Review: “The Fairies Return Or, New Tales for Old,” Compiled by Peter Davies

First of all, I must ask the forgiveness of all my readers.  I have a confession to make.  I’ve been a little selfish with this book, and that’s why the review has been a bit of a long time coming.  Allow me to explain.

I received a review copy of “The Fairies Return” last month.  The book, which is (in its current edition) published by Princeton University Press, is a collection of retold fairy tales.  What sets it apart from most retellings, however, is that these stories were written and collected in 1934 in England.  Although we tend to think of fairy tale retellings as a recent phenomenon, this is a false assumption.  For as long as the oral tradition of fairy tales has existed, the stories have been changing and growing.  It only makes sense that present day writers aren’t the first to twist these stories around and view them through new, often modernized lenses.  However, it’s still rare to come upon a collection of older retellings like this one.

The uniqueness of the collection will make you want to savor it, just as I did.  With slow satisfaction, you will find yourself reading and reflecting upon each tale. This book must be devoured as might a particularly delicious meal, with the care and pace each succulent story deserves.  You will feel drawn to inspect each story closely, not only because of the tales’ fanciful nature, but also because of their fascinating historical placement and significance.  Although I regret that my slow savoring has delayed your knowledge of this wonderful little find, I am certain that any readers of this text will surely understand.

Each story–even a retelling of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”–comes across as unquestionably British.  The various writers are talented in their abilities to transform these familiar tales into stories of a very different sort.  However, even when the topics are closer to parliament and the stock market than magic, the skeletons of the original fairy tales are easily recognizable.

Although the stories themselves are diverse and offer many different tones and topics for closer inspection, perhaps the most interesting part of the collection is its ability to give readers a look at what fairy tale enthusiasts were up to almost 100 years ago.   The references and settings offer clear signs of the times in which the tales were retold, making this book a fascinating piece of history as well as a must-have for any fan of fairy tale retellings.

If your interest is piqued, then you’re in luck.  There’s a giveaway going until Oct. 26, in which entrants are eligible to win a free copy of “The Fairies Return.”  Five winners will be selected to receive this one-of-a-kind book.

For more information on “The Fairies Return,” check out this description from Princeton University Press.

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Aside

A Beastly Review

Some of you may remember a post I made a few months back wherein I discussed several upcoming fairy tale films, and made predictions about them.   Having now seen these movies, I suppose I should share my findings in review form.  Today, I’ll be tackling the first of these: “Beastly.”  Instead of a full blown article, however, I decided to slim it down to the basics for a quick read.  I present you with the best and worst three things about this “Beauty and the Beast” inspired teen flick.  Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Top Three:

  1. Just as I initially predicted, Neil Patrick Harris was as hilarious as always. He’s a fantastic actor who can shine in any role.
  2. The dialogue was actually pretty snappy.  It was no “Brick,” but the writers clearly put some effort into the film’s quirky language.
  3. It was interesting to see the witch character (Mary-Kate Olsen) get more involved.  In most versions of the story, she casts her spell and clears out (if she’s even mentioned at all).  Here, she seems to have a legitimate interest in how the story ends.

The Bottom Three:

  1. The plot was insanely predictable and not just because it was a retelling of a familiar story.  A little more creativity would’ve gone a long way.
  2. It was way too easy for Kyle (a.k.a the beast, played by Alex Pettyfer) to convince his love interest’s druggie dad (Roc LaFortune) to make his daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) come live with him as a captive.  I know the man was on drugs and owed money to some sketchy dudes, but it seems wildly unlikely that any father of a teenage girl would think it was in his daughter’s best interest to send her to live with a creepy, hooded stranger.  It was honestly unrealistic enough to be distracting.
  3. Although I understand that the writers wanted Kyle to look like a jerk, his speech in the opening section of the film just seems over the top.  Sure, tons of popular high school jocks are tools, but the student body’s enthusiasm for his shallow sentiments seems kind of impossible.  I don’t know about you, but even in high school I would’ve associated cheering for this guy with a loss of personal integrity.  The clip below contains his speech; could you have stomached this in high school?

Even though it wasn’t the most original retelling I’ve ever seen, it was well worth the $1 I spent renting it from Red Box.  If you’re looking for a thought provoking evening, “Beastly” won’t fit the bill.  If, however, you’re in the mood for a cute, slightly fanciful film with some witty banter, this could be your happily ever after.

Advice from a Cartoon Princess – Snow White

As some of you may recall, I started a recurring feature earlier this week wherein I respond to the Second City Network video series, “Advice from a Cartoon Princess.”  Previously, I responded to their “Beauty and the Beast” video, showing which of their criticisms were valid critiques of the original fairy tale and which were only relevant to the Disney film versions.  Today, I’ll be doing the same with their video about Snow White.

In this particular video, there are several criticisms which apply to the original story and several which fit in only with the Disney retelling.  Oddly, I also noticed a few that don’t seem to fit with either.

Criticisms that Don’t Fit with Either Disney OR the Original:

  • One of the video’s criticisms is that Snow White marries the prince rather than one of the dwarves, claiming that she ruled them out as romantic partners because of their small stature.  Honestly, this seems a little ridiculous.  I don’t believe that she was unattracted to the dwarves because they were short, but because they were a different species.  In fairy tales and fantasy, dwarves are not simply small humans but a different creature altogether.  A suggestion that Snow White should have married one of the dwarves is akin to saying that Eowyn from “Lord of the Rings” should have married Merry (one of the hobbits) instead of Faramir; frankly, it’s a little ridiculous.
  • The video also says that Snow “loves mirrors,” suggesting that she is vain.  This seems a little ridiculous because the princess never seems self-absorbed in either story.  The only vain character is the antagonist, Snow White’s evil stepmother.
  • The clip interprets the statement “fairest of them all” to mean “whitest of them all.”  Although the word “fair” can mean “pale,” this is really taking things out of context.  In the story, a different definition of the word is being used; “fair” is not meant to mean “white,” but “beautiful.”  This is an intentional misinterpretation rather than a legitimate criticism of the fairy tale’s message.

Criticisms that Only Apply to the Disney Version:

  • This video suggests that Snow White’s choice to let the wild animals help her with cleaning is not something to be encouraged.  After all, encounters with wild animals can pose various dangers to children.  Of course, the original story included none of Snow White’s animal friends, so this one is all on Disney.
  • Next, the clip criticizes the fact that all of the dwarves are given nicknames that describe their most obvious features, not unlike frat boys.  However, the dwarves in the original fairy tale were not given names at all.  In fact, no names were mentioned until the story was turned into a Broadway play in 1912.  They were renamed for the Walt Disney movie, so the dwarf names most people are familiar with (Dopey, Sneezy, Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, and Bashful) are purely a Disney creation.
  • The video also criticizes the fact that Snow White interprets attractive older women as evil, but assumes ugly older women are trustworthy.  This is definitely only a problem with the Disney version.  In the original fairy tale, the evil queen makes three separate attempts on Snow’s life, disguising herself differently each time.  It is only when Disney eliminated the various disguises that this appeared to be a comparison involving levels of attractiveness and perceived trustworthiness among older women.

Criticisms that Apply to the Original Fairy Tale

  • In all versions of the story, Snow White lives platonically with seven men she met in a scary forest.  As the video points out, this is maybe a little creepy.  After all, Snow is a teenage runaway.
  • Similarly, the video clip criticizes the way Snow White wanders into a random house and goes to sleep in a stranger’s bed.  Clearly, she has never had a talk about stranger danger and seems weirdly okay with breaking and entering.
  • The Second City Network also points out the fact that the princess’ priorities seem to consist of cooking, cleaning, and men.  Admittedly, the dwarves in the original story agreed to let her stay with them in exchange for her doing their housework, but it is perhaps a little odd that she never seems to do anything else. Despite this, it seems like a weak criticism.
  • Next, the video suggests that the story is saying “you know you’ve made it as the prettiest person when everyone around you wants to kill you.”  Indeed, if people interpret the message this way, it is negative.  However, this is clearly not the intended moral of the story; Snow White’s goal was never to be the fairest of them all.  In fact, only one person in the story has that goal; the evil queen.  The more likely message here is “vanity and conceitedness are never attractive.”
  • Finally, the Snow White in the clip instructs kids not to eat fruit.  This was actually my favorite moment in the video.  I guess it would be possible for a young child to become suspicious of apples after hearing/watching this fairy tale!

Although Second City Network’s criticisms of “Beauty and the Beast” were almost exclusively geared toward the Disney version, their critique of negative messages in “Snow White” is divided fairly evenly.  In fact, more criticisms relate directly to the original than the retelling.  I guess my response to their “Little Mermaid” clip will have to be the tiebreaker!

hitRECord’s Not So Tiny Story

I’m excited to announce that there’s a really cool fairy tale themed project going on at hitRECord.  For those of you unfamiliar with hitRECord, it’s a collaborative, artistic, online community started by avid member Joseph Gordon-Levitt a.k.a. RegularJOE, where any project posted can be remixed by any other member as long as credit is given.  The community has produced tons of incredible, original projects, and gives artists of all media (theatre, writing, graphics design, video, music, painting, etc.) all over the world a chance to work together.

Right now, the community is looking for a “classic, timeless story” that’s in the public domain that they can use for a large scale artistic collaboration.  Basically, they’re putting out a call for fairy tales.  Right now, the community is still in the submission and decision making process, so anyone can submit a story idea!  I actually have a few things that I’m considering submitting.

For a better idea of the project, check out the project page.

RegularJoe a.k.a Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants you to hitRECord!

Even if you don’t have an idea, that doesn’t mean you can’t join in the fun.  Get yourself an account and help out with the collaboration, or just keep an eye on the project.  Whatever fairy tale is chosen is sure to flourish in this artistic environment.

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel

Although I have been a fan of Bill Willingham’s “Fables” comic series for years, I only recently had the opportunity to read the series’ first ever full-length novel, “Peter & Max.”  The book centered around the characters of Peter Piper, his wife Bo Peep, and his evil brother Max Piper.

 

Here is the beautiful cover art from Bill Willingham's novel, "Peter & Max."

Because the name “Peter” crops up in so many familiar fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Willingham is able to combine all of these stories into the life of one individual, masterfully placing the stories of “Peter and the Wolf” (which is not actually a fairy tale), “Peter Piper,”  and “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” on a logical time-line.  These stories are also woven around the tales and misadventures of Max, who is the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

As with his Fables comic series, Willingham’s book offers us a seamless blend of magical and modern.  He describes both the skyscrapers of New York in the twenty-first century and the intricacies of ancient and mystical worlds with ease.  Not only that, but he brings his customary twist of darkness and tragedy to every familiar tale he incorporates.  Although they retain their flavors, these stories are anything but predictable.

Willingham also makes it possible for both old fans and new readers to enjoy his book.  The details of the Fables world are quickly described at the start of the novel, making this a book I would recommend to any lover of fairy tales or fantasy.

Robin Hood and King Arthur: Real People as Fairy Tales

Robin Hood and King Arthur are both characters seen in stories that might be considered fairy tales.  In both cases, there seems to be no real author of their stories and no version which is more true than any other.

 

Robin Hood appeared as a fox in Disney's 1973 film "Robin Hood."

Robin Hood appeared as a fox in Disney's 1973 film "Robin Hood."

In fact, their stories are often retold by the same authors who spend their time retelling fairy tales.  For instance, Robin McKinley, who has written many retold fairy tales (My favorites of hers are “Rose Daughter” which retells “Beauty and the Beast” and “Spindle’s End” which retells “Sleeping Beauty.”), tackled the story of Robin Hood in her book “The Outlaws of Sherwood.”  Similarly, Garth Nix, who wrote “Hansel’s Eyes” (the best retelling of Hansel and Gretel I’ve ever come across), retold part of Arthur’s story in “Under the Lake,” a tale about the Lady of the Lake, Merlin, and Excalibur.  Not only that, but both of them starred in Disney versions of their tales; “Robin Hood” was released in 1973 and “The Sword in the Stone” which was based on the first section of T. H. White’s Arthur retelling “The Once and Future King” was released in 1963.

Although the existence of both is debated by modern historians, there is some evidence that each of them may have existed in real life. Robin first cropped up in ballads of which the oldest surviving is “Robin Hood and the Monk,” which dates to about 1450 A.D. and contains many of the characters and details which we still associate with Robin Hood today.  Arthur supposedly ruled Britain in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, according to medieval histories and romances.  The first datable historical reference to him appears in a 9th century Latin text.

Although it is possible that these men have only ever existed in folklore, it is also quite likely that they were once real people who have now become the stuff of fairy tales; their stories have been romanticized, made magical, and ingrained as part of our cultural knowledge. They are retold in books and films every year.  Robin Hood alone has been the main character of more than fifty films and television series, and has been featured in episodes of many shows.

It might be strange to imagine a historical figure becoming the stuff of legend, but it actually still happens today.  We all heard the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, as children, but that is actually a fabricated tale; no such event ever took place.  We also learned that he had false teeth made of wood.  In reality, however, they were carved of fine ivory and gold.  Compared to Robin Hood and King Arthur, George Washington is a fairly recent historical figure.  Despite this, his life is already becoming the stuff of legend.  In all likelihood, the tale will become more fanciful over the years.

Who knows?  Five centuries from now, George Washington may be remembered as a fabled warrior like Arthur or a great wizard like his mentor, Merlin.

ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”

It looks like NBC’s upcoming show “Grimm” is going to have some competition.  ABC is developing their own fairy tale show, “Once Upon a Time.”  The show, which comes from the writers of “Lost,” features a star-studded cast; Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, and more are listed on the official cast list, and “Pirates of the Caribbean” veteran Lee Arenberg announced his involvement on Twitter less than 24 hours ago.

 

Jennifer Morrison of "House" is set to play Anna Swan, the star of "Once Upon a Time."

“Once Upon a Time” centers around a town called Storybrook where fairy tale characters exist in the modern world.  Although this has the potential to be a great show, it also feels a bit like a rip-off of Bill Willingham’s comic series, “Fables.”  Since ABC got the rights to a “Fables” television show in 2008, one wonders why they seem to be abandoning it for such a similar concept, especially since the comic series has already proven its success; “Fables” has won 14 Eisner awards during its nine year run and it does not seem to be losing any steam.  It really makes me wonder if ABC and Vertigo might be having some trouble with their deal, after all.

I also think it’s fascinating that two fairy tale shows are coming out at once.  In fact, NBC has another show in development with an equally mystical plotline: magical cop drama “17th Precinct.”  I have not heard any fairy tales mentioned in association with it, but with all the fairy tale films that have been cropping up lately (Snow White especially) I wouldn’t be surprised if a few found their way onto the show.

To see a collection of the other tweets and stories I consulted while writing this post, check out the story I created with them on Storify.  I’ve included everything from concept summaries to tweets from the actors themselves.

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