Imogen Howson does Fairytales, or Playing With The Rules

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?

I’ve played with some of these ideas in Falling, my Drollerie Press story, which is a re-imagining of Rapunzel set in a futuristic world.

Imogen Howson



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!


14 Responses to “Imogen Howson does Fairytales, or Playing With The Rules”

  1. July 19, 2007 at 1:30 am

    How true! As an adult reading these fairy tales to my child, I’ve often felt what you’ve put so beautifully into words. I hated Cinderella this time around, and I couldn’t stand Sleeping Beauty lying there just waiting for the magical kiss.

    Frankly I much preferred the Shrek version of events. It was twisted, but fun. It was funny because the anti-hero is the unwitting and unwilling hero. And the heroine isn’t a wimp either. Lol, her suspended-in-the-air crouching tiger move had me in splits! Robin Hood always felt too good to be true anyway. He deserved to have his ass kicked. As for that mafia-style fairytale godmother – she was the BEST! I loved how she belted out that song just before the finale. Oh, ah, ahem… I got off the track here, didn’t I? Can u tell I’m a Shrek fan? lol

    To get back on topic. I really like Jack and the Beanstalk, even after all these years. I like how clever Jack swindles the giant. It’s fun because it’s wrong! Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is also among my favorites. Another magical and clever little tale just like Aladin.

    What I’d like to see re-written? How about Snow White or Goldilocks? Oh, the possiblities that come to mind… Even more interestingly, how about Pied Piper? I’d love to see this one given a new and modern twist. If I remember rightly, he’s nobody’s ideal to begin with. How to redeem him makes it an interesting proposition! Same with King Midas.

  2. 2 Becky
    July 19, 2007 at 2:02 am

    I like RaeLynn Blue’s Fairy Tale story Desire Into Gold. It’s a twist on Rumplestiltskin.

  3. July 19, 2007 at 4:06 am

    (Don’t enter me in the contest, of course) My favorite is Snow White-A Tale of Terror with Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neill. LOVE IT, the grim awfulness of it. Far from Disney, I know. 🙂

  4. July 19, 2007 at 8:40 am

    *taking notes*
    Becky, I was telling my children the story of Rumpelstiltskin the other day (I mentioned it in passing because I was writing this blog post, and they hadn’t happened to hear it before).
    It is one of those really weird fairytales–it doesn’t even properly have a happy ending, or a hero. I think it needs twisting–the more the better!

  5. July 19, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    So Immi, write it so we can read it! 🙂

  6. July 19, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    I love Roald Dahls telling of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s enormous fun.

  7. July 19, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    It’s been pointed out to me that Rumplestiltskin is the only character in that story who actually tells the truth keeps his word. Unlike, say, the princess, who makes promises and then doesn’t keep them. Or the king who claims his daughter can spin straw into gold in the first place. Rumplestiltskin is not a nice man, but he’s better than anyone else in that tale.

  8. 8 celeber
    July 19, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    I adore the original Beauty and the Beast. My grandmother read it to me as a child and it has always been special to me. Well, my favorite really.

    Joely – I loved that movie!!

  9. July 19, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Bookworm, I love Shrek too! And ooh, yes, a re-write of the Pied Piper. He’s always struck me as an extremely sinister figure anyway.

    Janni, that’s an interesting thought. Although I have to say, if I’d been stupid enough to promise my baby to some scary little man, I wouldn’t keep my promise either!

  10. 10 Becky
    July 20, 2007 at 1:45 am

    Imogen, RaeLynn’s Rumpelstiltskin has got a wonderful happy ending, hot stuff in it, AND a hot and proper hero to save the day. lol

  11. 11 Crystal G
    July 20, 2007 at 5:15 am

    My favorite fairy tale is Beauty and The Beast. I loved the fact that she saw the Beast for a “real” person with a heart and not what he looked like.

  12. July 20, 2007 at 8:17 am

    Becky, that sounds exactly what Rumpelstiltskin needs! 🙂

  13. 13 Chicken Man
    July 20, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    Of all the fairy tales I’ve read (the fictional ones, that is – not the politician’s promises), I do believe Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling” comes near the top of the pile for me. It tells how we can be taken in by appearances, how we must not believe first impressions. Everyone has ‘a beautiful swan’ waiting to burst out, but the story does not tell of the reverse – that there is often ‘an ugly duckling’ ready to surface.

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