I’m always thrilled to discover a novelized version of a favorite childhood fairytale.
There’s a reason why these myths have been passed down through the centuries. They touch on some of the deepest meanings of what it is to be human. They celebrate the virtues of perseverance, kindness, courage, and faithful love. Still, fairytale collectors such as the Grimm brothers or Charles Perrault often recorded these tales in a summarized, simplified way. When I read their versions, I’m often left with unanswered questions, wishing for more detail.
There’s something magical that happens when an author takes the skeletal framework of an ancient tale, fleshes out its characters, and makes its faraway world come to life. Here are three recent novels that have done just that.
A Tale with a Twist
What if the sleeping beauty never woke up? That’s the premise of Liz Braswell’s Once Upon A Dream. It’s the second installment of her Twisted Tale series, which reimagines the Disney versions of classic fairytales. (See here for my review of her Beauty and the Beast novelization, As Old As Time). Because this series is published by Disney/Hyperion, Braswell is free to use character names and details from the 1959 film version, right down to the tippets on Princess Aurora’s royal gown.
However, she takes the story’s end in a very different direction. When Prince Philip gives Aurora true love’s kiss, he is unexpectedly pulled right into the princess’ dream. As it turns out, the evil Maleficent hedged her bets by linking her own life to Aurora’s through the spindle’s blood. Now, with every hour that the princess sleeps, Maleficent grows stronger, feeding off the blood of slumbering castle courtiers. If Aurora cannot defeat the dream-Maleficent before the close of her sixteenth birthday, she will truly die, and Maleficent will return to life, reincarnated as Aurora.
Inside the enchanted dream, Aurora gradually becomes aware of her predicament. Aided by Philip, she must uncover the workings of Maleficent’s plan and discover a way to stop the evil sorceress. Together, the prince and princess travel through the layers of Aurora’s dream, seeking escape. But Maleficent has entrenched herself deep within Aurora’s mind–and time is running out.
Throughout the book, Braswell does an excellent job of maintaining suspense. The story feels like a dream, with lots of unexpected twists and turns, colorful side characters, and vivid details within a loosely-sketched context. The layers of Aurora’s journey reminded me of the 2010 movie Inception, as well as Freudian psychology (castle=superego; forest=ego; cottage=id).
The lead characters, however, often left me frustrated. In the 1959 movie, Aurora does seem a bit fragile and prettified: a hallmark “damsel in distress.” But in seeking to add more weight to her character, Braswell tends toward distress of a different kind. Aurora struggles with depression, and is so full of angst and self-consumed introspection that it’s difficult to truly like her, even if we may sympathize with her situation. Philip, on the other hand, comes off as unflappably cheerful. Although infatuated with Aurora and deeply loyal, he feels more like an encouraging sidekick along for the ride–not the bold, determined hero of the classic film who battles a dragon with “the sword of truth.” Still, Aurora and Philip do reach a level of greater maturity by story’s end, and mystery-loving readers will enjoy trying to “outwit” Maleficent.
An Epic Journey
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George, is a novelization of the old Norse tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon. The original myth, which bears similarities to the French story of Beauty and the Beast, and the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, was one of my childhood favorites. For years, I’ve thought it would make a wonderful novel. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one!
Sun and Moon tells the story of a young woman who has given a brave promise in order to rescue her impoverished family: she will live for one year in a palace of ice, as the companion of an enormous white bear. The girl soon discovers that the bear is more than he seems to be, and suspects that there is troll-trickery afoot. Her efforts to break the curse laid on the palace and its inhabitants result in an epic journey to the troll kingdom “east of the sun and west of the moon”. She must use all her ingenuity–and a few ordinary household objects–in order to defeat her enemies and rescue those she loves.
My favorite aspect of Sun and Moon is its real sense of place. It is rich in Norse language, culture and customs. The heroine is courageous and clever. Cinderella-like, she always seeks the good of those around her, even when they treat her with coolness and misunderstanding. However, I found myself wishing that George had more thoroughly developed the romance between the hero and heroine (we don’t learn their real names until close to the end). Even as she travels to the ends of the earth to save him, the girl wonders if she actually loves this man, or merely feels responsible for his plight. Her sisterly love for her eldest brother, Hans Peter, feels much more believable.
In fact, it is the secondary characters in this story who really jump off the page: the self-serving brother Askeladden; the kind and sorrowful Hans Peter, who carries terrible memories and secrets inside; or the vain and ridiculous troll princess, who both emulates humans and despises them. The other magical creatures in the ice palace–a very Tumnus-like faun, two salamanders, a French gargoyle and an Irish selkie–are also inventively described. But it’s in depicting the strange, fantastic elements of the original legend–the ice palace, the trolls, the Four Winds, and the Three Ancient Ones–that George is at her creative best.
A Breathtaking Journal
Book of a Thousand Days, by Newberry Honor winner Shannon Hale, is another novelized fairytale set in a distinctive real-world culture. It is loosely based on the Grimm brothers’ tale Maid Maleen. This version, however, takes place in medieval Mongolia, with the waiting-maid as the heroine. The story is told as a riveting series of journal entries, narrated and illustrated by the handmaid Dashti.
When shy Lady Saren refuses her father’s demand that she marry the evil Lord Khasar, her enraged father imprisons her in a windowless tower, along with her waiting-maid. Dashti is an orphaned mucker girl–the very lowest social class–but her resolve, optimism, and gifts of healing soon mean the difference between life and death for the two young women. Dashti is determined to break free of the tower and deliver Lady Saren to Khan Tegus, the kind young ruler of the neighboring kingdom, whom Lady Saren claims is her true betrothed. But in order to accomplish her mission, Dashti must face many obstacles: prejudice against her social station, Lady Saren’s strange fearfulness and despondency, the cunning of various nobles, the despicable Lord Khasar, and her own heart–which, despite her best efforts, is secretly in love with Khan Tegus.
I loved the unusual setting of Book of a Thousand Days: Shannon Hale breathes life into ancient Mongolia, stirring all the senses with her descriptions of the windy steppes, exotic foods, spice-scented chambers and shaggy yaks. Her characters are wonderfully complex, as well: imperfect human beings, full of layered emotions and mixed motives. The central romance unfolds very gently, over time. The level of suspense builds gradually, too, from its meandering beginning to a storm of knife-edged drama.
And Dashti has one of the most original voices of any fairytale heroine I’ve read. In so many young adult fantasies, the protagonists act and speak like 21st-century American teenagers, plopped in the middle of some other world. But Dashti feels thoroughly genuine, completely at home in her world of mucker songs, Mongolian legends, and ancestral honor. This is a novel I’ll definitely be reading again.
What are some of your favorite fairytales? Do you have any novelized versions to recommend?