Heading into Valentine Week!


LAST YEAR: fantasy based on fairytales from around the world.

THIS YEAR: three books each from two beloved fairytales, RAPUNZEL and CINDERELLA

FAIRY TALE: This term is confusing. Frequently, tales we call “fairy tales” don’t involve fairies at all, and the books I pick for this Valentine feature may or may not include fairies–fae–the fair folk–whatever you call them. Besides, fae fantasy is a subgenre all its own. As I use the term here, “fairy tale” is a synonym for “folk tale,” stories from anonymous tellers of tales, passed around orally, often for centuries, before they are written down. I should mention two cautions: except in passing, I won’t deal with Disney re-tellings. Also, some of the stories we think of as “fairy tales” aren’t fairy tales (folk tales) at all, but are works of literature crafted by individual authors, communicated to their readers for the first time in writing. Examples of these: Alice in Wonderland. Peter Pan. Pinocchio. The Wizard of Oz. These aren’t fairy tales, although they were written to resemble fairy tales. They’ve just entered the popular imagination and have been re-told so often, in so many different ways, that they’ve reached the status of fairy tales.

FAIRYTALE FANTASY: Contemporary re-tellings of fairy tales (folktales), maybe in combination with other fantasy tropes.


The first three books I’ll discuss during Valentine Week are re-tellings of the popular tale about the girl imprisoned in a tower who must let down her long hair for a witch (and later, a prince) to climb up.

First, a little background. Rapunzel is an interesting hybrid. Its main motif (most recognizable trope) is “the maiden in the tower,” which the Aarne/Thompson folklore index identifies as “Type 310.” This motif has been found in folklore worldwide. It’s part of the story of St. Barbara, as imagined by the medieval French writer Jacobus de Voraigne. His collection of saints’ tales, which became popularly known as The Golden Legend, enjoyed a huge readership throughout 13th century Europe. Here it is, translated into fifteenth century English in the famous early English printer William Caxton’s version of The Golden Legend. An even earlier tale, a very important Persian 10th century text, contains many of the same story elements, especially the idea of using a woman’s long hair like a ladder.

In the form we usually know it, though, the tale actually comes from two literary sources, one Italian, one French. So the tale itself is not actually a folktale (fairy tale) in spite of its use of folklore motifs and the story of St. Barbara. Confusingly, the Brothers Grimm, German collectors of folktales and the source of many tales we think of as fairy tales, “collected” it as if it were a piece of folklore. It’s not.

In 1632, Giambattista Basile published Petrosinilla (“Little Parsley”). This is the first version that tells the tale we know so well, with a few differences: a wife with pregnancy cravings (not the father) steals a plant from the garden of a witch and has to promise her unborn baby to the witch. The witch imprisons the child in a tower, a prince finds her there, and they escape together. The “escape” part involving magical objects really is drawn from several folk sources, so although Petrosinilla is a “literary” fairy tale, it does have folkloric elements. In 1637, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a French noblewoman, published her own version, Persinette. Here‘s a blog that recounts the tale–the title of the post claims it’s the text of the tale, but the blog post suggests it’s the blogger’s retelling. The de Caumont de la Force version is much closer to the one we know, especially since it is the version the Grimm Brothers put in their collection. A German 19th century translation changed “Little Parsely’s” name to Rapunzel, and included its most famous line: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” The Grimm Brothers took it from there. You can refresh your memory of the classic (to us) Grimm Brothers version by reading it HERE.

In popular culture: many, many fairytale retellings for children include Rapunzel.

Grimm's Fairytale collection
Here’s an example.

Of course it has also gotten the Disney treatment in Tangled.

Here are the three (very VERY different!) Rapunzel retellings I will review this year. There’s something for everyone in this list, and I do mean everyone. Warning: Don’t just send a child to read these three, or not before you investigate, either on your own or through my blog posts. Only one of these is kid-friendly.

Megan Morrison’s Grounded

Measha Stone’s Tower

Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens


The next three books I’ll discuss in this Fairytale Fantasy Week series of blog posts is the fairy tale most familiar of all to most readers (American readers, anyhow). Yet it, like Rapunzel, is more of a literary fairy tale than a folk tale. Unlike Rapunzel, though, Cinderella has many more folklore precedents.

Here’s a recap from last year’s series of blog posts. I discussed another Cinderella retelling, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, last year. It’s a wonderful novel, a great historical novel about the famous Netherlands “tulip bubble” that the author gave a Cinderella twist, so I’ll send it a quick shout-out, even though I’ll be discussing different Cinderella retellings this year.

Here’s what I said last year about Cinderella’s folklore, literary, and pop culture underpinnings:

Cinderella, as most American readers know it, has filtered through to them through (shhh. . . Walt Disney’s animated movie version from 1950) a number of English language versions. The real ancestor of the English-speaking world’s Cinderella, though, is Charles Perrault’s French version of the story from 1697, Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper). Through the Perrault version, the story acquired the pumpkin coach, the fairy godmother, and especially that glass slipper. (Why doesn’t the glass slipper break and cut Cinderella’s foot? It’s magic! It’s fiction! Don’t ask!) You can read a translation of the Perrault version HERE.

But the story is truly ancient. Scholars have traced it back to ancient Greece and the tale of Rhodopis (“Rosy-cheeks”). Think only scholars know that one? Nope. It makes an appearance in the MMORPG Everquest II as one of the sillier quests in the Rise of Kunark expansion pack. Among others, there’s an Italian version, a German version (the Brothers Grimm collected that one, Aschenputtel), and a number of Asian versions. A lot of versions, a lot of variations on the story and its details. Folklorists classify it as Aarne–Thompson–Uther type 510A, ” The Persecuted Heroine.”

Whatever its true origins, the tale really resonates for generations of young women, especially those who long to become a “Disney princess.” The implications of this longing were explored most famously by the feminist theorist Colette Dowling, in The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence (Summit Books, 1981). The book discusses the Cinderella fairy tale as the template for contemporary women’s longing to be swept off their feet by some powerful male and taken care of.

Here are the Cinderella retellings I’ll blog about this year:

The three (again, as in the Rapunzel books, very different) Cinderella retellings:

JJA Harwood’s The Shadow in the Glass

Laura Wood’s A Single Thread of Moonlight

L. Philips’s Sometime After Midnight


Look for my discussion of Megan Morrison’s Grounded next.

6 thoughts on “Heading into Valentine Week!

  1. Pingback: Valentine Week: Fairytale Fantasy, #1 – Fantastes

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