Retelling Classic Fairy Tales: Seven Must-Read Collections and Anthologies

I love fairy tales. (You may have noticed this if you’ve read my previous columns.) Out of all literary forms, they’re the stories we never stop sharing, retelling, and recreating, and authors have an inexhaustible ability to rework the trappings and imagery and plots of these ancient tales, taking the reader along familiar paths only to find something new along the way. Suddenly there’s a slight twist, an unexpected detour, and unfamiliar elements begin to appear, giving rise to new shades and new meanings…

We know that many of these tales were first passed along through oral traditions, and that storytellers would alter the details to suit their audiences’ circumstances and moods. Now authors can play the stories for laughs or tears, and you can find variations on almost any tale ranging from lighthearted to heart-of-darkness. You might seek out an upbeat take on “Little Red Riding Hood” when you need a laugh, or a horror version of “Cinderella” for when romance seems like the worst thing in the world. There’s a tale about Goldilocks getting her comeuppance as well as one where she and her bears become besties. Beauty may fall in love with her Beast, or perhaps she’ll leave him to start her own library. What does the author want to say, in the moment? What does the reader want to experience? Fairy tales are there for all of us, puzzle pieces that we can rearrange to make something reliable and comforting or new and unsettling.

Rather than highlighting a specific tale in this piece, I wanted to take a moment to share my appreciation of some of the best collections and anthologies of folklore retellings I’ve come across during a lifetime of reading and rereading fairy tales. Like any other book of stories, fairy tale collections can be hit or miss, but the ones below are filled with stellar stories through and through…

Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold edited by Paula Guran

Guran’s anthology consists of all reprints, and she’s picked a selection of real treasures in this volume. This book features more diversity than a lot of “retold fairy tale” anthologies; although there are a number of European tales here, there are many drawn from other cultures as well, and a few that aren’t based on traditional tales but still feel like they should be. Featuring an all-star lineup of authors, Guran chose darker, modern retellings for the majority of the anthology, and everything somehow feels like it could happen to a neighbor or a friend if not to you, yourself, dear readers. Enchanting and haunting, Beyond the Woods comes with content warnings for the worst of human behavior, but is bookended by two Tanith Lee stories that are infused with hope and beauty.

The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine

Cover of The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine

Levine never disappoints with her collection of tales from the faraway kingdom of Biddle, most famously the setting of Ella Enchanted. These shorter stories follow the royal family through the generations as their dealings with fairies often lead them into interesting situations. Though some of the tales are very familiar, Levine also delves into a few stories that rarely get a modern update, such as “The Princess Who Never Laughed” and “Diamonds and Toads.” Coming full circle from “The Fairy’s Mistake” to “The Fairy’s Return,” the titular fairy Ethelinda bookends the collection and proves that even fairies can learn a lesson or two over the course of several hundred years.

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

Cover of Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

This stellar collection of linked tales follows the women of more-or-less familiar fairy tales backward through time and convoluted history. The stories are set in a gently familiar medieval world where witchcraft might be perceived in a few quiet words of wisdom spoken at the right time, or a bit of knowledge that not all are willing to glean. While some of the tales stand on their own more successfully than others, each one adds to the last even as they work their way back toward a misty, witchy beginning. Delightfully luscious and filled with the countless ways women can relate to one another, this collection is one you can savor or simply devour, depending on your own needs.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel M. Lavery

Book cover of The Merry Spinster by Daniel M Lavery

This is one of those books that, once I finally picked it up, I immediately began kicking myself for not having read it sooner. With a perfect marriage of horror and folklore, Lavery attacks well-known tales with remarkable skill and ambition, rendering the familiar terrifying and setting the formerly comforting on its head. Some of the stories play with gender and gendered expectations in interesting and thoughtful ways, turning our assumptions sideways. The stories also draw upon religion (the Book of Genesis) and fables like The Wind in the Willows and The Velveteen Rabbit. My favorites by far were the darkly dreadful romances (based on stories like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” etc.), because of course our closest relationships draw the horror closest to our hearts. An outstanding collection.

Snow White, Blood Red edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Cover of Snow White, Blood Red edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

The difficulty with Datlow and Windling is narrowing down which of their anthologies to include in this list, because they are all, in my experience, superb. I’ve chosen the first of their general fairy tale anthologies, because when I recently read it, I found the quality and staying power of the stories to be remarkable. Well, perhaps that’s unsurprising, with authors like Charles de Lint, Patricia McKillip, Nancy Kress, and, of course, Neil Gaiman included in the lineup. You can pick these anthologies up in any order, and if you’ve wondered if they’re worth it, I am happy to assure you that they are indeed wonderful collections, across the board.

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Cover of The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

The conceit of this anthology is that the Starlit Wood isn’t always a wood…it isn’t always a dark and mysterious ancient place, but these stories have relevance now and will continue to into the future. Many of the tales take place in the imagined future of our world and across various cultures, told by some of the best voices in contemporary fantasy and science fiction. Catherynne M. Valente retells the tale of “The Armless Maiden” as a dark, drug-fueled horror story. Charlie Jane Anders tackles the Grimms’ bizarre story “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage” with a relentlessly cheerful charm. Theodora Goss, Aliette de Bodard, and Sofia Samatar all retell obscure and/or non-European tales that don’t get nearly enough attention in Western writing: “The Shadow,” “Da Trang and the Pearl,” and “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” respectively. A fresh and beautiful collection of stories.

Troll’s-Eye View edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Troll’s-Eye View edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Datlow and Windling have also collaborated on a number of volumes collecting fairy tale retellings aimed at younger audiences, and this one is my favorite. Stories and poems by Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Jane Yolen, Kelly Link, Catherynne M. Valente and others embrace and explore the dark side of fairy tales, reconsidering their villains with skill and empathy. They successfully turn one tale after another on its head, giving readers a range of familiar and obscure stories, adding complexity and rich layers to the traditional interpretations of these tales. Easy to recommend to audiences of any age.

What are your favorite fairy tale or folklore collections and anthologies (and particularly those that focus on retelling classic tales)? Please share in the comments! icon-paragraph-end

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