Stories are powerful things. Beyond their obvious entertainment value, good stories move us to feel and act. The best stories additionally have staying power; they are much too loved to disappear behind the curtains of history. Classic fairy tales and myths have persisted for so long because they are excellent stories. They teach us the perils of our ways and they warn us to stay on an enlightened path.
Fairy tales and myths persist through the ages because they are retold often. Before I was a grumpy old man who liked reading speculative fiction, I was a grumpy little kid who was introduced to fantastic ideas through fairy tales. I loved them for their entertainment value, and a little later, enjoyed their deeper messages. But that admiration quickly faded because, let's face it, some stories become outdated.
But again, some stories have staying power. One of the ways in which they get that power is through updated retellings. Here's a small handful of fairy tales and myths that have recently been re-imagined for modern audiences…
The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue
In classic Greek mythology, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is one of love and loss. Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope, was a gifted lyre musician whose music would move people to tears. Orpheus meets and falls in love with the beautiful Eurydice, and the two become married. However, shortly after the god of marriage ceremonies predicts that their love will not last forever, another man expresses his interest in Eurydice and chases her in the forest, where she is killed by a snake. Seeing his son filled with sorrow, Apollo suggests that Orpheus descend into the realm of Hades to reclaim his lost love. There, Hades offers Orpheus a deal to get Eurydice back.
As Greek myths go, this is a good one, even if the godly setting is a bit dated. A more up-to-date retelling of this myth is Keith Donohue's The Motion of Puppets. The couple-in-love are Kay and her husband Theo. Kay has become smitten with a doll that sits in the window of a toy shop that's never open to the public. One night, when she is being followed home, she sees a light on in that toy store and takes refuge there. The next morning, Theo wakes up to find his wife missing. Desperate to find his lost love, Theo frantically searches the streets of the Old City of Québec while the police treat him as the main suspect in her disappearance. Meanwhile, Kay has been transformed into a living puppet who, along with an odd assemblage of puppets from all over the world, comes alive between the hours of midnight and dawn in the back room of the enigmatic toy store. The only way she can return to the human world as her true self is if Theo can find her and recognize her in her new form.
Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
The Russian fairy tale "Vasilisa the Beautiful" is about the daughter of a merchant who receives a doll from her mother on her deathbed. She is told to feed the doll in times of need and the doll will help her. Vasilisa's father re-marries (cue wicked stepmother) and the doll helps Vasilisa deal with her mean stepmother and her two new older stepsisters. When the merchant embarks on a journey, the stepmother sells the house and moves the family into a hut near the woods. They lose their artificial light when all the candles are distinguished. Vasilisa is sent into the woods to fetch a light from Baba Yaga, the old woman with supernatural powers who lives nearby. Vasilisa finds her, but Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa numerous tasks to complete first. Eventually she does, and she returns to her still-dark home with a skull-lantern full of burning coals, which turns her step family into ashes.
Dark indeed! But no less so than the modern-day retelling that is Sarah Porter's Vassa in the Night. Taking place in "the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn," young Vassa lives in a working-class neighborhood with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters. When the stepsisters send Vassa out for light bulbs in the middle of night, Vassa finds herself at the convenience store run by Baba Yaga, the mysteriously scary woman who seems to hold a curse over the city. Vassa thinks she can complete her task without incident, though, for she carries with her a tough-talking wooden doll named Erg, which was a gift from her dying mother. Can Vassa break the curse that befell the city, or is Baba Yaga too cunning?
The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe
Can't decide on which modernized fairy tale you want retold? Try a bunch! The Starlit Wood is a new fairy-tale-themed fantasy anthology that offers a broad selection of eighteen stories from authors all over the world. Catherynne M. Valente's entry, "Badgirl, the Deadman, and The Wheel of Fortune," for example, is a disturbing tale about an inner-city child inspired by "The Girl with No Hands". Naomi Novik tackles anti-Semitism in "Spinning Silver," a new take on "Rumplestiltzkin". Little Red Riding Hood journeys across the desert on horseback in Seanan McGuire's retelling "In the Desert Like a Bone". In Daryl Gregory's "Even the Crumbs Were Delicious," our old friends Hansel and Gretel are modern-day teenagers who trip out on hallucinogenic wallpaper. Other contributors to this imaginative anthology include Charlie Jane Anders, Aliette de Bodard, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeffrey Ford, Max Gladstone, Theodora Goss, Garth Nix, Karin Tidbeck, and Genevieve Valentine.