Writing Lesson: Retelling Fairy Tales

by Carolyn Turgeon

As an esteemed author of fairy tale retellings, I have the monumental and sometimes soul-wrenching task of deciding which details to pick from the myriad versions of any given story, and which details to leave out altogether. I have taken on Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, swan maidens, Rapunzel and Snow White, usually focusing on cruelly-maligned-by-history minor characters — and agonized over many impossible choices. But no decision has been harder than what the evil queen from Snow White should eat. Or, more accurately, what part of Snow White she should eat. For dinner.

In the original Grimm version of the story, the evil queen was the girl’s mother rather than stepmother, which made the tale that much more abominable and awesome. Either way, she asks the huntsman to bring back her (step)daughter’s lungs and liver. The huntsman takes pity on Snow White (because she’s “so beautiful” — even though Snow White’s totally crying and begging him for her life, not to mention she is SEVEN YEARS OLD), thinking lovingly to himself, “The wild animals will soon devour her anyway. I’m glad that I don’t have to kill her.” And then he magnanimously brings back the lungs and liver of a boar, which the stepmother cooks up with salt.

In a Scottish version of the tale, the enraged hot-but-not-as-hot-as-you-know-who mother asks for the heart and liver of her daughter. She asks her husband, the king, for said organs, and he’s all “Oh! indeed there is nothing at all which I could do for you that I would not do.” But then he pops open a beer and sends out his “lads” for the heart and liver of a goat, which he feeds to her instead. She eats this feast and “rose well and healthy.”

In an exceptionally weird Italian version, a girl jumps over a rose, eats a leaf, and magically gives birth to a daughter who is then cursed by a disgruntled, foul-mouthed fairy. The daughter is gorgeous but dies when a comb is left in her hair. Naturally, the distraught mother locks her in many crystal chests, and then the mother dies. Her brother marries and his evil new wife is super jealous of the dead girl in crystal (because everyone knows that a hot dead girl is better than an ugly living one) and so the wife pulls the girl’s hair, which makes the comb fall out and the girl come back to life. And then: “embittered as a slave, and an-angered as a bitch keeping watch on her young, and with poison full as an asp, she at once cut off the damsel’s hair, and gave her a good drubbing, and arrayed her in rags… and made her mouth to bleed just as if she had eaten raw pigeons.”

In the Disney version of Snow White, the more glam, bling-loving stepmother asks for Snow White’s heart in a jeweled box, and the huntsman is way too wussy and brings back a pig’s heart instead. In Snow White and the Huntsman, Charlize Theron also asks for Snow White’s heart (except she pronounces it “haht” because she’s extra evil and from South Africa) and promises to revive the hot huntsman’s dead wife if he complies, but then he forgets the dead wife and falls in love with Snow White, who is a vampire.

There’s a Spanish version of the story in which the stepmother asks for Snow White’s toe, which she uses to stop a bottle of red wine. In other versions, she asks for Snow White’s blood-soaked shirt, intestines, eyeballs, hair and/ or tongue. Sometimes the huntsman brings back a stag’s or (if he’s especially horrible) a dog’s heart.

You can see the panoply of choices that lay before me. I weighed all of my options carefully. I searched through dusty tomes and Google and things I heard once somewhere. I considered throwing everything to hell and having my stepmother just roast her whole body, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover style, or pulling a Hannibal Lecter and going full gourmand. I thought about ditching writing altogether and pitching a new show to the Food Network. And then I found the answer.

You can read my final scene here:

The torches flickered in my dark room, casting monstrous shadows on the wall. I locked the door and slipped out of my dress. I took her heart in my hands, and focused until I could feel her life’s force emanating from it, into me.

I almost loved her then, the way I had when she was a child.

I took her heart and placed it over the fire. I brought my bloody hands to my face as I watched her heart cook, as the smell of meat drifted through the room. I moved my palms down my face, my neck, my breasts, my torso, whispering a spell to take her youth and fertility inside me, to meld her heart with my own.

I thought of the day he first climbed my hair and created a child with me in the tower. The feel of that child kicking in my womb, the boy who should have been king.

“My child, my son,” I whispered, with tears running down my face.

I took her heart from the fire, letting it burn my hands as if it really had turned to flame.

And then I ate it.

Illustrations via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously: How to Make Krupnik, an Old-Timey Polish Honey-Spice Cordial

Carolyn Turgeon is the author of five novels, including Mermaid and The Fairest of Them All. She also runs the mermaid blog iamamermaid.com.