Gregory Maguire and Fairy Tales Retold

November 1, 2019 | Isabel

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Fairy tale retellings are one of my favourite types of story. That's why I'm thrilled that Gregory Maguire will be giving a lecture on Thursday November 14, 2019, at the Lillian H. Smith Branch. Hosted by the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, this is the 32nd Annual Helen E. Stubbs Memorial Lecture. Space is limited and registration is required, so be sure to get your free tickets!

Gregory Maguire is best known for writing the novel Wicked, which retells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West's perspective. The book humanizes L. Frank Baum’s infamous, green-skinned villain. Now she is a beloved character in her own right, a star of the stage (and soon the screen). Maguire continued to retell fairy tales and classic children’s stories in his later novels.

Wicked

Fairy tales are some of our oldest stories. They started as oral tales, and evolved as they were told and retold. Eventually, people started writing them down. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began publishing their collected tales in 1812. Their two-volume Kinder- und Haus-Märchen (Children’s and Household Tales) was originally intended for scholars and other adults. Then parents began reading the stories to their children. Accordingly, the Grimms started revising their tales, making them more “appropriate” for young people. Among other transformations, the Brothers Grimm would change birth mothers to stepmothers in the stories. This made all the child-murdering and cannibalism less disturbing.

Kinder-und-Hausmarchen vol. 1
Frontispiece and title-page from Kinder- und Haus-Märchen,  first volume of the second German edition, 1819. Illustrated by Ludwig Emil Grimm, brother of Jacob and Wilhelm. Engraved by L. Haas.

The trend of working and reworking our oldest tales still continues. Just look at Disney. Its versions of fairy tales tend to be very different from the originals. Now they are releasing live-action adaptations of their animated stories. These add new details, like the genie's love story in the live-action Aladdin. 

Writers are also reversing the Grimms’ work, adapting fairy tales and other “children’s stories” for an adult market. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is a part of this. The novel is absolutely adult in content: sexual, political and dark. Then, eight years after its publication, Wicked was adapted into a musical. Many of the book’s darker aspects were reworked to make the musical more “family-friendly.”

Wicked Broadway cast recording

Gregory Maguire continued to write retellings after Wicked. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister sets Cinderella in 17th-century Holland and tells the story from a different angle. Mirror, Mirror places Snow White in the Borgias’ 16th-century Italy. 

If you like the way Gregory Maguire twists old tales into new and wondrous forms, you may like the following books:

Short Story Collections

The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter 

In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter refashions classic fairy tales in a lushly gothic, feminist mould. At times gruesome and erotic, these stories give their female protagonists a power not found in the originals. In one story, Beauty becomes a Beast to be with her lover. In another, a girl strangles a sinister king with her own hair (sadly, it’s not Rapunzel). This book was ground-breaking for it’s time, though the critic Patricia Duncker rebuked it for not breaking more taboos. Duncker commented that Carter "could never imagine Cinderella in bed with the Fairy God-mother."

Kissing the Witch

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue 

In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue spins a series of cunningly-linked fairy tales. Each story is told by a character from the previous story. Like a dream, the book unfolds a poetic history of female agency and Sapphic desire. Unlike Angela Carter, Donoghue’s Cinderella does indeed run off with the fairy godmother.

The Merry Spinster

The Merry Spinster by Daniel Mallory Ortberg 

Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s collection is adapted from his “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” series on his now defunct website, The Toast. The book contains a brilliant and often bizarre bunch of retellings. Ortberg’s characters can be cruel and capricious. Some of them are simply alien, like the Little Mermaid, whose conception of relationships and the soul is very different from her prince’s. The stories also interrogate our concepts of gender. Here daughter is a role one plays within a family. Couples divide the role of husband and wife based on their aptitudes. These stories stayed with me long after I read the book. I especially loved the eerie post-apocalyptic setting of “The Thankless Child,” with its reverence for salt. I want to read a novel set in that world.

The Language of Thorns

The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo adapts several well-known fairy tales to fit into the fantasy world of her books, the “Grishaverse.” Her stories are expertly manipulated to fit that context, but they are similar enough to the originals to be recognizable. Each tale is illustrated in the margins and concludes with a full-page illustration. Here notions of monstrosity are turned on their head and love and tragedy abound.

Novels

Heartless

Heartless by Marissa Meyer

Like Wicked, this is the origin story of a villainous character. This time, it is the future Queen of Hearts who struggles to find love and a place in society. This is a Young Adult title and so is lighter on the sex and violence than Wicked. It is not lighter on the heartbreak, however. I gave this book to a friend for her birthday. It made her cry and she yelled at me over the phone for ruining her life. (Sorry, not sorry.)

(Heartless is not related to the Lunar Chronicles, Meyer’s excellent science fiction series that also retells fairy tales.)

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
 
Set in a fantasy Wild West, Six-Gun Snow White stars a half-Native protagonist. Named Snow White by her wicked stepmother to mock her dark skin, our heroine flees her White father’s unaccepting world and becomes a gunslinger.

Boy  Snow  Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi 

Boy Novak never thought she would become a wicked stepmother. Seeking a better life, she married a widower in small-town, 1950s Massachusetts. Her new stepdaughter, Snow, was everything she could have hoped for. But the birth of her daughter, Bird, exposes a secret her new husband has been keeping. Boy is forced to confront truths about herself and the society she lives in.

For more retellings, check out this blog for a past exhibit from the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy.

Please join us on Thursday, November 14, 2019, to hear Gregory Maguire speak about the power of literary fantasy. This is a ticketed event. Tickets are free and you can register for them here. Doors open at 6 pm and the event will begin at 7 pm. For more information, contact the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at 416-393-7753.

See also: Gregory Maguire: The World at Hand, The World Next Door

References:

When Cinderella Went to the Ball: Five Hundred Years of Fairy Tales, a catalogue of the 2009 exhibit, and the always available virtual exhibit

The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales

The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

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