Supernatural and Fairy Tales

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for shows about fighting fantastical/demonic creatures. “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Lost Girl,” “Torchwood,” and “Doctor Who” are all on my top ten list, as is Eric Kripke’s creation, “Supernatural.”  Not only do these programs give me the dark fantasy/sci-fi fix I’m always on the lookout for, but they often allude to fairy tales, whether subtly or blatantly.  The latter is true of “Supernatural” season 3, episode 5 “Bedtime Stories.”

In this fairy tale themed episode, demon hunters Sam and Dean Winchester are shocked to find a town plagued by incidents reminiscent of the Grimm classics.  The familiar stories of  Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Three Little Pigs, and Hansel and Gretel are all mirrored in violent incidents cropping up all over town.  At first, Dean does not see the connection between the ancient stories and the violence, but Sam knows better; he explains to his brother that fairy tales were not always the bright, happy stories for which Disney has become famous.  Although many in our culture have no knowledge of the original tales, Sam is aware of their formerly sinister nature.

In an important way, fairy tales are a great metaphor for the world in which the Winchesters live; although knowledge of the evil creatures they fight has long been lost to the general public, they are aware of the world’s darker nature.  They know that their world is not the scientific, sunny place it might seem at first glance.  While others see the happily-ever-after Disney version of the world, they see it for what it truly is; ancient, violent, and full of things that go bump in the night, just like the original versions of many fairy tales.  They know that a happy ending is not guaranteed.

Although this episode most directly addresses fairy tales,  folklore (the root of many fairy tales) and urban legends (their more modern cousins) can be found in nearly every one.  Lovers of fairy tales and dark fantasy alike are sure to find “Supernatural” to their liking.

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Once Upon a Webcomic: A Softer World

It’s time for another “Once Upon a Webcomic.”  This one centers around another comic I adore, “A Softer World.”

First time I've ever wished for a Disney version.The alternate text of this comic on its original page is fantastic.  It reads “First time I’ve ever wished for a Disney version,” and Joey Comeau (He’s the writer of the series, but not the photographer; that would be Emily Horne.) has a great point.  Because our culture has censored so many of these old stories for modern children, we often forget that fairy tales are almost never truly happy stories, and it is only ever through great hardship that characters are sometimes (but not always) able to find their happy endings.

Take, for instance, the familiar story of Rapunzel.  In its original version, Dame Gothel (the witch) cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and casts her out into the wilderness upon discovering that Rapunzel is pregnant and must have been consorting with a man.  When the prince comes for Rapunzel, the witch tells him that he will never see her again.  In despair, he attempts to commit suicide by leaping from the tower, but instead blinds himself when he lands face first in the thorns below.  Confused, disoriented, and in pain, he wanders off into the wilderness.  Rapunzel gives birth and eventually finds the prince.  Her tears heal his blindness and they live happily ever after.  Of course, this happy ending is only achieved after the couple has experienced great trauma and misfortune.

In many cases, fairy tales are darker than our culture seems to remember.  Like Comeau, I always find it interesting when people express a desire for a “fairy tale” romance, because it reveals, as he points out, that they have probably never read any actual fairy tales.

Once Upon a Webcomic: Ryan North Strikes Again

Some of you may recall last week’s Once Upon a Webcomic on Ryan North’s “Dinosaur Comics.”  Apparently, since that time, Ryan North has become determined to blow my mind.  His last three webcomic posts have been a fantastic series on fairy tales.

The first of these retells “Little Red Riding Hood” including some of the more disturbing details from older versions of the story.  Yes, in some versions, Little Red actually did eat her dead grandmother and escape because she told the wolf she had to poop and didn’t want to have an accident in the bed.

In his next comic, North addresses “Sleeping Beauty.”  Some of the information he gives us is true; the Prince really did rape the title character, causing her to give birth to the twins who woke her from her slumber.  Of course, he also provides us with some false information.  “Sleeping Beauty,” while it describes the character, is not her name.  She has been known, in different versions of the tale, as Talia, Aurora, Briar Rose, and more.

Finally, North writes a comic strip in which T-Rex tries to write his own less disturbing fairy tale.  Of course, he fails when he creates a story with a gender-confused protagonist (reminiscent of Ozma) who uses magic to enable her friends to cannibalize an evil wizard.

With any luck, Ryan North will keep reflecting on fairy tales in their grisly, original forms and make comic strips about even more of the old favorites.

Top Four Best Retold Fairy Tales

When I was ten years old, I discovered retold fairy tales.  Since then, I have read tons of them–probably hundreds–and written many of my own.  That being said, I’ve come to know a good retelling when I see one.

Although there are many fantastic novel-length retellings of these stories, there are an equal number of amazing short story versions.  This is a good place to start if you’re not sure about reading retold fairy tales, but you’re willing to give them a try.  Here, you will find a list of what I consider to be the top four best retold fairy tale short stories.

1. Wolfland by Tanith Lee

Nearly every story in Tanith Lee’s retold fairy tale collection “Red As Blood or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer” is pure fairy tale gold.  “Wolfland,” however, is by far the fairest of them all.  This fantastic retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood takes place in nineteenth century Scandinavia, where “little red” is not a helpless child but a teenage party girl whose wealthy grandmother hides a supernatural secret.  The collection is, unfortunately, out of print; if you can get your hands on a used copy, do not hesitate to do so.

 

2. Hansel’s Eyes by Garth Nix

This story is also part of a larger collection; “A Wolf at the Door” edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling contains retold fairy tales by many well-known authors.  “Hansel’s Eyes,” however, has all the marks of a truly great retelling: an original spin on the story, an engaging writing style, and a macabre twist.  This modern version has Hansel and Gretel abandoned in the inner city, where an organ harvesting witch lures them into her video game shop.  Not only is it the best story in the collection, but it’s the best reimagining of Hansel and Gretel I’ve ever come across.

 

3. Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman

Just like everything else on this list, “Snow, Glass, Apples” can be found inside a bigger book: “Smoke and Mirrors,” a collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman.  Interestingly, the theme of Snow White as a creepy little girl with an aversion to holy things is not as unusual as one might imagine; this story, however, does it better than any of the others I’ve read.  In it, Snow is a blood sucking princess who is slowly killing her father.  Her benevolent stepmother plays the story’s heroine.  Although it’s not quite as original as the others on this list, it is the most beautifully written of all of them, and my absolute favorite version of Snow White.

 

4. The Bully and the Beast by Orson Scott Card

This particular retelling of popular French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast is hidden within a large collection of Orson Scott Card’s short fiction, “Maps in a Mirror.”  Card’s writing style is a joy to read, but what really makes this a great story is the cleverness of it.  The title the “beast” is also fascinating here, because it could easily be applied to several characters in the story.  Add a beauty that doesn’t love the unintelligent man that rescues her and a dragon with a power that will make you think, and you’ve got a surprisingly unique version of one of the most commonly retold fairy tales around.


Although these are a few of my favorite short fairy tale retellings, there are many more out there.  Happy reading!


Disney Comparison: Twisted Princesses

Many fairy tales started out as grisly stories containing deaths and violence.  The versions most people are familiar with today, however, are the heavily edited Disney-fied ones that can be seen in a plethora of animated film, in which the villain meets a just (albeit often nonviolent) end, the prince and princess get married and, perhaps most importantly, all the main characters survive.

Although it’s the nature of fairy tales, as a genre that was long sustained by word of mouth, to evolve over time, the comparison between the Disney versions and the originals is fascinating.  Maybe that’s why I always love to see someone give the universally recognizable Disney girls a makeover.  This series by artist Jeffrey Thomas is one of the best examples of that I’ve seen.

Snow White is my favorite, but they’re all fantastically grim.  Ariel comes in at a close second, and Jasmine and Rapunzel are vying for third.  Not only does the artist create these gorgeously dark fairy tale images, but he makes creepy story profiles for each princess.  What’s not to love?

 

Snow White is my favorite of Jeffrey Thomas' twisted princesses.

 

To see the rest of this amazing series, check out Jeffrey Thomas’ gallery on Deviant Art.

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