Once Upon A Time… in Retellings

We have been telling the same stories for centuries and, in certain cases, even millennia. Some tales were passed on through oral traditions long before humanity became literate. There is the long-established custom of intertextuality in the literary world in which writers adapt tales from centuries past to reflect their contemporary society.

And this method is by no means one of days past. One of the most anticipated fantasy books of 2020, Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights, transports Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, to Shanghai in the 1920s; while Ibi Zoboi’s brilliant Pride (2020) showcases (with absolute finesse and wit) what challenges Jane Austen’s characters would have faced if Pride and Prejudice was set in a modern Black community in New York. But what draws writers and readers alike to retellings of well-loved tales?

A fitting example is The Lunar Chronicles (2012) by Marissa Meyer, which consists of four fairy-tale retellings. In a futuristic setting, the reader follows the reimagined Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White through time and space into a different world.

European fairy-tales follow a strict narrative pattern, and almost always provide a lesson at the end of the tale. Often, they centre around the struggles of growing up and reflect anxieties of the contemporary youth, such as finding a suitable match and leaving the parental home. With Meyer bringing these stories to the future, she contemplates modern society’s struggles through the lens of a fictional setting. When fictitious characters are discriminated against for being part-cyborg, it is hard not to think of ableism. A failing judicial system that disfavours certain groups based on their appearance is a clear mirror image of our modern-day issues.

The stories within The Lunar Chronicles, like many other retellings, address contemporary issues through the familiar context of the stories most have grown up with, and highlights the importance of time and setting in literature.

By Fine Mayer.