Retold

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Disney did it and so did a lot of other peopleFamiliar tales, like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid or The Snow Queen, have been reused and retold countless times. Sometimes the result is a mindless rip-off, and sometimes the familiarity of the structure lets a writer riff on the story in creative and surprising ways. It’s a constant cycle, always fascinating but at times out of fashion.

Here are two award-winning revisions of The Snow Queen, one that slyly takes the story at face value, and a second that expands it into the basis for a galactic civilization, written by Eileen Kernaghan and Joan D. Vinge respectively and with the same title.

(All of Andersen’s original stories are available online; here is the original version of The Snow Queen, which is basically the story of a young girl who wants to get a boy back from the evil clutches of the eponymous queen.)

Eileen Kernaghan’s version is much more recognizable as based on the Hans Christian Andersen original, and it’s clearly a young adult book, as the main characters are two teenaged girls. Kernaghan fills in the cultures of the girls: Gerda is from a prim Victorian-era city in Denmark, while Ritva is from a Saami tribe in Lapland. Gerda’s friend Kai has run off with the snow queen and Gerda wants to get him back — but she doesn’t know much about the arctic wilderness and needs Ritva’s help.

Like in Andersen’s version, the story is mainly about the two girls. Kernaghan runs with it in a roughly familiar way, which is why the ending was such a surprise. Up to that point, the storytelling is solid but doesn’t stray from Andersen’s general outlines. But that ending… it’s like a key turning in the lock of the story, and then it all makes sense.

Gerda is going through a rite of passage: she has to learn how to leave home, for one thing, and Kernaghan makes sure we see how big this is for a young girl in her position. Then she is captured by Ritva’s tribe, and has to gain the trust of another human in the absence of any family or adult help. Once the two are allied, they have to work as a team to get to the snow queen’s remote hideaway. What has Kai been doing in the meantime? Moping around in a trance, i.e. the opposite of proving his worth.

Disney did it and so did a lot of other peopleAndersen used this storyline, and then tacked on a typical happily-ever-after ending — and a heteronormative one (for those who care for the jargon), reuniting boy and girl. In Kernaghan’s version, Gerda writes off Kai, and goes off for more adventures with Ritva. I don’t think this is necessarily a coded lesbian ending, more like a “beautiful friendship” thing. In any case, it’s a remarkably effective way to mark Gerda’s passage into adulthood.

Kernaghan’s The Snow Queen won the Aurora Award for best novel in 2001.

Joan D. Vinge’s telling of the story is a much different beast. It’s got bits and pieces of Hans Christian, but it’s much closer to Frank Herbert’s Dune; in other words, it’s a deep work of science fiction that’s nearly impossible to summarize.

Briefly: on a planet named Tiamat, the Winter Queen has cloned herself to try and perpetuate her power past the ritual sacrifice that marks the beginning of the Summer Queen’s reign. This clone, Moon, has her own thoughts on the matter. Her best friend and sometime lover, Sparks, is ensnared by the Winter Queen, and Moon has to go through many perils to get him back. That’s about as much of Andersen as you’ll find here; the rest is faster-than-light travel, immortality by way of slaughtering indigenous species, the fall of a galactic civilization, and so on. Also, Vinge’s book is for grown-ups, so the love triangle actually involves sex. I would recommend the book, but the title is not as fair an indicator of the contents as in Kernaghan’s case.

Vinge’s The Snow Queen won the Hugo Award in 1981.

Is the practice of retelling old fables and fairy tales out of fashion? I think within the field of science fiction and fantasy it was much more in vogue previously — for example, see a whole series of anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, starting with Snow White, Blood Red in 1993 or some older books by Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley, or Tanith Lee. Recently, not so much. The counter example of course is Gregory Maguire, of Wicked fame, but he seems to be writing out there on his own.

What about the movies? Disney, the company that once made every animated film as an adaptation of an old story, has quit the habit. Even Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (which I was looking forward to) was a bit of a disappointment. Maybe all the good stories were used up for our generation, and the next one will have to do their own thing.

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4 Comments

  1. Bear in mind that the Disney versions of fairytales are bowdlerized: the originals were quite scary.
    Of course you can go back to folktales and use them again: just skip the Disney versions.

  2. Retelling didn’t vanish; it migrated in the direction of the Young Adult shelf. EAST, by Edith Pattou; ELLA ENCHANTED by Gail Carson Levine (but NOT the movie, ugh); SNOW by Tracy Lynn: these are all retellings of classic tales, and extraordinary ones at that.
    Ellen Datlow too, is still editing anthologies of retold tales, but for young adults. WOLF AT THE DOOR and SWAN SISTER are two recent titles, and filled with exquisitely reimagined stories.
    (I’m a bookseller; I could go on about this for ages. And I will, if someone doesn’t shut me up)

  3. James Schellenberg on

    Hey, that’s cool, thanks for the extra info. Which fairy tales are referenced in East and Snow?
    I don’t know as much about Young Adult stuff, but I guess Kernaghan’s version of The Snow Queen is YA as well.
    It seems to me that there is actually a lot going on in young adult right now that I don’t know about… hmm, I might need to investigate!

  4. EAST is another Snow Queen retelling, with shades of Beauty and the Beast. It’s a stunning work, told in dozens of small chapters, each narrated by a different character. Even the bear gets a voice.
    SNOW is Snow White, set it an alternate gaslamp-era London, in which the ‘dwarves’ are genetically altered street kids. It’s part of an ongoing YA series of retold tales, but frankly, most of them are terrible. SNOW is the exception.
    If you’re interested in investigating, drop me a line, and I can put you on to any number of excellent titles.

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