An explosion of very successful “re-imagined” fairy tales have hit the market in recent years, mainly as films. So there’s no reason why you can’t find some great nuggets of inspiration yourself in your childhood favourites.
Fantasy writing could be renamed the “What if?” genre. What if a man could fly? What if my house could fly? What if my wardrobe was a portal to another world? But the same question can be applied to fantasy stories that already exist and this is where you get the re-imagined tales we’ve seen a lot of over the past 15 years or so. What if the ogre was the good guy? What if Sleeping Beauty’s dad was the bad guy? What if Snow White was caught in a Bollywood dance sequence? It allows an old favourite to be revisited and enjoyed in a completely new way.
But there’s nothing to say you can’t take a tiny kernel from an old fairy tale and make it grow into something completely new. For example, Disney’s “Frozen” is very very loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “Snow Queen”. They’ve taken the concept of a “frozen heart” and spun it in a completely different direction. There’s still a young girl trying to save her loved one (and getting plenty of unusual help along the way) but instead of it being the little boy next door it’s the Snow Queen herself. I personally think the original Snow Queen would have made a terrific film… but it’s quite dark and that’s why a lot of the old fairy stories end up being Disney-fied into an all-singing, all-dancing, happily ever after extravaganza to attract a much younger audience. So the Little Mermaid lives; there are no envious sisters to turn to stone in Beauty and the Beast; the evil queen doesn’t eat the liver and heart she believes are Snow White’s; and the step-sisters don’t cut bits off their feet to fit them into Cinderella’s slipper.
However, the type of fantasy stories I prefer to write are for an older audience and a little darkness is expected. I recommend getting your hands on the direct translation of Hans Christian Anderson’s original stories. You may remember the poignant tales of The Little Match Girl, The Ugly Duckling or The Little Mermaid, but have you come across The Travelling Companion, The Ice Maiden, The Wild Swans or The Shadow? These really aren’t stories for telling your little ones at night. But they have some fantastic concepts in them that may spark new ideas for you. Now, I am definitely not talking about plagiarising, it’s more about finding something in the old story that rings a note with you and helps you to bring something new to life in your own writing. For example, in The Travelling Companion a young man saves the dead body of a stranger from being harmed by two thugs and ends up receiving extraordinary assistance from the dead man’s spirit without knowing, and because of it he makes his fortune. There is an ogre that likes to eat eyeballs, a garden of bones, an enchanted princess who enjoys killing young men, use of a dead swan’s wings to fly, a throne cushioned with live mice, a cream that mends bones and brings puppets to life… it’s stuffed full of amazing ideas. The man was a legendary story teller with due cause and I’m convinced he was writing to a very broad audience, not only children. But what if you take just a tiny element of an idea, like the frozen heart or the mice covered throne, and go off on a completely different thread – then the story is your own.
The prolific fairy tales of the Grimm brothers are also fantastic inspiration and there is plenty of darkness to be found in them as well. A lot of their work has been sanitised over the years to the point that it barely resembles their original story. Little Red-Cap (i.e. their version of Little Red Riding Hood) is one example. I was reading my youngest this story from a recent publication and no one gets eaten, no one dies and the wolf escapes happy that he’s learned his lesson. In the Grimm version both granny and Red-cap get eaten, the sleeping wolf is snipped open by a huntsman passing by, granny and Red-cap are OK but the wolf has stones sown into his stomach by the hunter and dies. Hmmm, I think the newer version has lost its edge. But again, get hold of the original translation of their work and you’ll find some amazing ideas. Try The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince and Rumpelstiltskin, for a start. Their version of Cinderella is also quite startling as it is Cinderella herself performing all the magic – there is no fairy godmother.
Charles Perrault is probably one of the most famous fairy tale writers, as he was one of the first to take old stories passed down by word of mouth for generations and finally put pen to paper. The Grimm brothers did the same in Germany (often with local versions of the same stories) and there have been many others. So the origins of fairy tales are much deeper than the past two to three centuries. Even Cinderella is believed to go back a couple of thousand years. It’s worth trying to dig into the older fairy tales as they come from a time when people did want to frighten their children for moral or practical reasons . “Don’t go into the woods or the goblins will eat you,” were considered to be real fears at the time and all these nasty step-mothers originate from a time when death during childbirth was much higher than today. As for attaining extraordinary riches by being rather clever or pretty… well this is a timeless theme that resonates with people today, but such stories originate from a time when there was a much greater divide between the number of people who were poor and those who were wealthy.
So dig into the kids’ bookshelves with an open mind. There’s more there to kick off your fantasy writing than you might think.
A couple of web sites to try: