Retelling Old Stories

I’ve written a book based on old fairy tales and legends and am currently reviewing the Shrek movies in Action Movie Friday. (Shrek 2 post coming next, I hope.) I thought I’d talk about retelling fairy tales, myths and legends.

Myths, fairytales, legends, these are the stories that are near and dear to our hearts. And let’s face it, they’re familiar, comforting and popular. Fairy tales such as The Sleeping Princess, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast have been told over and over to young children for generations. These stories are oral traditions passed down from generation to generation and have strayed quite a bit from their horrific and sexist roots. So much, that outside of a few key points their original creators may not recognize them anymore.

These oral traditions form the basis of the hero’s journey which can be found in high fantasy stories such as Lord of the Rings and Science Fiction stories, such as Star Wars. They’ve been satirized (Ella Enchanted, the movie), parodied (Shrek) and outright made fun of (Mirror, Mirror) and also taken far too seriously (Snow White & The Huntsman.) Just as much as they’ve been played straight (see the Elemental Master Series of Mercedes Lackey.) And they’ve been mixed together until almost unrecognizable. (The Princess & The Frog, Frozen, Once Upon a Time, the 500 Kingdoms also by Mercedes Lackey.)

The great thing about fairy tales and myths and legends is that they have a very low risk level. People are far more likely to pick up something to read of watch that is relatively familiar to them and that they know they already enjoy rather than a brand new concept they don’t understand and aren’t sure they’ll like. Fairy tales are comfort food. People know they like them. And given a choice between a concept they aren’t sure of and a fairy tale based media, they’re more than likely to choose a fairy tale based media.

So, how do you go about retelling these fairy tales and making them fresh and new for your audience? This was a question I (sort of) asked myself when I started to write the Dawn Warrior. (Available in Ebook & Paperback.) How do I take Sleeping Beauty and make her different without relying on, say, what we know of her through Disney or from Grimm, not the TV Show. (Which honestly, isn’t much in either case.) And make them partly relevant without losing making a good story?

Change the Roles:

What if the Princess really isn’t the Princess? What if she’s the bodyguard in disguise that’s protecting the real princess from assassins? (The Decoy Princess, Dawn Cook) What if the Princess is also a spy? (The Princess Series Jim C. Hines) Maybe Prince Charming is actually an actor!

I mean, come on, in real life unless your Prince William and Harry and work for the British Royal Navy, royals don’t really have adventures. (I wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of Queen Elizabeth either.)

Or, maybe the Princess and Prince aren’t really the good guys after all. Maybe it’s the Big Bad Wolf or the evil stepmother or even the sea witch. (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire) Or, to borrow from Hoodwinked, the Big Bad Wolf is really an investigative reporter trying to do an expose on Red Riding Hood. (I mean, she can’t be all that sweet and innocent.)

A good example of this was a recent Sleeping Beauty movie that was in the horror genre. (Unfortunately I heard it was a really bad horror movie.) The Sleeping Beauty in the movie was supposed to be the damsel in distress and ended up being both the trap and the villain.

(I’ll just leave this here.)

Change the Setting:

Fairy tales in SPACE!!! (Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer) Okay, there aren’t a lot of fairy tales in space. I think I saw another example on instafreebie the other day. In fact, there aren’t many romances in space either. (I was listening to a podcast about an indie author who was doing this and she was the first writing romances set in the backdrops of aliens?) But, this is like Star Wars. Greek Myths in SPACE!!!! (Seriously, Star Wars is built around the classical hero’s journey. The franchise even freely admits it in their authorized literature. I’ve got a book by Bantam called Star Wars: The Magic of Myth that goes through it step by step.)

This is one of the easier ways to make fairy tales seem more relevant and seems to be currently the most popular. Grimm the TV Show, Once Upon a Time (in Wonderland), The Harry Dresden Files, and Fables, all take fairy tales and legends and drop them into the middle of the modern world. I include Harry Dresden, not because he’s playing out a fairy tale so to speak, but he’s some sort of misguided Prince Charming type on his own hero’s journey. The book Charming by James  Eliot, takes the character of “Prince Charming” plays it straight, and makes it a bloodline that is involved in some sort of knighthood charged with keeping the mundane world safe from the evil things that go bump in the night set in modern times.

Mercedes Lackey took a slightly different approach with her Elemental Masters series. She took fairy tales, played them straight, but set them in Edwardian times right up through the First World War. By doing so, she was able to show how the beginnings of the modern world like industrialization and rail roads and wars fought with machine guns instead of swords were effecting the world of magic and the magical creatures. (For instance, all the pollution made it easier for evil or nasty type elementals and creatures to thrive and good elementals and creatures that couldn’t abide cold iron were dying off or going into hiding.)

Change the Genders:

Let’s face it. Fairy tales are pretty sexist, no matter what your gender is. I had in the first draft of the Dawn Princess an entire rant by Roxana, who is a ‘Beauty Asleep’ about the differences between how a female Princess who is cursed to sleep and a male Prince is cursed to sleep and how neither tale does royalty any justice whatsoever.(Seriously, in the male version, when the Princess who had been sitting by his bedside took a nap, the clock should have reset, the Prince shouldn’t still have sneezed and been woken by the maid.)

Maybe it’s really Prince Charming asleep in the Castle and well, Beauty has to belt on her sword and gird her courage to get through the hedge and kill the dragon. Or, the tower bound male Rapunzel is intruded upon by a Pirate Princess who is looking for gold, not love. Maybe it isn’t a brave little tailor but a brave seamstress! Or it is a male who is captured by a bunch of cannibalistic female bandits.

Okay, there is taking some things too far. (That story is terrible no matter what.)

Apply some Common Sense:

In fairy tales, things don’t always make sense. I read them and go “why? why would they do that?” A lot of times Princes don’t get punished for their ill deeds. Another Prince comes along, “saves” them and they go about their adventures without showing any sort of remorse for what they did in the first place. Princes don’t become goose boys or shepherds or kitchen tweenies.(Or at least, not very often, I think Faithful John/Hans is about the only one I can think of.)

No, those punishments are reserved for Princesses who have been tricked into changing places with their maids and end up being goose girls or in the kitchen. (I can think of half a dozen variations of that tale.) And the Princess, instead of finding a nice baker or farmer to settle down with who appreciates her, instead figures out how to reveal her plight to the Prince who actually married her uppity maid/sister and seems happy with the maid/sister and once the maid/sister is out of the way, marries the Prince. (The Prince was tricked, happy to be tricked and the Princess took him anyways? That makes no sense.)

A really good example of this is the original and horrific Beauty Asleep tale. In the original tale, the King comes upon Beauty Asleep in her tower and rapes her, while she’s asleep, repeatedly. In fact, he gets her pregnant with twins. The babes are born and he doesn’t even take them with him! No. He leaves them with their sleeping mother. One of the babes gets hungry, as babies do! And sucks the thorn out of her finger that was keeping her asleep. Beauty wakes up. The Queen finds out about her existence. Tries to kill her. The King kills the Queen in turn and ends up marrying Beauty and bringing her and his twins to the castle.

Just what the ever loving hell?

It’s good to be king?

No, really, the Queen should have taken Beauty’s side. They could have killed the King for being an adulterer and ruled the kingdom together setting up the twins as the heirs. Female solidarity. Because the story as written is insane.

There’s a post wandering about tumblr about swan maidens and selkies. And how awful the stories are about the men who take the swan maiden’s cloaks and the selkies’ skins to force these women to be their brides. One of the reblogs adds the caveat that it feels like these stories don’t take into account the actual nature of swans and seals. Swans are pretty. They look graceful.

Swans are mean, they hiss, they bite, they’re incredibly aggressive and they can break bones. Approach with caution. Don’t try to steal from them. Don’t try to pet them. Aggressive swan is aggressive. Okay. Anyone who steals a swan maiden’s cloak deserves the punch in the face!

And seals, seals aren’t all that nice either! Zefrank1 hasn’t done a true facts about seals, but maybe he should. Male seals are called bulls for a reason! Elephant Seal bulls charge at each other when they fight. Leopard Seals are considered one of the ocean’s more dangerous predators and take on whales and sharks. Seals train well to do tricks. Look,  just, don’t mess with them because not only are they cute and have sharp teeth and claws, they’re smart. Do you really want to mess with the woman who can steal all your nets and drive the fish away and beat you to a bloody pulp? Seal fights involve mud wrestling.

Add some reality to the stories. Give the actions of those involved real consequences. Change the personalities to actually reflect the animals they are sharing their bodies with.

Mash things together:

This is another popular tactic and TV Tropes calls it the “Fractured” Fairy Tale. Think how in Once Upon a Time, (spoiler alert) Rumpelstiltskin is also the Beast of Beauty and the  Beast and his father is Peter Pan. And he’s the grandfather of the Truest Believer and thus the “father in law” of Emma Swan the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. And that barely dips a toe into the confusing of Once Upon a Time Family relationships.

Mercedes Lackey also did a version of mixing up of fairy tales in her 500 Kingdoms. In the 500 Kingdoms, The Tradition is a form of magic that ties to make fairy tales happen no matter what type of tale they are and no matter if all the pieces are actually 100% correct. Fairy Godmothers are there to steer the tradition so that disaster doesn’t strike constantly. (Because what if the Prince of the Cinderella tale was actually a Princess or well, a Prince who was too young, too old, or just liked other Princes.)

Fables does this as well. Prince Charming is the same Prince across Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty ends up marrying the Beast in her second marriage. (Prince Charming is good at wooing, not staying.) The Gingerbread witch of Hansel and Gretel ends up being the witch who puts most of the tales in action across the Enchanted Forest. The last arc I read, Rose Red was making her own version of Camelot (and there was much trepidation about how that was going to turn out, probably badly.)

Grab a bunch of different stories that seem to work well together, stitch them together in a way that makes sense or seems fun. It’s okay not to always tell the exact same tale.

Add Real People’s stories:

Look, if you’re going for a more empowered woman in your stories. There are plenty of women in history that were actually pretty awesome. And I’m not just talking about Esther from the Bible or Rahab. (Both pretty awesome ladies.) There were female pirates and female queens who outwitted and beat their male counterparts to be on the throne and to keep themselves out of jail. There are female scientists, female snipers and well, I’m sure if you look hard enough you can find something a woman did in real life that men get praised for more often.

In fact, one person go so fed up with the way fairy tale princesses are praised at places such as Disney, they created a site/book for girls about such heroines at

Youtube has videos labelled things like Top Ten Badass women from History you probably don’t know about. (But if you’d read Rejected Princesses you actually might!)

So, don’t be afraid to use some real world inspiration to give you ideas about how awesome your female characters can be.

And these are just a few ideas on how to take something old and make it something “new.”

In the Dawn Warrior, I took a bunch of these. I applied some common sense. Changed the Princess’ role. And really mashed some things together. But, I kept a medieval fairy tale like setting because I wanted to keep this series different from my other series, Heaven’s Heathens MC, which is a light science fantasy that could read urban fantasy if you squint at it. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) Two series set in the modern/future world seemed a bit silly to me.

Mostly, my advice is if you want to retell a fairy tale or myth or legend, have fun with it. Take your ingredients, mix them up as needed and don’t sacrifice your story for message. (Because really, that gets old very quickly.)

Whelp, now if you like fairy tales there are plenty of pieces of media in this post to check out. Happy reading/watching/researching!


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