Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Disenchanting the Fairy Tale: Retellings of "Snow White" between Magic and Realism

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Disenchanting the Fairy Tale: Retellings of "Snow White" between Magic and Realism

Article excerpt

Traditional fairy tales, as we know them from the collections of Charles Perrault, the Grimm Brothers, and Andrew Lang, consist of a mixture of magical and realistic elements. As the fairy tale is recycled in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, many of the traditional stories are adapted to current literary models. The novel, as one of the dominant literary genres, becomes the model to which the fairy tale is frequently assimilated, especially when adolescents or adults are the intended audience. The influence of realistic literature and magic realism is perceptible in fairy-tale retellings for all ages. Magic is one of the typical fairy-tale features that disappear or take on new guises in late twentieth-century retellings, inconsistencies are resolved, historical contextualization, and character description increase. A decline of the magical is perceptible, but the supernatural does not disappear completely. Authors exploit the coincidence as an ambiguous space between magic and realism, or make ample use of stylistic and narrative devices such as metaphors, similes, or unreliable narrators to give a new dimension to elements that formerly belonged unambiguously to the realm of the supernatural.

Questioning the realistic nature of fairy-tale elements seems to miss the point of the genre. That is because when we read fairy tales we enter what Anne Wilson calls "magical thought," a magic mode: "Magical thought is the level of thought we all engage in when we are not making the effort to think rationally and imaginatively so as to deal effectively with the external world. It is effortless, spontaneous and solipsistic, wholly free from the laws and realities of the external world" (139). The very phrase "once upon a time" signals to readers that they are entering a different world, a world where criteria of realism are irrelevant: "The absurdities in so many of our stories do not worry adults any more than they worry children" (138). However, many authors who reinterpret fairy tales in contemporary retellings consciously depart from this magical thought and confront well-known fairy-tale material with a more realistic setting. They thus set up a literary play with the reader's expectations of magic and realism, making the question of what is real and what is not very relevant. This article seeks to offer an introduction on how contemporary authors, such as Regina Doman, Emma Donoghue, Adèle Geras, Tracy Lynn, Róisín Sheerin, and the Flemish writer Tom Naegels, as well as illustrators such as Fiona French and Trina Schart Hyman, interpret and reinterpret magical features in their retellings of the tale of "Snow White." To conclude, I will offer three hypotheses on why the fairy tale is subject to a process of disenchantment in some recent adaptations of the genre.

What Is "Realism"?

Comparative studies on concepts of realism, such as Luc Herman's (1996) and Darío Villanueva's (1997), have shown that there is no consensus on the meaning of the term: "Realism in literature can mean a great many things" (Herman, preface, n. pag.). Generally "realism" has been used to denote a text that is "true to life." The relativity of this verisimilitude is at least twofold. First, because of differences in cultural and historical background, as well as individual tastes and convictions, authors, readers, and critics may have different views on what reality is. Second, they may disagree on what forms a true representation of this reality.

In the discussion of fairy tales and their use of magic and realistic elements, few critics make explicit their definition of what they consider realistic. From their application of the terms, one can discern several implicit definitions of "realism." Some critics, such as Bruno Bettelheim, use it for stylistic descriptions: for the use of details, for instance, or for the occurrence of references to everyday events.1 Others, such as Bernd Wollenweber, use it on a level of content: "fairy tales are not fantastic or unrealistic, on the contrary, they are highly realistic. …

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