Why We're Falling For Contemporary Fairy Tales
It wasn’t until I slid my copy of What Should be Wild by Julia Fine onto my bookshelf that I realized all my recent reads had something in common. Over the summer, almost every book that I have been absorbed in features a young, strong female protagonist, dream-like language and mystical, otherworldly elements. In short, my childhood obsession with fairy tales seems to have been reignited. But why does there suddenly seem to be an abundance of contemporary fairy tales in popular fiction? And how have their female characters evolved from our childhood favorites?
I’ve always loved magical realism, and there are always novels around that fit into this genre, but this summer seems particularly rife with fairy tale worlds. The Hazel Wood and The Wicked Deep have both been picked up for movie adaptations and Louise O’Neill’s long-awaited reimagining of The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks, was finally released. I’ve always been content to slip away into imaginary worlds, and it seems like more and more people are discovering the allure.
Although I do occasionally pick up one of my childhood favorite books, there is a self-conscious feeling that we don’t want others to spy us reading "children’s books." These new releases, some aimed at young adults but accessible for all thanks to their beautifully designed covers, offer the same escapes but with the kudos of carrying a "must-read" tome. Inside, they offer the same escapism as our childhood stories: the same tropes, just new characters.
There is a difference, though. These new stories are for grown-ups, not for children. There is real danger, abuse, death and sex mixed in with the fairy worlds. Yes, these tales of strange creatures, eternal life and mythical lands offer escapism from the doldrums and uncertainty of everyday life, but various aspects of reality leak through. Girls are held captive, they have no control over their bodies and have everyday issues about their relationships and appearance. When reading What Should be Wild, there were many scenes that I found hard to read; Disney stories, these are not.
Typically, fairy tales are fables, sending hidden messages or subtly referencing issues of their time. Don’t judge someone by their appearance, be careful what you wish for, be kind to others – all messages that we have learnt through stories. They can also be pure escapism, offering fairy tale endings, imaginary creatures and storylines that you know will end on a positive note. In the past, fairy tales and folk stories have sprung out of troubled times for both of these reasons. Now, in an age when we are scared of terrorism, right-wing governments and climate change, perhaps we need happy endings to keep us preoccupied from reality.
It’s no coincidence that most of these protagonists are women, many of which are strong in their own right as opposed to the meek princesses of the past that seemed to always need rescuing by men. Maisie in What Should be Wild may not have much of an understanding of the modern world, but she saves herself from a harrowing situation and ultimately rescues the man that she loves, rather than the other way round. It’s also refreshing to pick up a book like The Hazel Wood, where the protagonist, Alice, doesn’t fall in love with the main male character. They’re just friends, and that’s fine.
These contemporary fairy tales give us strong female leads that we identify with, and we subsequently care about them as individuals, rather than simply shipping a romantic relationship. They’re not bland yet beautiful young women whose only desire is to find a man. They have real depth; this is why we want them to succeed in their stories.
The popularity of tales of dystopian futures also strengthens our desire for escapism. Once you’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s refreshing to sit down and devour a book set in a fantasy land when a female protagonist is in control of a situation. Yes, things go wrong, there are twists and turns, and occasionally a man may be there to assist, but sometimes you need to read about an enchanted wood instead of a prison state.
As long as the world is a scary place and as long as we feel the need to escape reality for a few stolen moments, fairy tales will have their moment. After all, the anxiety of wondering how a plot will unfold is much more manageable than that of negotiating your everyday life.
Emma Lavelle is a freelance travel & lifestyle writer. You can find her at over at Field and Nest, an online journal dedicated to embracing a slower pace of life.