I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when I was a teenager, books saved me. I know there are many of us, both book professionals and readers, who can look back at the books we read and clung to in high school and childhood, and know that those books helped us get through things that might have been too much otherwise. Stories offer an opportunity to explore different viewpoints to which we might not have access, to see ourselves in situations distinctive from our own, and to walk in someone else’s skin for a while. Being able to open a window into another way of life, another way of thinking, can help shape a person’s worldview in an important way. I truly believe stories have the power to change the world.
And no type of story has more power than the fairy tale. These are some of the first stories we hear as children—stories of princesses and princes, trickster animals, awful parents, lost children, witches, and monsters. These tales embody the unknown, dangerous woods of our minds, and are filled with trials and tribulations, moral choices, and often harsh lessons. Fairy tale themes and subjects are carved into our psyches as soon as we can be read to or listen around a campfire. Even when the flesh and skin of the story are changed, we always recognize the fairy tale bones underneath.
Fairy tales are universal, and are the first way most of us can open that window into different points of view. They belong to everybody, and exist only a few steps away from our world. They live in an imaginary past, but illuminate our current lives by contrasting the fantastic with the mundane. They teach the universality of existence and death that comes to both princesses and wandering children alike, and try to pass on to their readers lessons of survival to use in our actual wicked world. They are a place just out of reach where dangerous emotions, desires, and wonders can exist and be explored. Fairy tales are the path we walk in the forest between our dreams and real lives.
Which brings me back to how fairy tale books saved me as a teenager. I had always read fantasy and science fiction. The language of fantasy spoke to me, from Cooper to Turner, from L’Engle to Tolkien. As a teenager, I discovered books of fairy tale retellings that had a tremendous impact on my life. I devoured the fairy tale retelling anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling—Snow White, Blood Red; Ruby Slipper, Golden Tears; Black Heart, Ivory Bones; and so many more. I fell in love with Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series of novels including Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, Patricia C. Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red, Charles de Lint’s Jack the Giant Killer, and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. These works inspired and shaped me. In fact, spending a summer immersed in the Tam Lin reading list kickstarted my Richard III fascination and led to me writing my senior thesis on historiography and Richard III. And discovering the way old, familiar stories can be melded and shaped into something strange, unexpected, and wonderful is one of the first things that made me want to be an editor.
One of the gorgeous things about fairy tales is that they are meant to be malleable. They change with every storyteller. Fairy tales evolve as each writer edits, steals, subtracts, and adds, so that they will resonate with an audience in new and unexpected ways, while still containing the essential fairy tale skeleton. This fascinated me as a reader of these retellings. They could be set in a world nearly like my own, but still navigate those paths between waking and sleeping like the childhood stories from Mother Goose, the Brothers Grimm, Giambattista Basile, Hans Christian Andersen, and so many others. They gave me a universal language to use to interpret the world around me.
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity, along with Joe Monti, to start Simon & Schuster’s new science fiction and fantasy imprint, Saga Press. At Saga, I’ve gotten to edit the kinds of books that were so critical to me—books that ask questions, explore new worlds, and introduce heart–achingly wonderful characters. And thanks to the support of my publisher, Justin Chanda, I was given the chance to realize another dream—co–editing my own anthology of fairy tale retellings, called The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, along with my brilliant co–conspirator and co–editor, Dominik Parisien.
Dominik and I gathered some of our favorite writers and prompted them to run fairy tales through a prism. We challenged our writers to look at classic fairy tales from unusual angles and completely reimagine these stories in different genres and traditions. Sometimes it meant removing elements thought integral to a story, like eliminating the music from the Pied Piper. Other times it meant moving a fairy tale to another part of the world, like sending Little Red Riding Hood to the desert. We ended up with 18 powerful, weird, and moving stories. Each one traipses the fairy tale path through the woods, even when there isn’t a tree in sight.
Dominik and I are so proud of this anthology, and are extremely pleased it’s finally in the real world. If you would like a sample, you can read Amal El–Mohtar’s “Seasons of Glass and Iron” in this issue of Uncanny Magazine. It epitomizes everything we think is special about fairy tales and what we hoped to achieve with The Starlit Wood.
The fairy tale retellings edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling were so incredibly formative to me at a time in my life when I needed stories to help me interpret the world around me. Now I’ve co–edited an anthology which I can only hope might be similarly important to others. I know that not every book I edit will resonate with every reader. But the idea of having a hand in a fairy tale anthology that just might reach someone at the right moment like those books did for me—that’s a powerful notion.
(Editors’ Note: This is a guest editorial column by Saga Press Editor Navah Wolfe in honor of Saga’s sponsorship of Uncanny Magazine Issue 13.)
© 2016 by Navah Wolfe