Fairy Tale Friday: Why Fairy Tales Are So Darn Popular

It’s Friday! And (when I’m on the ball at least) that means I’m linking up for Fairy Tale Friday with Books4Learning and Literary Transgressions.  Make sure you stop by Books4Learning today as she has a review of Awake along with a giveaway of a paperback copy!



When I was in my first few years of college I was really into this band.  They were indie and cool and played really good bubble gum pop with just the teeniest bit of edge (producing non-crappy bubble gum pop is harder than it sounds).  My totally nerdy, pre-hipster friends got me hooked.  If you took a poll I bet you couldn’t have found more than one person in a hundred who had even heard of this band.  They were called Fountains of Wayne.  Fast forward to 2003 and the newly reunited Fountains of Wayne releases this little song called Stacy’s Mom.  All of a sudden everyone knew who they were.  They were even nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy.  The rest of us, who’d had FOW albums in our collection for years were like “What? Best New Artist? I bought their first album in the mid-90s!”

So what does this have to do with fairy tales?  Well, sometimes what we think makes us unique and edgy suddenly becomes popular.  This is the case with me and FOW (okay, it’s gonna take a lot more than liking a particular band to make me cool, but go with me) and with fairy tales.  All of a sudden it’s a fairy tale obsessed world and those of us who’ve been geeking out over them for years are experiencing that “Wha’? Huh? Oh, yay, other people like the same things as me!” rush of excitement.  In the case of fairy tales, part of it might be the cyclical nature of popularity and story telling.  All those writers of Once Upon a Time and Grimm?  I bet dollars to donuts they wheedled their way into staying up late with mom and dad to watch the 1980s Beauty and the Beast television show like I did.  (Side note: they are redoing that show!  I’m both scared and excited, kind of like how you feel right before you get on that roller coaster you’re sure is going to kill you.)

I grew up on fairy tales.  The Beauty and the Beast t.v. show aside, we had amazing collections of fairy tales as kids and were raised on C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald (drop everything you are doing and go read his tale The Light Princess right now).  So many of these tales are strongly visual, and I almost always write to a starting image more than I write to a plot idea or story concept.  Those images were cemented into my head at a young age, and so when I’m daydreaming (cough, spacing out, cough) they are often the images that are strongest.  I think in fairy tale.

In the case of Awake: A Fairytale, the image that first popped into my mind was of Sleeping Beauty’s awe-inspiring bed, complete with metal thorns and jeweled roses…and a sleeping guy on it.  I wasn’t necessarily attempting to be all post-modern and gender role reversal-ey, I just thought it was an interesting image.  Why would a guy be sleeping on that bed?  The obvious answer to me seemed that if Sleeping Beauty got kissed by someone who wasn’t her true love, the spell wouldn’t break.  It would transfer instead.  And that opened up a whole new world of plot ideas!

But why do authors, like myself, keep messing with fairy tales?  Why not just leave them “as is” instead of trying to present them in new ways?  I think the answer lies in the tales themselves.  Many of them were part of an oral tradition before they were ever written down.  The version we have of a particular story is just a “snap shot” of the way it was being told in a certain location at a certain time.  Often there are variations of a particular story told across cultures.  The names and settings change, sometimes there’s even large plot alterations, but there are always a few pieces that remain similar.  We’ve grown up with those structural pieces of the stories firmly cemented in our cultural consciousness.  But the details can, and have, changed and adapted.

This makes it fun for authors to play with these stories and for audiences to read or watch variations.  If there are enough of the original structural pieces of a tale, the audience will allow an author a lot of leeway in the way the story is told.  We can have a Snow White with no dwarves, for example, but it would be very hard to have a Snow White who was a blonde, or who wasn’t very attractive.

For an author, re-writing a fairy tale is like designing a new house on a pre-existing foundation.  Those original pieces serve as a sort of shorthand for our audience to understand our structure and symbology, even if it’s only subconsciously.  The framework pieces are so powerful because they deal with the very essence of what it means to be human – family relationships, power, desire, the striving to change one’s destiny – who wouldn’t want to work with such great building blocks?

And one of the biggest building blocks, because they are fairy tales after all, is magic.  Never underestimate the awesomeness of being able to write magic.

It’s fun to ride the wave of fairy tale retellings, but will these reduxes remain as popular as they are now?  It’d be awesome if they did, not just because I write them, but because I like to read and watch them!  But the odds are that their popularity will wane and they’ll become untrendy again.  Those of us who love fairy tales will not despair, however, because true believers will always remain interested, and eventually, fairy tales will come back into their own again.  A new generation will re-discover them and add their own spin, possibly with new perspectives that we can’t even conceive yet.  Maybe it might happen when my own daughter is a teen and I’ll have that same feeling again – that “they just got nominated for Best New Artist?” feeling – and I can tell her, “Hey, I wrote those way back in the day!”


*This post originally appeared on author Estevan Vega’s site.  You can check it out here*


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