Once upon a time, there was a woman who told stories. Stories of witches and of princesses and of choosing true love. Stories that began once upon a time, and ended in happily ever after. You think you know what these stories are, and oh, perhaps you do. But until this woman, until Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, the stories were not yet called what they are now. But she wrote these stories, and she gave them their name—contes des fées. Fairy tales.
To name a thing is to have power over that thing. We learn that in fairy tales.
I grew up on fairy tales, like many of us do. Cinderella at the ball; Red Riding Hood trusting a wolf and walking too deep in the woods; Beauty, handed over to a Beast for the price of a rose. And then, midnight struck. I turned away from them. I was too grown up for such things, and I knew I would never be a princess.
Women and stories and power are deeply entwined with the literary fairy tale (and by literary, please know that I am not opining about quality, or where the collected volumes ought to be shelved, but rather borrowing a term of art from the scholar Jack Zipes, who uses the term to distinguish the written-down versions of fairy tales from their oral and folkloric roots). There is a power in taking a story and making it your own, whether by naming it, or by taking its elements and subverting them, turning them inside out so that the seams—and the seems—of the story show, and then putting them back together. Maybe the pieces don’t fit, not exactly. Maybe the princess is now a witch.
Maybe that’s exactly how things should be.
I can tell you how I came back to fairy tales. I read Jane Yolen’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose, and it broke my heart, and it cracked open my head. There was a list, somewhere in the book, of other books I should read. And so I set about devouring the anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I wish I could remember which one I read first, but I suppose it doesn’t matter, because eventually I read them all. I am still reading them.
The literary fairy tale, which arose as a distinct genre in the salons of d’Aulnoy and her compatriots in France at the end of the seventeenth century, has always been part of the literature of subversion, a genre of protest. The writers of these stories were generally people on the edge of the court, who were writing as a way to seek social advancement—Cinderellas, each attempting to be their own fairy godmothers. The Comtesse de Murat was denounced by her family for unruly behavior and lesbianism, and was exiled by King Louis XIV for satirizing his relationship with his mistress, Madame de Maintenon. Madame d’Aulnoy was married by abduction (with the consent of her father, who sold her to her kidnapper), and then fled France due to scandal. She turned to writing (and possibly espionage) to support herself, and continued writing even after she was able to return to France. Even Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, who was a salonierre by inheritance, was not in a privileged position. Like all these women who wrote and shared their fairy tales in the salons, she was watched by the court at Versailles, tabs kept on her activities and especially on her words. And the salon conversation itself—with its ideals of gender equality in conversation and intellect—was by its nature socially subversive.
Even the aspect of fairy tales that might now seem conventional, too heteronormative, and too problematic for women who have no desire to be saved by a prince and then set up in his castle—the happy ever after, the romantic ending of true love’s kiss and the subsequent marriage—was its own kind of subversion. Love freely chosen, rather than love decreed by a forced marriage.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be the princess in the fairy tale. Not because I necessarily wanted the prince—he was secondary at best. Even then, I stopped being interested in the Beast when he turned from the gorgeous leonine roar of a beast into the pale, blond, ordinary prince. I wasn’t interested in ordinary. What I wanted was to be the foot that fit the glass slipper, the girl who would wake, still living, and rise out of her coffin of glass. The girl at the heart of the story.
Though men were active in this salon culture as well, the movement, and the genre, was led by women, and it was a movement that shared many of the ideals of modern feminism, including the idea that women’s writing was equal to men’s. Fairy tales were ways for women to write their own stories—to be the princess, yes. But to also be the fairy godmother, to be the witch, to be the old woman in the forest who would get you safely out of the story for the price of a kindness.
Now that I am grown up, I want to be the woman who writes the fairy tales. Because, like the women in those French literary salons, like Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter and Catherynne M. Valente, I have learned that behind the pen is where the power is. That power is with the witch, with her life hidden outside herself, to be the wise woman who knows what cup not to drink from, and who will tell you, but only if you deserve to know. That power is with the woman who tells the story, who changes the shape of things. Magic words.
I do not want to be the princess anymore. I want to be the witch.
Even in the modern day, women writers have continued to engage with the literary fairy tale, have continued to pick up these stories, and pull them apart. To use them in the same way as their earlier writers did—to observe society from its edges and use magic and wonder and strangeness to critique the pieces of it that try to define what happily ever after is, and who deserves the chance at one.
Perhaps because subversion has been built into the literary fairy tale from the beginning, it is a pattern that has been born into the fairy tale again and again. Women writers in particular take the stories and say, if you make us a princess, you will discover that we are witches. We can dance in glass slippers, true, but we can also wear out iron shoes walking to get what we want. We may well wear red, but we do so to show the wolves that they should be afraid to walk into the woods with us.
We remember that happily ever after is where the story begins.
And we are still writing.
Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Noonday, 1994.
Wonder Tales: Six Stories of Enchantment. Marina Warner, ed. Gilbert Adair, John Ashbery, Ranjit Bolt, A.S. Byatt, and Terence Cave, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.
Zipes, Jack. When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1999.