Fairy tales have never really gone out of style, of course, but it wasn’t until I’d finished writing Slipper that I realized a whole industry in fairytale retellings of one sort or another has sprung up in the world of YA and adult literature. I can’t say it’s all that surprising, given that these familiar stories set off some deep-buried recognition in the reader; they ring the bell of our most primal emotions.
For a tale to ring that bell, it has to have the elements that drive the best stories. One is the presence of obstacles that have to be overcome by the hero or heroine. Once the dragon has been slain, the impossible task fulfilled, or the evil stepmother outwitted, it is the resulting relief and triumph that make for the most satisfying kind of conclusion any story can give you.
Then there is wish fulfillment. There’s something wonderfully appealing about putting yourself into the shoes of someone who has been put through the wringer, but still manages to attain great wealth, gorgeous clothes, the love of a lifetime, or fame beyond her wildest dreams.
But the question that nagged at me as I was adapting the story of Cinderella was: in our cynical, unsentimental age, are happy endings still necessary? Can fairy tales be given a modern feminist twist, considering that they were first conceived many centuries ago, when a girl’s place was to be quiet, passive and obedient, and the only way out of your hopeless situation was to have a convenient fairy godmother? Given, of course, that you also possessed a sufficient dose of modesty, dazzling beauty, and unusually small feet. Really! Can that kind of simplistic story fly today?
That’s when you have to start digging into the story to extract the core nuggets of truth — the universal messages that resonate even today. In the case of Slipper, I found that many of the most classic fairytales can be recast to fit real, present day concerns. Who, for instance, hasn’t hoped and wished the boyfriend-frog will turn into a prince if we humor him enough? Who hasn’t gone to a dance bubbling with high expectations, only to go home with her hopes smashed like a pumpkin in the mud? Who hasn’t felt like the family underdog, scorned by mean siblings or neglectful parents, and secretly hoped it wasn’t her real family?
The reason that I chose the story of Cinderella as the starting point for my historical novel is that it is the most archetypal, and I think the most satisfying, of all the fairytales. It addresses the universal desire to be recognized for your “true”, or better, self. You may be misunderstood, exploited, despised; but in the end, all those sneering naysayers will be forced to admit that secretly you really were the bravest of heroes all along, or the most beautiful girl in the world… or just the coolest kid in school. Won’t they be sorry for the way they treated you, once your true identity is revealed!
Come to think of it, this Cinderella theme comes up in all the most popular stories of our time. It's there in Pride and Prejudice, in Harry Potter, in Jane Eyre, in Superman, Spiderman, Mean Girls, and Grease. It’s in every story where the wallflower, the loser or the nerd wins the prize in the end. It’s about getting through adolescence and coming out OK in the end. It’s about facing adversity, and finding your inner strength or your true worth. If that isn’t relevant today, what is?
(First published as guest post on Genie in a Book blog, http://genie-inabook.blogspot.com/2018/06/guest-post-are-fairy-tales-still.html)