Why do we keep telling (and retelling) fairy tales?

WK Banham explores the ancient notion of the fairy tale and our fascination with them.


The Wicked Witch, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; these are characters familiar to most of us because the fairy stories they inhabit keep resurfacing generation after generation. If we consider that ancient myths and legends and Greek fables are their forerunners, then fairy tales have been around, in one form or another, for thousands of years. And maybe we’ve been telling stories like these for even longer.

Once upon a time … long, long ago

We lean forward, eager to hear more. We know that something strange and otherworldly, even magical, is about to happen. Even if it’s a story we know well, we never seem to tire of them, although fairy tales often change in the telling and retelling.

Why this endless fascination with fairy tales? The first versions of what we now think of as the ‘classic’ fairy tales were created in the 1500s and 1600s. In the 1800s there was an explosion in the popularity of fairy tales and versions of older stories were rewritten (and toned down) for children. In modern times, many fairy tales became movies (the first being Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937).

In the past ten years or more, there’s been a resurgence of interest in fairy tales, thanks to movies such as Ella Enchanted, Snow-White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, Into the Woods and Maleficent.  These remind us of stories we heard as children or introduce younger audiences to these timeless tales.

But these stories never really disappear anyway, they just change.  For some time, there has been a quiet retelling of old fairy tales such as Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O Zelinksy (1945), The Nightingale by Kara Dalkey (1988) as well as the creation of new tales such as the collection in Snow White, Blood Red edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (1993), or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1999) or Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (2011).

What is it about fairy tales that keeps us enthralled and leads us beyond telling old stories to retelling them with our own twist or inventing new tales? Author Kate Forsyth, who has published her version of Rapunzel (Bitter Greens), says that fairy tale retellings “…deal with personal transformation – people and creatures change in dramatic and often miraculous ways…  fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of a truth that has been somehow hidden or disguised… Most retellings are aimed at children or young adults.”

However, writing team Jack Heckel (The Charming Tales) think that the recent revival of interest is due to our desire to reclaim these stories from children. Many fairy tales were originally written for adults and only later were rewritten for children. There may be something in Heckel’s theory, especially as many recent retellings are far darker, more adult tales not meant for exclusively for children.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, described fairy tales as part of a storytelling family to which myths (and their close cousins, legends) belong. He thought that these stories draw on universal and timeless themes, and contain symbols and archetypal characters that have a profound relationship to our inner selves, similar to dreams. If that is true then perhaps in fairy tales we see familiar patterns that touch a deep-rooted part of us. It may be why we can all relate to a story about someone who triumphs over an impossible situation (with or without the help of magic) and, in the end, is transformed by the experience to become more than they were in the beginning.

Heckel says that fairy tales are essentially simple stories, “a narrative dreamland in which anything is possible, and in which the why’s and when’s and where’s are left to the imagination of the reader”.  The gaps in narrative and the incompleteness of the fairy story offer endless possibilities for writers to explore.

If fairy tales contain within themselves the essential ingredients of storytelling and offer limitless options then, as a writer, what’s not to love? Fairy tales seem to have a timeless quality that speaks to a deep part of us. Maybe that sums up why we remain fascinated and keep telling and retelling them. As readers, these stories satisfy in a very fundamental sense. And when we read or hear a fairy tale, if we wish, there is space to become part of the story.

And they lived happily ever after.

wk banhamWK Banham grew up in Canada and now lives in Canberra. She writes fiction, primarily short speculative fiction but is expanding her repertoire into literary fiction. She graduated with a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Canberra in 2014. As a young child she was enchanted by fairy tales and myth and later became fascinated with science fiction and fantasy. She has always loved words and the magic of alternate realities that they conjure in the mind.

One thought on “Why do we keep telling (and retelling) fairy tales?

  1. Pingback: What is writing for? | Felicity Banks

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