Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tale as Old as Time

It was never a question that my favorite Disney princess was Belle. As a bookworm and a brunette, I saw her as a kindred spirit. She wasn’t a princess, and she totally knocked out that wolf all by herself! I loved her pluck. I coveted her library. I taught myself how to walk while reading. Clearly, I internalized a lot of life lessons from that movie (Gaston put me off muscly guys forever), but the best thing Beauty and the Beast ever taught me was the love for a tale retold.

I worked my way through quite a few B&B adaptations over the years, plus countless others “inspired by.” (It should be no surprise that I’m stoked for Beastly.) When those ran out, I moved on to other fairy tales and folklore. I picked up mythologies and anthologies. I read the reimagined stories of biblical characters and historical figures. I immersed myself in stories based on storytellers and in stories rooted in the “great works.” I read, I related, and I absorbed.

It was easy to hop from one thing to the next, to go deeper down the literary rabbit hole. Meeting the bunny was one thing, but following it was the adventure. Through the eyes of minor characters, I peered at classic stories from strange angles. Heroes and villains switched sides. Main characters could expound their motivations free of their original formats. Time periods were fluid. Stories I thought I’d known turned out to be more gruesome (and more satisfying). Different traditions added their own new dimensions. Though trying to find the source was sometimes slippery, I could piece the variations together into a satisfying mosaic. 

My work in college was indubitably influenced by my early investigations. For my English major, I interpreted and connected a slew of literature. In Judaic Studies, I fell into Midrash, the biblical exegesis undertaken by rabbis. My communication and media studies classes examined how people interacted, both with each other and with their sources of information/entertainment. I learned a little too late about anthropology, though my brief flirtation exposed me to Claude Levi-Strauss’ mythemes, ur-myths, the Aarne-Thompson classification system, and Bruno Bettleheim. (More about him later.) It was in this class (Myth, Ritual, and Symbol) that I learned Beauty and the Beast was fairytale type 425C

What all of this comes down to is that I love to fill in the gaps. The more I learn, the more I understand that all plots tangle and unravel each other. Across cultures, we tell and share and change the same stories. That, to me, is a tale as old as time.


  1. This post definitely made me want to watch Beauty and the Beast; if I were a Disney princess I definitely would be Belle. :-)

    It also made me want to read more fairytale adaptations. Lately I've been reading a lot of 12 Dancing Princesses; I've worked on both PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL (Bloomsbury) and the upcoming PRINCESS CURSE (HarperCollins). It's fun to read retellings of less familiar fairytales because it gives the author a little more license.

    Also an interesting retelling of Jane Eyre is WIDE SARGASSO SEA...it took me three readings of it (all for different classes) before I appreciated how the author manipulated the story. And I just got JANE for Christmas, so I'm excited to see how that is!

    Any good retellings to recommend?

  2. Oh, that sounds so exciting! I'll have to check those out. Where were you working on them?

    I hear you about the less famous fairy tales. This past summer, I went to see Grimm, a collection of short plays reworking Grimm fairy tales. My favorite was one based on "Clever Else" that played out with soccer moms worried about the recession.

    Do I have recommendations? Pandora's Box! Of course, Gregory Macguire has done a few. He like to plunks down fairy tale heroines in different time periods, so it’s like a mash-up of historical fiction/fairy tale. I love Scheherazade stories: Susan Fletcher's Shadow Spinner and Cameron Dokey's The Storyteller’s Daughter. (Dokey has a whole series of fairy tale retellings if you check on Amazon.) I'd be remiss to not mention Robin McKinley's Beauty and Rose Daughter (both B&B). Also, she did a Sleeping Beauty (Spindle’s End). I myself am looking into Beast by Donna Jo Napoli.

    As for non-recommendations, I am reviewing Fairest by Gail Carson Levine tomorrow. Stay tuned. ;)

  3. PS. I'm intrigued by Wide Sargasso Sea. I read Jane Smiley's A Hundred Acres (King Lear) with a class and was so glad I did. Do you think it'll be a good read outside of an academic setting?

  4. I've read most of what you mentioned (and I loved MIRROR, MIRROR by Gregory Macguire), but I'll definitely check out the Scheherazade stories. And yes, WIDE SARGASSO SEA is worth a read. The writing and descriptions are beautiful.

  5. Also, see this link: