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The Reworked Fairy Tale: A Reading List

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The written form of fairy tales as we know it grew from the oral tradition of retelling stories of folklore and fantasy, passing them down through generations to entertain and educate children. Typically, these tales relied upon a mysterious enchanted world of princes and princesses, crafty old women, ogres, witches, dragons, dwarfs, magic, romance, and the tomfoolery of man. Elements of sexuality and violence were common.

Though fairy tales, in one form or another, have always existed, most of what we know comes by way of a handful of sources: the father of the genre, French author Charles Perrault, whose tales included Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood; those great German curators, the Brothers Grimm; and the beloved Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author of The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes, among others.

But before these still-familiar figures, there were the Italians Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile—and before them again, there were Roman tales, Chinese Taoist works, Aesop’s fables, the One Thousand and One Nights and the Sanskrit Kathāsaritsāgara.

And more recently, of course, there’s Disney. When most of us think of fairy tales, we’re thinking of the Disney versions. By the 1920s, fairy tales had become a source of inspiration for Walt Disney. Cutting most of the sexual content and violence from the originals, Disney made a series of shorts known as Laugh-O-Grams beginning in 1922 with the Perrault/Brothers Grimm crossover Little Red Riding Hood. After testing the waters in the 1920s and early 1930s, Disney was ready to produce child-friendly feature-length hits, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) which of course was based on the Grimms’ Snow White. From there, Disney’s very colourful, sanitised, and watered down cinematic retellings became the popularised norm.

Many books have tried to subvert those diluted Disney versions we’ve all grown up with, offering us a new, more adult slant on what has come before. Here are six.

The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories

Published in 1979, The Bloody Chamber is Carter's masterpiece and still stands as one of the finest works of fairy tale interpretation ever written. Here she takes the familiar representation of women in the likes of Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood—usually that of supplicant, damsel in distress, or innocent young victim—and twists and turns every scene, adding a mix of erotic tension, existentialist dread and a forever-simmering air of violence. No one writes quite like Carter. She has both an absurd vocabulary and an incredible knack for making every word matter. Nothing is ever wasted and her sentences stay with you long after reading.


Sexton was first and foremost a remarkable poet who made raw confessional writing her own. Here, Sexton not only reinvented the fairy tale here but did so through poetry. There are 17 Grimm tales in all, from “Rumpelstiltskin” to the “The Frog Prince” and each has a certain degree of personal intimacy and metaphor laced throughout. The writing is splendid with lots of short sentences, cropped tightly and neatly. Sexton pours a certain amount of venom into the stories, realigning the classic weak female protagonist from the original texts and presenting us with a bold remastering, set in equally dark spaces.

Boy, Snow, Bird

Oyeyemi can write whatever she wants, whenever she wants: she’s got mountains of talent and nowhere is it more evident than in Boy, Snow, Bird. Loosely based on the story of Snow White, this is a masterful reworking of the tale, if reworking is what you want to call it. Without giving too much away, which is tricky, Boy is a young white girl who falls in love with Arturo, a white man. Boy becomes intrigued by Arturo’s mysterious sister Snow and his other sister Clara, whom she never sees. Soon Boy is pregnant and things get very complicated. Turning a well known fairy tale on its head by splicing it with issues of cultural heritage and racial identity in a modern day NYC, this is a fascinating, heart-wrenching read.

The Claiming Of Sleeping Beauty

This is as far flung from Disney fairy tales as you can get. It doesn’t seem at all odd that Anne Rice, a master of Gothic literature and erotic fiction, would give Sleeping Beauty a restyling. Our Prince wakes his Beauty… but not with a kiss. His spell-breaking yearning is then rewarded with a lifetime of servitude. Equal parts sadomasochistic Marquis de Sade romp and erotic fantasy, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty is an unusual read but the writing is superb. The story is a tense and twisted one enlivened with passionate prose that would have Fifty Shades blushing. Extraordinary stuff.

Tangleweed and Brine

The newest addition to the list and the only one from an Irish author. Sullivan is well known for her Improper teen series and last year’s slightly more mature Needlework. Tangleweed and Brine ventures into Angela Carter territory, but at a more YA level. Sullivan turns beloved fairy tales into works of her own, again subverting the typical gender tropes. This is a well-written look at modern society and its great divide between the sexes, all put under a microscope via Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, and 11 others.

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty meets Neil Gaiman. What could go wrong? Well, nothing really. Not only is the book beautifully written and illustrated with metallic ink (Chris Riddell), it comes in a hardback format with a cleverly designed wraparound pelt. Gaiman is an unquestionable talent who’s always had an interest in the mystical and the wondrous. He works to his strengths here, using two familiar stories and crisscrossing them as a young queen rushes to free a princess lost in slumber—but all is not as it seems.


Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More

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