Researching Your Fairy Tales – by Mary Catelli


[Yes, I know you’re going to say that this post is more suited to MGC.  And I confess that Mary wrote it thinking of writers.  But how many of us have had to defend Western culture in conventions, or even conversations, and point out that no, it’s not all “prince rescues princess”.  This gives you the background to point out most of what current crazies fight is imaginary.  Strong (really strong, not b*tchy) women have ALWAYS been appreciated, and western culture is no worse than others (and in many things it’s way better.) Perhaps because I put up with the usual idiocy at the recent con “there were no strong women at all before star wars” I feel forced to mention this.  Of course, in old tales, women weren’t made into ersatz men.  Garcons manque aren’t strong.  They’re sad. – SAH]

Researching Your Fairy Tales – by Mary Catelli

Would you like to work with fairy tales besides the Pop Top 20?
Would you like to invent fairy tales for your world that sound like fairy tales?

Would you like to have a character tell a fairy tale that has thematic resonance with the rest of the story?

Lots of possibilities out there!

Fairy tales, for instance, where the heroine bravely sets out to save her husband, or her brothers.

Where the princess opts to marry the servant and not the king whom the servant had brought her for.

Or the peasant decides that the princess who stole his magical treasures is not, after all, the girl for him.

Where the heroine gets to go to the ball three times because of having won the aid from a magical being, or even without magical help at all.

Where the maiden in the tower runs off with the prince before the witch catches them.

Where the story continues after they are married, and even had a child — or three.

Even — despite Disney — where a boy is the lead.

To find these, it is necessary to broaden your base of stories.  For instance, you could read all of the Brothers Grimm.  Or such important contemporaries and immediate successors as Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe (Norwegian), Laura Gonzenbach (Italian), Alexander Afanasyev (Russian)  or Joseph Jacobs (English and Celtic).

But the simplest way is perhaps to go to the library, go to the fairy tale section (Dewey Decimal 398.2, not that I have it memorized or something — adult section usually is best, though sometimes strange works get into the children’s), and look for books titled “Fairy tales of region” or “Folk tales of region.”

The next step is to check whether the region is France.  If so, you want to make sure it’s not a collection of literary fairy tales.  There are good folk fairytale collections from France — French Folktales by Henri Pourrat or The Borzoi Book Of French Folk Tales by Paul Delarue — but some are all literary.  Even if the literary ones are your interest (say, for a world with something like the precieuses in their salons), it helps to know the roots before you delve into the literary variations on them.

And then you read.

It does have the problem that you can’t play with the tales as easily, because your readers won’t recognize them.  You can, of course, change them and work with them, but the number of readers who will tell that your heroine went to Mr. East, Mr. South, Mr. West, and Mr. North because you are retelling “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and they are the four winds — are very few indeed.  But that only requires writing the tale to not require knowledge of the original.  And you can do a straight retelling very easily.  (Though, being praised for your startling originality –as opposed to your cleverness in adapting it — is more annoying than you might think.  Especially when they start talking about your reasons for doing so.  No, you do not have be original to have your heroine rescuing your hero!)

The best collections for the writer, I think, are not straight as collected by folklorists, but have gotten a mild going over.  This is to do such things as smooth out such verbal issues as “Oh, I forgot to tell you that she was wearing the third dress for this,” and to conflate two variants of a tale, where each one left out one plot incident that, really, was crucial to making the story hang together.  Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino is particularly interesting in his footnotes of how he picked and chose variants and sometimes merged them and often choose colorful elements to elaborate his central one.  (For instance, he picked his Snow White variant because it was the only Italian one he found with bandits instead of dwarfs.)

Such books are seldom, if ever, a straight collection of pure fairy tales.  Most (especially those entitled “folktales”) include comic tales of simpletons or clever folks up to tricks, cumulative tales, and even legends.  Which, of course, you may find useful in their own ways.

But, on the whole,  it’s best not to read just one.  Read a dozen or so from different countries.  Or, perhaps, read a book like Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner or her Cinderella Tales From Around the World, both of which weigh in at a nice thumping 828 pages.  Reading one collection not specifically organized about a tale type gives you a bunch of fairy tales.  Reading a bunch of collections gives you many variations on a theme.  When you’re familiar with twenty variations of “Maiden in a Tower” tales, of which “Rapunzel” is merely the best known variation, you can master the type.

Then you can write fairy tales of your own for your world that will actually sound like fairy tales.



178 thoughts on “Researching Your Fairy Tales – by Mary Catelli

  1. Folk tales and fairy tales, always good reading and interesting to see what was appropriate for children at the time. Some tales would trigger modern kids badly. 🙂
    Thanks for the pointers and directions Mary.

    1. Either C. S. Lewis or Tolkien said that many Folk and Fairy tales were originally not “children’s stories”.

      They just got relegated to the nursery after adults decided they were “old fashion”.

      I remember hearing that when the Brothers Grimm started collecting these old stories, at least one old woman didn’t want to tell them those stories because her society didn’t approve of her telling the stories to adults.

      They arranged for the old woman to tell the stories to a group of children while they listened in. 😦

      1. It’s the same attitude that we see today. Anything with a “happy ending” is a kid’s story, according to many. It’s not for adults if it isn’t grimdark or doesn’t have a completely miserable cast of characters.

        1. Which is why so many adults are turning to well-done children’s or YA stories. Before the craze, you could expect a children’s book to be better written as well (as a teacher friend of mine said, “Tougher audience.”)

        2. And not even all fairy tales end in happy endings. Many variants of “The Singing Bone” get you nothing more than the revelation of the murderer. There’s a Grimm fairy tale in which the disobedient child sees the witch in her cottage, so the witch turns her into a log and throws her on the fire.

      2. When the fairy tale was the rage at French salons, it was part of the joke that they were for children. A novel written in the era had a hero saying he would tell one, and the heroine, whose salon it was, declared in excitement that she still loved fairy tales as much as if she were a child.

      3. Either C. S. Lewis or Tolkien said that many Folk and Fairy tales were originally not “children’s stories”.

        AND, dear dragon, AND.

  2. Where the princess opts to marry the servant and not the king whom the servant had brought her for.

    Oh, Shrek!

        1. I remember reading a discussion of an allegedly Cinderella romance novel. The heroine’s father left the family deeply in debt, and so our heroine, along with her stepmother and stepsisters, took a job at a castle, where she meets the prince and then wows him at a ball.

          The discussion was a grave matter of the many divergence. My thought was — she wrote “Catskin.”

  3. I’m not certain if you can find them anymore, but collections of American Indian folklore are also fascinating story mines. In part because so many are about answering “why” questions, something fairy tales don’t focus on. And you get to see how tricksters vary between cultures (Coyote vs. Raven vs others). Natural History museums used to have great selections of folk lore books in their gift shops, but I’d be leery of anything since 1990 or so because of trying to be “sensitive.”

    And the unexpurgated Navajo creation story is not most emphatically not for children.

    1. Throw Loki into the list of tricksters.

      I’ve read a few Native American stories. One kept getting proclaimed as the “Native American Cinderella”, and I had it assigned more than once. But imo none of the things that made Cinderella different from any other “unlikely girl gets guy” story were present in the supposed Native American version.

      1. “Cinderella” gets much abused as the term for any heroine whose family treats her badly. I’ve heard “Vasilisa the Beautiful” described as “Cinderella.”

        Or the shoe. If you look at Wikipedia, you will see a lot of people touting “Rhodopis” as the first Cinderella because the heroine is found by her shoe. You might as well say that “The Water of Life” is “Snow White” because in both books a huntsman takes a victim to the woods to kill, and then doesn’t.

    2. Our local library branch has an entire storytelling wing populated with stage, puppet show box and hundreds of fairy tales from around the world and the nation. We have various Native American ones, Hindu, European, Japanese, various African tribal legends, etc. It is a fun place to explore.

    3. There is way too much Native American mythology about girls with toothy you-know-whats.

      Okay, yes, most kids aren’t going to read college-age paperbacks, but it didn’t scar me or anything. Maybe it would have scarred a boy, though.

      Kinda surprised there aren’t a bunch of Iroquois horror movies, though. Sheesh, every freakin’ story was monsters. Even the monster-killing hero was a monster.

      1. If the pattern for fantasy novels mining to it hitting normal novels to it hitting TV sticks true, that should start hitting some of the outlier stuff soon.

        Mythology teachers started talking about skin-walkers in the early 70s, it hit fantasy stories in the early 80s, and it’s starting to show up in video-type movies and video games now.

        Norse mythology was a minor fad in the 60s, got in books in the 70s, hit some video in the 90s, and in the 00 there were a decent number of viking type shows, now it’s a little over-saturated.


        It’s not a perfect thing, but I’m expecting a TV show with Russian flavored mythology any day now.

        1. Hmmmmm … The Adventures of Koschei the Deathless, a comedic-tragedy, coming to the CW next year! Baba Yaga’s House, the hit new sit-com starring Meryl “I Know Nothing, Nothing!” Streep will join it in a hilarious bloc of amazing fantasy! Don’t miss The Fabulous Adventures of the Fool and his Flying Ship, starring Sean Astin and featuring Jack Black as The Glutton.

          Interested parties may find Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales worth their attention. Per Wiki:

          Ransome says in his autobiography that the English listeners know nothing of the world that in Russia listeners and storytellers take for granted. So rather than direct translation (as William Ralston Shedden-Ralston did in his 1873 Russian Folk Tales; which he read in 1913) he read all the variants of the story, and rewrote them with Old Peter, Vanya and Maroosia rather than the Ogre, the Elf and the Imp. Publication was delayed, and he thought that the publishers did not expect to sell more than the initial 2000. But by 1956 more than 24,000 copies had been sold plus another 25,000 in cheaper editions and also several American editions, both piratical and legitimate

          Hugh Brogan says that it was Ransome’s first indubitable literary success. It has never been out of print. Arthur Ransome’s apprenticeship was over.

          1. So far it’s mostly things like “random old witches are all in houses on chicken legs.”

            Notice I didn’t say they were incredibly faithful to the origin…..

          2. BTW: in checking for Old Peter’s Russian Tales on Amazon I perceive that a couple of anthologies of the subject matter are available at 99 cents for Kindle:

            Russian Fairytales & Fables (Illustrated Edition): Over 125 Stories Including Picture Tales for Children, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, Muscovite Folk Tales for Adults and Others (Annotated Edition)

            THE GREATEST RUSSIAN FAIRY TALES & FABLES (With Original Illustrations): 125+ Stories Including Picture Tales for Children, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, … for Adults & Others (Annotated Edition)

            These are, I think, different versions of a single book:

      2. I once bought a collection of Native American tales to use with the BSA Indian Lore merit badge. I read them through beforehand, and then carefully selected a couple to copy instead of letting them use the whole book.

        It was “Coyote’s Bad Dream” that made that decision for me. (Definitely a punchline kind of tale, that one!)

        1. And it’s on Baen’s Schedule. (I remembered it after I made that comment.) 😉

  4. I was lucky on this score because, possibly before I actually watched any Disney movies other than maybe Robin Hood, I had these collections — or my grandmothers and one great-grandmother had them — I know there was one of the Grimm tales, and one of Andersen (but I might have gotten that one later, which may have been just as well), and one of Russian ones (…possibly less depressing than Andersen), and one titled something like Folktales and Fables of the World, and and and….

    …On the other hand, it was a good thing I wasn’t watching in the theater, because I spent a substantial part of the last half of my first viewing of Disney’s The Little Mermaid in a state of sobbing despair because I thought I knew what was coming.

    1. I had more than one friend who didn’t want to go see Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ because they were familiar with the original version. 😛

      But as I noted, it’s Disney. As if they’d let *THAT* happen at the end of one of their animated movies.

    2. I’ve never understood what the heck the appeal of HCA is supposed to be- bleeping Grimm’s is less grim and depressing, for heaven’s sake. I was reading stories about the blood of the dead child speaking to get justice, and it was less depressing, because there was a POINT!

      He’s got some interesting ideas, but then whoosh! to the floor. Has inspired some really good stuff…..

      1. Hans Christian Anderson would have been Steven King’s competitor, had he been born in the mid-Twentieth Century. I think he was really trying to write horror, but there was really no existing genre for that at the time, soooo… He wrote fairy tales, and pretty dark ones, at that.

        As well, the man had… Issues. My guess is that were he born and living today, he’d have been identified and medicated early on, and probably he’d be a lot happier, but we wouldn’t be getting his works out of him. Happy, sane people don’t write stuff like he did, and that’s part of what makes him so well-known.

        He was also a creature of his times. Consider the mortality rates of his era. As late as the turn of the 19th Century, we were still in a state where the son of the sitting US President could get a blister on his foot playing tennis, and succumb within days to blood poisoning and general infection. When HCA was writing, that was the normal state of affairs, and it sure as hell influenced popular culture. When you had families with nine kids, and then only about three of them made it to adulthood…? Yeah; you try selling shiny happy bullshit to those surviving kids and parents. The knew the world was a f**ked-up place, and that bad things happened to everyone. Shiny-happy Disney BS would have been completely out of their experience. For those generations, the world was generally a dark and dangerous place; so too, were their stories.

        1. Yeah; you try selling shiny happy bullshit to those surviving kids and parents.

          Sweetheart, I’ve noticed what the hell Marines on the way back from a warzone watch, what the guys who dig bodies out of slides are looking at, what a mother who just buried her daughter is watching– don’t try giving me that bullshit about how people who have SEEN horror, and recognize it, somehow hunger for more of it in their entertainment.

          It’s the joy, the bright, the hopeful that you decide to slander as “bullshit” and mock for not screaming “life is a pointless pile of suck, at best.”

          I’ve had folks trying to shove that raw fecal matter into my stuff for ages, and I’m sick of it. I notice that it never came from the teachers who had actually faced and overcome adversity, either.

          I know that the “oh, it’s not depressing, it’s too hopeful, it is fake and childish, people who really have faced Bad Stuff would be going dark” shit is FALSE.

          It’s great for those who don’t know real horror, or for those who want to stay in there– but take the “oh, they read horrible stuff because it was horrible” and shove it. My own lyin’ eyes can tell me who hungers for horror, and it’s tilted rather far against those who recognize it from real life visits.

          1. I’ve been wondering recently, if the fact that there isn’t as much bad stuff in the immediate world around them – losing half your siblings, or your mother, step-mother and then your father before you are 20, school shutting down because of the recent diphtheria epidemic which just took your best friend and you couldn’t go to the funeral because of the risk of infection – is what is causing religion to not be quite as popular. When people have hard things going on around them ALL THE TIME, having something that gives you some hope for better things would certainly appeal a lot more.

            The fairy tales that seem so dark weren’t for escapism, necessarily. They were morality and cautionary tales, meant to teach that goodness ultimately gets rewarded, that evil will ultimately be defeated, that bad decisions can lead to bad ends. So people didn’t seek these stories because they hungered for horror because life sucked. They told them to train the next generation and remind themselves that while life can suck for a time, if you make good choices you’ll be rewarded (or you won’t come to this bad end).

            1. Very likely– as they say, bad times make good people, good people make good times, good times make lazy people, lazy people make bad times.

              There ARE a lot of bad things in the stories, but there’s a point– even if it often bypasses us today.

            2. Trust me as someone who speaks as The Universe’s Chew Toy. When the goin’ gets tough, you need stories that give you even a sliver of hope.

              And when you don’t have hope, pure unmitigated spite works too. Anything to keep going – I’ll use it.

            3. “Fairy tales do not teach children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales teach children that dragons can be slain.”

              (Apologies to all members of the Draco-American community reading this post!)

              1. G. K. Chesterton, as accidentally paraphrased by Neil Gaiman. Here’s the original.

                “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of evil. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon”

                And the full thing:

          2. That reminds me of an author panel I was watching on Youtube where the subject of grimdark in fantasy came up in comparison to relatively lighter fare like LotR. A few of the authors made the preposterous claim that the rise of grimdark was a reflection of the grittier times we live in now.

            Excuse me?

            The giant sucking sound that happens after a statement like that is all the world’s historical knowledge desperately rushing in to fill a void of ignorance. As if ANY of the authors on that panel had endured a pinch of the very real horrors that guys like Tolkien had experienced in his own lifetime.

            I’m also thinking of two documentaries I just watched. One was about kids growing up poor and the other about kids who grew up wealthy. Among several admirable traits, perhaps the most surprising among the poor kids was that each of them were decidedly optimistic about their future. Of the rich kids, only the ones who had tried to do some real work or develop a productive purpose had any sort of optimistic outlook.

            1. *nod*

              I know some authors work through stuff in their writing, and I know some people actually feel better with the “it could be worse” game, but I’ve also seen people put at risk of suicide basically because they were constantly told that if they weren’t seeking out Bad Stuff, then they hadn’t really been hurt. It is really hard to deal with trauma if you’re surrounded with people telling you that you’re not hurt. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a chunk of the PTSD problem– I know various grief councilors have started making VERY SURE they tell folks that the way they deal with grief is an individual thing.

              1. That.
                I gave up going to single parent support workshops sponsored in all good faith by the military. (This was in the early 1980s) It was either – you must be so traumatized by your experience, you poor darling – or it was other single parents apparently one-upping each other about how bad they had it. (My ex used to beat me! – Well, my ex beat me, and the kids! My ex beat me, the kids and the dog!) How could one recover from a bad experience in that kind of atmosphere?
                I didn’t need to be told that I was a poor darling. And I didn’t want to be part of the abuse sweepstakes. I just wanted to get over it.
                Which I did, in a couple of years.

              2. For a prime example of “author working through stuff in their writing” see David Drake, who basically spent 25 years working through his experiences in Vietnam before writing Redliners.
                His writing noticeably cheered up after that.

                1. but i ❤ Hammer's Slammers and it was my first mil sf. I have a original ed copy on my bookshelf just because i love the original supertank illo.

            2. /sigh

              People who think that Tolkien is “lighter fare” have obviously never read ‘The Children of Hurin’. That book is just one big long string of disasters one after another, culminating in the final horrible revelations to Turin and his… wife.

              1. Preaching to the choir, my friend. Today, people seem to think gritty, gratuitous, and explicit is what makes it dark. CoH is horrifying, particularly because Tolkien allows you to fill in the really bad stuff with your own imagination. CoH is a wonderful example.

                I finally started to read Game of Thrones after having watched a few seasons before tiring of it. The writing is most excellent, right up until he gives explicit details of a sexual encounter between 30-something Khal Drogo and 14-year-old Danaerys. That’s not to say you can’t write about that sort of situation, but it comes across as creepy-old-man-author-wish-fulfillment when you get into the explicit details.

                Eh, maybe it’s just me.

                1. Just nothing that Children of Hurin wasn’t written by JRR. It was written by Christopher, from JRR’s notes.

                  The tale was a bleak one, utterly appropriate for the setting, and a classic tragedy of fate.
                  But that is only one of the tales that Tolkien told. Beren and Luthien take center stage in their turn. And without The Fall of Gondolin, there would be no tale of Earendil.

                  Hops is an important ingredient in beer. That doesn’t imply it should be the dominant taste. Much less the ONLY taste.

                  You can play a beautiful note, so pure it makes angels cry from the glory of it.
                  But if you just keep hitting that note over and over again, it quickly becomes nothing but a horrible noise.
                  (At least GRRM hits four notes: pervert, masochist, suffering breeds virtue, and honor is deadly to the possessor.)

                  1. The story told in Children of Hurin is present in the published version of the Silmarillion. So while it’s correct to say that Tolkien didn’t technically write the book that was published under that name, Tolkien wrote the plot as it appears in the book.

              2. I’ll admit that I couldn’t take Turin’s story in any form. I never understood why, of all the stories that make up the Silmarilian, that was the one Tolkien wrote so much about. It struck me as not only depressing but pointlessly so.

                1. He wrote more about Beren than he did Turin.
                  And he certainly wrote more about the efforts of the Valar to bring light to the world than he did Turin.

                  But that’s the thing.
                  Fate, and the inability of mortal (using the word extremely loosely) agency to overcome it, was one of the central themes of Tolkien’s work.
                  The story of Turin was anything but pointless.
                  It is the necessary context and contrast for the soaring highs of his work to actually, you know, work.
                  If you’re going to invoke God’s mercy, you need to have Job solidly established.
                  Turin fought evil with valor, but he was not good. He was a brigand and a murderer. He tormented the vulnerable, forgave no slight, and arrogantly sought to pay evil unto evil. He does not meet a happy end, and frankly, doesn’t deserve to.
                  No god came from the machine to save him?
                  This is as it should be.
                  Turin was a hero. He fought against evil with admirable virtus.
                  But he is also a tragic figure. He was a victim of his own passions, and his destructive ways led to his own downfall.
                  That duality is important, and also shows up in Feanor and his sons. Turin is merely reinforcing the point at a particularly bleak time in the history.

            3. Worth noting:
              JRR Tolkien went through the trenches of WWI, and wrote LOTR, which is now derided as escapism fiction.
              George RR Martin avoided service in Vietnam, and wrote the grimdark ASOIAF.

          3. I’m reminded that Heinlein refused to write stories with tragic endings, even though he had plots for a few. He figured there was misery enough in this world.

            1. IIRC, because it’s been a while since I read this, RAH’s original ending for “Podkayne of Mars” ended in her death, and the publisher made him change it, although he objected strongly (he usually did what the pub wanted, because they were buying the books). That would have been the version I read and loved in the fifties/sixties.
              I picked up the book when it was re-issued with the original ending (and this explanation as an afterward), but I would have sworn that THAT was the version I had read and remembered, because Heinlein was right: Podkayne had to die to make the story work.

                    1. That’s the second story. In the first story, everybody but him can go to the Moon.

          4. I remember what George R.R. Martin says about J.R.R. Tolkien’s wars, when Martin is a draft-dodger and Tolkien was a WWI veteran.

            1. Hrm. I think it goes both ways. Sometimes, when you have the blues, it helps to sing the blues, and it takes a worried man to sing a worried song.

              OTOH, it has been noted that part of the effectiveness of the blues is that blues and gospel use many of the same rhythms and features, but work with them in different ways. So you can sing the blues, or dance to rhythm and blues, on Saturday night; and then sing gospel on Sunday morning. (There’s also a joke about how you bop your head in different directions to each one….)

          5. Based on my own experiences, I think you’re right on this. Certainly the comrades in arms who have tried to take their lives after a deployment (and too many succeeding) seem to have been stuck in the dark and hopelessness, without being able to watch and enjoy those movies with happy endings.

            Rather than playing, or trying to relive, something horrible and trying to analyze their reaction to it (which actually reinforces those memories); maybe therapists should be playing happy and light and working with troubled vets from that end of the spectrum instead.

            1. If you ever need some tactics they probably haven’t had used on them yet– look at the Catholic religious stuff that’s aimed at breaking “habits of ___” (has names like “breaking free of the habits of sin” or “breaking free of the habits of temptation” and such).
              Even most chaplains won’t use those, because of a sort of therapeutic mindset.

              If they’re into woo-woo, maybe point them towards various exorcism tactics to use for demonic obsession or oppression. If nothing else, it’s a useful visualization and it makes that darkness not them.

              Good luck.
              I know my uncles have done some work at their VFW meetings– they all came back from Vietnam, and had family that had come back from WWII, so they had some tactics. (Most seemed to involve lots of beer and dirty stories to get people laughing.)

              1. This may very well be part of the problem with those of us coming back the last few years, the VFW solution isn’t an option because if we drink as part of the coping/readjustment process when we come home we are clearly alcoholics and need help, and if we tell dirty jokes, it’s sexual harassment and double unplus no-good, even if the person telling the story or laughing at it has two X chromosomes.

                I’m a military medical provider (part-time these days) and I actually have a pet theory that part of the problem now is good old “general order number 1” prohibiting any use of alcohol in theater. Alcohol is a depressant and settles down some of that adrenal overstimulation folks are constantly experiencing downrange, either through combat or just from the amount of stimulants used to keep alert during long hours of waiting for the balloon to go up. We send guys out on deployment and keep them at that pitch for 6-12 months straight, it’s no wonder they have problems, real physiologic problems affecting mood and brain function. In previous wars, one could have a drink or 3 off duty and bring that adrenal level back down to baseline or even below for a few hours, giving the rest of the body a break from all that stimulation.

                1. *empathetic sigh*
                  And if you take comfort from religion, it’s a “crutch,” and if I suggest it, I’m a nasty religious fanatic preying on the mentally disturbed. Same way the ship’s chaplain interrupted my confession to ask if I’d considered suicide. (The constant “how about suicide?” thing probably doesn’t help the suicide rate, either.)

                  Yeah, the secular religion is waaaaaay more demanding than any cult I’ve heard of short of the Mexican drug-gang Aztec neopagans.

                  (…they’re way more faithful to the original than other neopagan groups. I do not think this is a good thing. Yes, including cannibalism.)

                  1. I cried when they removed the cross from the top of every military chapel. Seems to me that the same time they did that (and made chaplains basically apologize before every invocation “Now I will pray in my tradition while you follow in yours”, blech) was about when our rate of suicide and other issues really started to climb to the point where it couldn’t be ignored. But what do I know? I’m one of those ignorent folk clinging to my ancient superstitions (with both hands, yes!)

                    1. While I was in Iraq, the numbers came out: Suicides amongst Aethists were TRIPLE what they were in even the next nearest religious group. The news tried to spin it as ‘harassment’ by chaplains, But the Chaplains were very firm (and on record) that the suicide numbers were WHY they watched the Aethists most.

                2. Oh, and on alcohol– don’t forget that a woman is a “heavy drinker” if she has two beers in an afternoon, and probably alcoholic if you drink at all more than three times a week; a guy has to have a whole three.

                  This, incidentally, would classify one of the grandmothers in my family as a heavy drinker through all her pregnancies, since she had a glass of wine with dinner, and a cocktail when her husband came home in the evening. Started when they got married, and 75 years later she still keeps the cocktail even though he isn’t there to mix it for her.
                  (Other than the child who developed a brain tumor with complications, all the kids have doctorate degrees in tough subjects.)

                  1. When I was younger I once asked my mother (emphatically *not* an alcoholic, although we are all Irish/German and get very merry when called for) if she had ever had morning sickness during her pregnancies and was told “only once, when I got throwing-up drunk” when pregnant with my sister. Eh, it was the 70s, amazingly all three daughters survived. And between the three could have our own medical clinic as one is a DO, one an RN and I’m a PA, so it didn’t seem to do much harm.

                    The Puritanical streak that runs through all US politics and somehow encroaches even on “science-based medicine” seems to be predicated on the assumption that if a *lot* of something is bad the only possible good is *none at all*, even when it is entirely contrary to evidence. FAS is generally only found in the children of women who drink 5 or more drinks a day, every day, throughout the whole of their pregnancy, therefor a pregnant woman having the occasional glass of wine with dinner is Satan herself and must be publicly shamed and, if possible, her children removed. Sigh. At least when I lived in Germany they were sensible about the whole thing.

                    1. IIRC, they only recently forced doctors in Ireland to stop telling ladies to have a glass of Guinness if they were suffering anemia.

                      I think it’s a side-effect of there not being a lot of stuff we’re “allowed” to publicly disapprove of– some folks have a very deep need to publicly shame others, and they’ll make junk up if needed.

                      That said, holy crud do things get out of hand with pregnancy! (as I’ve told ad nausium here, especially with the eating fish thing– actual directive is no more than twice a week of the very high risk fish, and avoid the stuff they suggest NOBODY eat more than once a month, I want to say wild-caught blue marlin? What you get in practice is women being told either to eat NO fish, or to have no more than one serving of tuna a month. I found out I was pregnant after Lent, where I basically lived on tuna for Fridays. Yeah, that was almost as evil as the “oh wait, nevermind, caffeine doesn’t cause miscarriage” correction.)

                    2. My OBGYNs were relatively… chill? I guess? They gave me the party line on alcohol (I don’t drink in the first place, tried tasting things until I was out of grad school and nobody was offering free samples anymore but never liked anything enough to buy) but, for example, they gave me a card with recommendations about OTC medication whereas a friend’s wife was afraid to take almost anything the whole time.

                      I should probably lay off caffeine for separate reasons but didn’t do it while pregnant. Might have to if I get GD again because I lack tolerance for unsweetened coffee/tea and they’ve put the aspartame (which does not agree with me) back in Diet Pepsi.

                      I more or less faithfully but reluctantly avoided cold deli meats, and later learned to my astonishment that in Europe they tell you to avoid raw vegetables. (This may actually make sense depending on cultivation practices but was still unexpected.) I did not, on the other hand, stop frying eggs with runny yolks, which was probably higher risk than a cold roast beef sandwich would’ve been.

                    3. IIRC, the biggest death from any food in recent years was… German organic sprouts. As in, alfalfa sprouts.

                      I seem to remember that listeria (the thing they’re fussed about for deli meats) is not very common from eggs, and ironically enough given how much we’ve got it drummed into our heads that you CANNOT TELL STUFF IS SAFE FROM HOW TI SMELLS… if something smells bad to you, don’t eat it while pregnant.

                    4. I assumed the issue with eggs was salmonella, but yeah, the listeria thing is scary. It’s also, as far as I can tell, not actually a hugely higher risk in deli meat than in… oh… caramel apples or ice cream.

                      I do have a friend who says she can’t rely on her nose at all because rotting meat smells just fine to her, and a different one who doesn’t drink milk because it always smells like it’s gone bad, but I assume neither of them is eating things that do not normally smell bad to them and then suddenly do.

                    5. … probably higher risk than a cold roast beef sandwich would’ve been.

                      Properly prepared, a cold roast beef sandwich offers no risk at all. The half pound of horseradish suffices to sterilize all possible bacteria.

                    6. Me it was the “What do you mean my kid’s head will be turned around backwards if i eat blue cheese?” Yeah, listeria is a thing, but it’s rare and as most US cheeses are to be made from pasteurized milk, it is only really an issue if you are eating a lot of French cheeses or happen to be able to get the raw milk stuff. Even then it is a lot less dangerous than getting in your car and driving to work every day while pregnant.

                    7. Incidentally, I have heard of kids born with FAS to women who didn’t drink regularly.

                      It came up because they didn’t drink at all. The doctors decided they must be secretly drinking, although they believed the alcoholics that said they had only “one or two a week” and had very bad FAS children, even when their SOs said they drank more than that.

                      The logical conclusion is that the symptoms can be mimicked by other things– but argh good luck with that.

                      Was the first time I realized that “science” was a method only as good as the person applying the technique. GI:GO.

    3. We had an old collection of Grimm (and boy, were they!) and the Complete Hans Christian Anderson … boy, talk about gruesome an grim-dark…
      The beheaded lover’s skull in a plant pot, the wicked stepmother forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance herself to death, the garden decorated with the body parts of unsuccessful suitors. No wonder Disney felt obliged to clean them up at least a little …

      1. Were the bindings cloth, in red or green, with a colored plate glued to the front?
        If so, I grew up with the same set, just about had them memorized by the time I got to HS.

        1. They weren’t one set of books, two separate published collections. The binding of the Grimm was green cloth – no ornamentation to it. The HCA collection was all one volume, 3/4 binding in blue, and the pages in the book itself were in sections with different color paper in each section; yellow, pink and light blue I think. I inherited all the kids books, so I can go search them out with a bit if trouble.

          1. Ah, well – the stories are what matter, not the covers! I have discovered that the really important thing to look for is the translators: some are very much better than others. My childhood set was the “only right way to do it” for many years, but I have transitioned to Jack Zipes’ more literal (but rather less poetic) versions.

    4. We went, because Disney. It was in the German theatres at the time, and so we watched it German; and the theatres then would have an intermission around the middle of the film, and ladies selling snacks, icecream, popcorn, candy and souvenirs would go up and down the aisles, so you could replenish, or for folks to nip to the WC.

      I remember that my younger brother fled the theatre in pure terror when Ursula showed up, necessitating my father to stay outside with him because he adamantly refused to go back in until much later on (we coaxed him back in). And the youngest was like “But Ariel didn’t die in the end like she was supposed to!” I remember my dad laughing about that.

      1. I remember being horrified by the changes.
        It became a tale told by an idiot. There was sound and furry, yes. But…

        Some stories only work in the dark.
        And there are some decisions that just won’t ever have a happy ending.

    5. I read Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books as a child. Maybe not all twelve, but even The Blue Fairy Book and The Red Fairy Book were sufficient to broaden my horizons.

  5. Eldest is a big Grimm fan.

    But as it happens, I am half way through reading to six-year-old East O’ the Sun an’ West O’ the Moon, Andrew Lang’s version (Blue Fairy Book), and wonder about your opinion of his color fairies. They are used extensively in our home school curriculum.

    1. I read them extensively when I was a child. They did marvels to educate me.

      The big problem I had with them is the French ones are ALL literary. Even as a kid, that annoyed me some. (But, of course, there are a lot more that aren’t French.)

  6. It’s probably worth bringing up the comic book series ‘Fables’. The characters from all of those old western fairy tales (and some newer ones, such as The Jungle Book) are living as secret refugees in a section of New York City. The ones that can’t pass as human are living on a big piece of private rural farmland.

    Some of the old classic fairy tale archetype characters turn out to all be the same individual. For instance, Prince Charming has been married three times (Snow White first, Cinderella and Rapunzel later on). The generic evil old witch who turns up in several stories is a crafty woman who survived all of her apparent deaths (she used to draw power from killing children, but these days she apparently runs an abortion clinic instead). And there’s only one Big Bad Wolf. He’s the “sheriff” of the community (after getting intentionally infected with lycanthrope so that he could pass as human).

    1. she used to draw power from killing children, but these days she apparently runs an abortion clinic


      Okay, I am… impressed they went there.

        1. The guy who wrote all 100+ issues for Vertigo is also pro-Israel. And some of that appeared in the comic. There’s also Goldilocks, who combines the worst aspects of the violent, revolutionary Left. So he’s certainly not afraid to “go there”.

          For the witch, I’m sure it’s a convenience thing. There’s no reason to think that she isn’t still a completely amoral individual. But the community is a refuge for her from the powerful enemy that turned all of the characters into refugees from their homelands. So long as she acts intelligently, exercises some common sense, and makes sure that the others don’t have a reason to throw her out, she’s got a safe place to stay.

          1. I was focusing on the author intent– whatever you call Poe’s law when it’s not satire comes into play.

            But those points very strongly suggest that it was done with open eyes. Not my type of story, but I applaud the author for having guts.

        2. Maple harvesting season started this weekend. Good flow of sap and good sugar content. Your comment reminds me of a single panel cartoon I saw several years ago with two Vermonters walking down a trail looking at a bunch of boys with their mouths stuck on the taps in the trees and the one guy says, “Yep, sugaring season has started alright.”

      1. Eh. (Waggles hand)
        I’ve only read a few of them, but they were much more noir than grimdark.

        There’s a difference between living in a fallen world, and embracing the fact.

  7. I recently joined a writer’s group. I read the 2nd chapter of my current WIP (a somewhat generic medieval fantasy) and was praised for my “strong women” What? Just because the hero’s daughter got her father to promise not to marry her off against her will? and because she turned down a totally unsuitable suitor? I replied that there have *always* been strong women.

    1. sigh

      O yes. It’s much more annoying than you might think to rewrite a fairy tale and have people gushing over the creativity of the parts where your creativity consisted in ripping off a different fairy tale.

  8. My Bookhouse series by Olive Beaupre Miller. Most people haven’t heard of the majority of the stories and they can be pretty dark. I have a hard time believing they were read to very young children. The older series, in black bindings are the best. The later series from the 50s were cleaned up. Lots of fairy tails there.

      1. no i mean we have folk tales like a national leader who grew up in a one-room log cabin and taught himself to read, and that a man can start by building computers in his garage and end up owning the #1/#2 PC builder in the world… that’s just crazy folk tales that can’t possibly be true.

    1. Paul Bunyan. John Henry.

      And then there’s the quasi-historical stuff, like George Washington and the Cherry Tree.

  9. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned “The Princess Bride” as a recent movie/fairy tale. Giants and sword fights and a princess and a pirate and castles and everything.

  10. Once upon a time (ahem) there were a whole series of anthologies of fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang. Their signature aspect was each book was named after a color, e.g. The Red Book Of Fairy Tales–which BTW had no obvious connection to the content–and toward the end of the series they had to reach pretty deep into the color palette, although IIRC no chartreuse or puce (but apparently olive and lilac!).
    The early ones are fairly conventional in their material, though they cover most of the Western tradition–French, German, and others in addition to English–but as they published more and more they got around to some more exotic stuff (for the era anyhow…they were published around of the turn of the last century [1900 or so] after all!) including Russian, Chinese and Japanese tales!
    I found reference to an omnibus edition of 12 volumes on Amazon [] and it looks like the individual books are still available as well [] There’s also freebie versions of most of them in Kindle format, though as with all such, it’s hard to know what the quality is like…

    1. I loved the Fairy Books when I was young! And, yes, they were much more interesting, and strange, than what the school system wanted us to read.

      One might also look at folk songs. My father used to, as a hobby, collect various versions of folk songs and try to re-create the original. According to him, usually folk songs started out being quite gritty and then were “cleaned up” by later people to remove the “offensive” bits.

      1. “The Unfortunate Rake” has definite adult themes. The narrator of the song meets an old army buddy who’s dying of syphilis.

        It’s been Americanized as “Streets of Larado,” dropping the venereal disease in favor of a cowboy who’s been shot.

    2. They could come from anywhere in the world but they were indeed spotty. For instance, virtually all the Asian fairy tales came from Japan or India.

  11. Oh, shoot, what was that poem my mother would read out of the “Childcraft” volume: High Kacalorum (COKE-uh-lorem) and the Chinese princess?

  12. It would be interesting to read fairy tales in pairs. Ones that end well and ones that end badly. Beauty and the Beast vs. Bluebeard, for example.

    1. Oooh, that would be FUN!

      And I bet there are a lot of different variations– say, the Wife With A Secret? Lots of places for stuff to go wrong.

      Wait, would a seal wife be the bad outcome of a swan princess?

      So many options…..

      1. Define ‘bad ending’ there. There’s the seal/swan/dove etc variant where she’s held captive by the cloak, and escapes when it’s discovered; there’s variants where after that, her husband goes on a quest to find her again, and succeeds; there’s variants where he gets the cloak and gives it back immediately (a good way to get on the good side of the mad scientist ogre’s beautiful daughter) or after she has made a promise about what she will do if he does (and then he tries to release her from the promise).

        1. I was thinking of either the ones where she vanishes into the sea with something bad happening to the kids, or the ones where she drowns the entire rest of the family and returns to the sea because she got the (thing he had that let him keep her as a wife) as the bad endings. So basically the first, if I am reading it right?

          Bad as in sad, not as in it’s bad story telling.

          The second variation would be an example of a more likely to be happy ending. Notably not painless….
          (Although as classic mythology goes, helping the hero beat your father might get a variation of the bad ending where you’re abandoned and slaughter your kids.)

          1. If your latest parenthetical refers to Medea, I’ll just mention that I like Dave Freer’s version (unless it was Eric Flint who came up with this particular idea) in Pyramid Scheme, where the story about her murdering her kids turns out to be a lie, spread around by her ex-husband to discredit her.

            1. Funny thing is, the only person who records that Medea murdered her own children is Euripides, who put it into his play about her. She apparently doesn’t kill her kids in any of the other stories. Some of the stories have one or more of her kids not surviving her revenge (generally dying at the hands of an angry mob). But Medea herself doesn’t murder any of them except in the play.

              Of course, the play is the only source of information about her that the vast majority of people have these days.

              1. My, doesn’t that raise an interesting question! What was Euripedes about, rewriting a commonly known myth to slander the character?

                1. Eh, they did that sort of thing. You know how Aeschylus has Athena offering the Furies a role in Athenian juries? He identified them with the Terrible Goddesses that jurors swore by when swearing to do justice. Apparently he invented that.

    2. You know you’re Odd when… at the end of the Disney animated version of Beauty and the Beast… the transformation of ‘Beast’ (back) to human seems disappointing – because he transforms to human. That everyone else returns to form is another matter.

            1. Beauty was her first novel-length publication, IIRC. A friend gave it to me in high school, so I’ve had it for a long time—but since Rose Daughter came out, I usually read them back-to-back.

      1. That’s the problem of a visual medium. It is kind of ironic when you have a fairy tale where the entire point is supposed to be that you should not put too much trust in appearances.

        1. Eh, she comes to love him in spite of his form, and in the movie– we do, too.

          Changing what you’ve adapted to seems…excessive.

          Although there are definite advantages on a practical level if one doesn’t assume a hollywood change, since she’s likely to want children.

  13. I’ll add something I read once in Will Durant’s “Our Oriental Heritage”…that there were stories from India that fairly reeked of romance. They just aren’t well known in the West.

  14. “It’s probably worth bringing up the comic book series ‘Fables’.”
    For a send-up of fairy tales somewhat like this but with music, nothing beats Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” – the original play is IMO better than the Disney (!) movie, but YMMV.
    Wikipedia: “The musical intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. “

  15. >> “go to the fairy tale section (Dewey Decimal 398.2, not that I have it memorized or something”

    Funny you should mention that. If our hostess will forgive me making a plug:

    And speaking of our hostess… Sarah, there used to be a list of links to recent posts on the sidebar. Any chance we could get that feature back?

  16. For Asian tales that aren’t really Japanese or Indian you might try The Magic Bird of Chomo-Lung-Ma collected by Sybelle Noel while trekking through the Himalayas. The introduction described how she’d ask in the villages for stories ‘because you see I can’t carry much, but I can carry stories” or wtte. And then she picked out the ones that weren’t all on familiar lines to Westerners, her husband did illustrations and there it is. There seem to be ebook freebies or pdf downloads easily available on the net, too.

  17. East of the Sun and West of the Moon is obscure? Mother Huddle? Um… *wanders off muttering and goes back to trying to find the Russian stuff in Russian* People are wierd.

    1. I’m in a theatrical group that mostly does Gilbert & Sullivan, including Iolanthe, but we also did Into the Woods. For the actor biographies, I like to ask people a show-related question, so I’ve asked what their favorite fairytale is and why. And it’s all Disney. It’s ALWAYS Disney. I think most people aren’t aware of fairytales outside of Disney.

      Um. I think I need to get some Andrew Lang for my kids. (My copies are MINE. I’ve seen what happens to my kids’ books.)

      1. Dang it. I have a project brewing in my head. I don’t need another project brewing in my head. There are just SO MANY good fairy tales out there… (Bearskin is one of my favorites. Mother Huddle is probably my ‘old comfort food’ style favorite.)

      2. Eh, I’d probably go with Disney, too.

        You don’t have to explain anything when you go with Disney.

        If I was given a lot of time to think it out? Probably go with that one, whatzit, the Clever Farmgirl, the one where she shows up with one foot on a sledge being dragged by a donkey and she’s wrapped in fish-net?

    2. The people declaring the stories obscure are usually going off of stuff that was done by Disney or commonly refereed to in old TV type cartoons, not folks who go “oh, mythology and fairy tales! That’s cool, let’s at least skim that.”

  18. When I was seven years old (“oh my mother she did die”—no wait, that’s a ballad), my grandfather died and we flew across the country to his funeral. I’d never met him, so it was more of a vacation to meet the cousins for me. At one point, I was bored in a room full of adults and one of my aunts pulled the original version of Pinocchio off the shelf and handed it to me. And after that, there was no looking back—I read the original 101 Dalmatians (written only a year or two before Disney acquired it and changed it up) and got into the colored Fairy books by Andrew Lang.

    As I got older, I started doing offhand research into fairytale origins. Nothing too scholarly, but enough to point out that Little Red Riding Hood is the oldest mostly intact fairytale that we can track, to 9th century France (other tales have morphed a lot more over the centuries, but we still have traces of LRRH gets eaten for having the bad sense to talk to strangers in the woods), or that the Cinderella story has variants all over the world, though the “small foot” motif does not appear to come from China directly, as you might otherwise expect. (Maybe some Silk Road detail came west.) And there are patterns, far more than the Hero’s Journey concept that Joseph Campbell seemed to think was universal—look up the Handless Maiden pattern sometime. (It is fairly disturbing that the motif of women having their hands or arms cut off is so prevalent over so many cultures.)

    And I love the dark takes on some tales, and was also one of those bemused that Disney adapted The Little Mermaid. (Of course, they later went on to adapt The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which if you’ve ever read the book is a huge boggle. At least the stage production has apparently gone back to the roots a bit more and put most of the deaths back*.)

    Anyway. A couple of years back, my Christmas present was a modest little paperback called The Turnip Princess (and Other Fairytales). Excellent present, completely unrefined fairytales, as told to a historian at about the same time as the brothers Grimm, but not edited for clarity or consistency. They’re like a fever dream in some cases, but they have all sorts of things I’ve never seen elsewhere, including a lovely little tale that I’ve already turned into a short story. (When nobody’s heard of it, you can tell it pretty straight.)

    *Tangent musical geeking; when they put it on stage in Sacramento and Los Angeles, they actually cast a deaf actor as Quasimodo. They staged it with another actor singing the role off to the side and Quasimodo signing. It was apparently amazing and intense.

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