Old Stories Made New: An Analysis of Fairytale Retellings

Why do we keep returning to fairytales?


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As noted by the Jewish Book Council, “Fairy tales, as all forms of cul­ture, are trans­fig­ured across time and across space.” Retellings are simply evolutions of the original fairytales that eventually grow into their own individual entities.

It is human nature to look to the past for inspiration. In the words of Mark Twain, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”

One product of this process is the rise of the fairytale retelling genre. However, to truly understand how this genre functions, we must first examine the source material from which all retellings stem. 

The concept of fairytales emerged thousands of years ago; they are intended to both educate and entertain their readers with a magical yet moral story. Because fairytales are often written to impart certain lessons, most have rather similar structures. They often open with the words “Once upon a time” and end with “they lived happily ever after.” Their characters typically fit neatly into black and white molds, with clear heroes and villains. And they feature magical elements and often mystical settings one could only imagine ever seeing. 

This simple structure is one of the key characteristics of fairytales — and it makes sense as these stories are written to educate their readers. It is easier to discern a moral from a straightforward plot with distinctly good and evil sides than it is to draw one from a story with more complex characters and winding plotlines. For example, in Cinderella, it is obvious where each character falls on the moral axis; Cinderella, her mice friends, and her prince are all forces of good, while her stepmother and stepsisters are paragons of evil. 

However, fairytales are also written to immerse readers in an entertaining story, hence why they contain imaginative aspects such as magic. There are infinite ways to write a story encouraging helping others, but few would have the same effect as the Brothers Grimm’s ‘The Golden Goose.’ In the story, three brothers each encounter a hungry old man in the forest while chopping wood; only the youngest of the brothers offers the man food, despite his meal being paltry in comparison to his brothers’ meals. As thanks for his good deed, the man gives him a golden goose that eventually helps him win the hand of the princess in marriage.

The merging of such fantastical elements with a simple structure is what makes fairytales ripe for retelling. Since fairytales rarely develop their magic systems and characters beyond what is absolutely necessary to convey their morals, there is much room for expansion and worldbuilding. 

The founder of formalist research on folk tales, Max Lüthi, described the fairytale world as “An abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects, and incidents, all of which are isolated and are nevertheless interconnected, in a kind of web or network of two-dimensional meaning.” 

The effect of this paradoxical interconnectedness of fairytale elements is the freedom to reprise and reinvent their favorite facets of the stories they retell; the same story can be reinterpreted and repackaged in a plethora of ways for various audiences.

Prince Charming, for example, is a popular fairytale character — yet readers know next to nothing about him, other than the fact that he happens to have a penchant for saving princesses. His only discernible personality traits seem to be his bravery and valiance. Readers have no idea if he has any fears, weaknesses, or dislikes — for all the audience knows, he could abhor dragon slaying. A retelling of any one of the many stories he appears in could explore these unseen facets of his personality.

Of course, there are many other fairytale characters and elements that can be also deconstructed and reframed in a myriad of ways. The Lunar Chronicles and the Whatever After books are both examples of series that examine popular fairytales through new lenses in each installment. 

The Lunar Chronicles takes several popular fairytales, including ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’ and reimagines their characters in an intergalactic sci-fi world with cyborgs and an interplanetary plague. The novels feature dark themes, intense action scenes, and mild profanities that make the books best suited for teenage audiences.  

Conversely, the Whatever After series is a lighthearted comedy series aimed at elementary to middle school students. The books follow a brother and sister duo as they enter different fairytales and ultimately change their endings. In one instance, the siblings help Cinderella start a small business selling baked goods.

Though both can be considered fairytale retellings, The Lunar Chronicles and the Whatever After series take different approaches to the genre; The Lunar Chronicles examines beloved characters in a new, exciting setting that may appeal to those who have outgrown the black and white morals of the original stories. The Whatever After series opts to instead introduce completely new characters whom readers can project onto and experience their favorite fairytales through. 

There is no single mold for fairytale retellings, despite the ostensible homogeneity of the source material. As noted by Mollie Ehrenberg ’23, “retellings allow for the story to grow and evolve through the years. They still have the fairytale charm that attracts kids but with a new spin to draw adults in and see what’s changed.” 

In a way, retellings can be used to renew an old story — after all, the original fairytales are centuries old, meaning the settings and customs highlighted in them may not always fit with the standards of today. We continue to tell them in spite of their potentially-outdated aspects because the hearts of their stories remain relevant across time, but retellings allow us to take the most applicable aspects of the old tales and meld them with modern morals and concepts.

Additionally, retellings appeal to readers’ nostalgia for their childhoods. Fairytales are oftentimes the first texts a child is exposed to as a gateway to moral development, and even after growing up and learning that life is more nuanced than the stories make it out to be, fairytales remain a steady source of solace for many.  

“It’s always love wins above all, or life is a fairytale, and even though the thought of living a perfect, amazing life is delusional, I think most people, young and old, find it comforting,” said Yaniyah Felder ’25. 

Fairytales are reminders of how it feels to see the world through the lens of a child. Conversely, their retellings are the acknowledgment that there is more to life than what can be conveyed in a few pages. Both ultimately provide valuable insight into how the world does and does not work; thus, there will always be a need for both the original fairytales and their retellings. 

There is no single mold for fairytale retellings, despite the ostensible homogeneity of the source material. As noted by Mollie Ehrenberg ’23, “retellings allow for the story to grow and evolve through the years. They still have the fairytale charm that attracts kids but with a new spin to draw adults in and see what’s changed.”