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Fairy Tales for Adults: Rediscovering Magic in Complex Plots

We tend to have fond memories of the fairy tales we are exposed to in our youth—no matter if it was a parent reading them to us, we discovered them as we began to read for ourselves, or fell in love with characters while watching Disney films. Scholars believe that the tales we read before the age of 14 have a profound impact on us (no wonder so many fairy tales have a moral lesson to them!).

As we age out of nursery tales and into adulthood we start to see the patterns in the tales and begin to question the original works (Where is the diversity? Why is marriage the “happily ever after”?). We crave more complex plots and characters. But we don’t have to leave magic behind!

Fairy tale retellings for adults.

Here are 6 fairy tale retellings for an adult audience:

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

  • Fairy tale reference: a number, including Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast

Carter’s book is a staple when looking at fairy tale retellings. In it, she brings back the dark, scary, and violent threads from the original tales the brothers Grimm collected (hear how the brother’s edits made the fairy and folk tales more palatable to children). This collection contains 10 stories of varying lengths that reflect a 20th century setting, sexually liberated women, and female characters as heroes.

The Robber Bride (1993) by Margaret Atwood

  • Fairy tale reference: The Robber Bridegroom (read it online here)

Atwood threads numerous fairy tale elements in her writing, from novels to poetry. At the age of 6 she was given an early edition of the complete Grimms' Fairy Tales with all the gruesome bits and it had a lasting impact on her writing. Just think of the red robes and baskets from Handmaid’s Tale or her short story collection titled Bluebeard’s Egg. This novel is a feminist re-imagining of the Grimm tale The Robber Bridegroom.

Boy, Snow, Bird (2013) Helen Oyeyemi

  • Fairy tale reference: Snow White

Examining relationships between step-mother, step-daughter, and biological daughter, this tale weaves together challenging subject matter such as race and gender. In an interview on the novel, Oyeyemi said: “I wanted to rescue the wicked stepmother. I felt that, especially in Snow White, I think that the evil queen finds it sort of a hassle to be such a villain. It seems a bit much for her, and so I kind of wanted to lift that load a little bit.”

All the Ever Afters (2018) by Danielle Teller

  • Fairy tale reference: Cinderella

This is the untold story of Cinderella’s step-mother (Did you know it was the Grimms who added in step-mothers to their fairy tales?), allowing us to glimpse how the woman was shaped by her experiences. Can we sympathize with Cinderella’s tormentor?

How to Be Eaten (2022) by Maria Adelmann

  • Fairy tale reference: a number, including Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel

Set in the present day, this novel “takes our coziest, most beloved childhood stories, exposes them as anti-feminist nightmares, and transforms them into a new kind of myth for grown-up women.” What more needs to be said?

Rouge (2023) by Mona Awad

  • Fairy tale reference: a number, but primarily Snow White

Awad seamlessly stitches together a number of fairy tales and myths to create Rouge, but it is most reflective of Snow White with the mother’s jealousy of her daughter’s beauty (plus a figure in a mirror!). Find out more about this novel, and the author, by downloading my Book Club Guide on Rouge.

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