he turns into at the end of Beauty and the Beast.
Maybe this is why, in recent fiction, people have started to write about the monsters, rather than the heroes—or have made the monsters into the heroes. In the England I live in, the old fairytale forests are now no more than a fairytale themselves—bears and wolves were hunted to extin ction some three hundred years ago. And although goodness knows there are plenty of girls who’d like to be princesses, nobody thinks that moving into Buckingham Palace guarantees a happy ever after.
Now—probably because it no longer exists—there’s something rather alluring about the deep dark forest where the monsters live. I don’t want to keep safely to the path and get back to my village, or be swept up onto the prince’s horse and taken off to his castle. I want to explore the wilderness, the darkness. I want to see the glowing eyes and find the tracks of something’s paws on the marshy ground.
I want to read books about the ‘other’—the werewolves, the beasts, the witches—those who are outside the safety of the village or castle. I want to find heroes in unlikely shapes. And the villains—why not take those hints of malice or indifference in some of the ‘good’ characters, and turn them into the real antagonists?
And, for a chance to win a copy of Falling, plus 300g of best-quality chocolate (your choice of flavour!), tell me in the comments—what’s your favourite version of a fairytale? The original Little Red Riding Hood? The Disney version of The Little Mermaid? Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me? The anarchic mixture of stock fairytale characters in the Shrek films? Robin McKinley’s rich-textured rewriting of Sleeping Beauty in Spindle’s End? Or which fairytale would you like to see rewritten—and why?
Excerpt coming up!