What Makes a Satisfying Retelling?: A Wyrd & Wonder guest post by Tessa Gratton

Hello all! Today I’m turning the stage over to Tessa Gratton, who shall hold forth on the subject of her favourite fantasy retellings, and what makes them so satisfying for her. So without further ado…

 

Tessa Gratton is the author of The Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur, as well as several YA series and short stories which have been translated into twenty-two languages. Her most recent YA novels are Strange Grace and Night Shine, as well as the forthcoming Chaos and Flame and novels of Star Wars: The High Republic. Though she has traveled all over the world, she currently lives alongside the Kansas prairie with her wife. Queer, nonbinary, she/any.

 

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Hi! I’m excited to be part of Wyrd and Wonder again—it’s been a while! I asked Lisa to give me a topic, and she did: retellings. More specifically, what makes them satisfying and worthwhile. I immediately thought I knew my answer (new ideas told with a common language), but in the weeks since I received the assignment (ha!) I’ve thought more broadly about it and realized that it’s more complicated than that. Naturally! What follows are my thoughts on why I am intrigued by retellings, why I use them in my own writing, and why I think they are often compelling and satisfying.

But to begin, I do think my initial answer is still the most true. I find retellings most compelling only when they teach me something new about the source material, or use that source material to ask me questions about my worldview I’ve never quite considered before. The fairy tale or myth chosen is the common language, it’s the characters and tropes that I’m familiar with that the storyteller can take and twist. The twist only works if I have a basic understanding of the source material. I think that’s why some stories are retold so often (Beauty and the Beast, for example, is retold constantly all over the world). So many of us have something to add to the basic premise of “love is blind.” And so many of us are hungry for other people’s ideas about it.

Two of my projects have been retellings: The United States of Asgard series and my adult duology of Shakespeare retellings. I think it’s worthwhile to briefly discuss both because I chose retellings for these projects for very different reasons—and with very different outcomes. But they still hit that same satisfying place for me as a writer of retellings.

I wrote the United States of Asgard series, a trilogy plus novellas that take place in a contemporary America founded by Vikings and their very real gods and monsters, because I wanted to use the mythology as a metaphor to write about religion and politics in the US without having to use Jesus Christ. It was 2005 when I had the idea, though I didn’t write the first book, The Lost Sun, until 2010. In 2005 was deep in graduate school for feminism, planned to go into lobbying, and my dad was stationed in Iraq. My world was fraught, and I wanted to write about militarization of religion and how hard it is to be a teenager in that kind of world. I wanted to write about fury and faith going hand in hand, I wanted to highlight the structural problems I saw in the marriage of religion and politics in America, but at the same time tell stories about love and growing up and how beautiful faith can be. A tool for change. So for me, this retelling was about explicitly taking source material—mythology—and using it to ask questions about our real world. To make the monsters of my teenager years literally monsters. 

Fast forward to 2016. I was in a rut, publishing-wise, and felt like my career was being taken away from me. I needed something desperate and passionate to pull me out of it. And something happened to me that made me realize I had an answer suddenly to a question I’d been asking myself since I was 18, in 1998. That’s when I read Shakespeare’s King Lear for the first time, and absolutely hated it. Shakespeare, whose work I was in love with, betrayed me in that play, with awful, one-dimensional women characters, the erasure of motherhood, and the assumption that I cared about the redemption of a truly stupid, awful father and king. The only smart character was Edmund, and he was treated poorly by the play and people in it.

My realization centered around the youngest daughter of King Lear, the “golden child” who still dies on the altar of her aged father’s redemption. I burned to retell that play, to fix it—to take 400 years of criticism and admiration and change it with my own agenda. Write a book about women and not-quite-women and what happens when motherhood is torn out of consideration. Plus dark magic and whispering trees.

So my goal for King Lear as a retelling was in some ways the exact opposite of my goals for the Asgard series. For Asgard I used mythology as a framework to ask questions about our world. For The Queens of Innis Lear I took my modern understanding of gender and feminism and family to transform an old classic and remake it in my image.

But at the end of the day, with both retellings I was doing the same thing: using a common language (Norse myth; Shakespeare) to write about compelling questions I have about my own world. I hope it is satisfying for readers! I like to think if I came to either of these works as a reader I would like them.

One of the aspects of retellings that never occurred to me until I was thinking about this essay was how my love of retellings aligns with my disinterest in worrying about spoilers. I don’t mind spoilers in general because for me it isn’t the ending, it isn’t the twist that matters: it’s how a story and characters get there. That makes sense to me, because isn’t it true that when we read a retelling we know a lot of spoilers? We know the prince will find Cinderella’s shoe—we only don’t know how. We know the Beast will be beloved, but we don’t know what it is about them that Beauty will adore. We know a lot of people are going to die in a King Lear retelling, but maybe not how or why or what questions those deaths will ask. 

It’s interesting to me because I get into arguments about spoilers all the time—I’m curious if other people who like retellings are similarly disinterested in spoiler paranoia to me? Let me know!

Related to the question of spoilers and retellings is another issue I’ve been mulling during the pandemic: the sharp appeal of fanfiction. I have always read fanfiction, but it wasn’t until the pandemic and my face-forward fall into the fandom for The Untamed/Mo Dao Zu Shi consumed me that I needed to begin parsing my relationship to fanfic as a writer. Not just as a reader.

A lot of fanfiction can be categorized as a retelling. It’s an alternate universe retelling of canon. It’s a modern setting retelling. It’s canon, but with one change. It’s canon, but they’re all queer. It’s canon, but this character is a different gender. A different race. A different species. Sometimes these are written for fun only, but most of the time I think they’re written to illuminate something about the character or world of the canon. It’s a detail the fic writer is obsessed with and what if, what if, what if. 

What if matters in retellings, too. In all fiction, maybe, but that’s an argument for another day and probably a whole book of essays. What if the beast is transgender? What if Cinderella is a modern fastionista? What if Odin Alfather helped colonize North America? What if King Lear married a Black woman from a matriarchal empire and racism is why she was erased from the narrative?

And of course, with a lot of fanfiction, there are spoilers. You know what happens in canon, and probably those plot details will happen in the fic, too, or at least they’ll echo throughout. You know what you’re getting. You pick up a fic or a retelling because you think you know at least something of what you’re in for.

It’s too far to say that retellings are fanfiction. They can be, but I have a hard line when it comes to fanfic not being professionally paid. Money muddies the waters of joy and discovery and community that are essential to fanfic, to me. So if a writer writes a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and publishes it for money either traditionally or indie, I don’t consider that to be fanfic. But it’s part of the same question.

And questions are what I care about. That’s what literature is! Using stories to ask questions. To have conversations. Retellings give us—writers and readers—a specific language, a specific structure from which to create those questions and point to answers.

Some of my favorite retellings are: 

Prince of Shadows, a Romeo and Juliet retelling by Rachel Caine 

If the Shoe Fits, a Cinderella retelling by Julie Murphy

Six Crimson Cranes, a retelling of the Wild Swans by Elizabeth Lim

Beauty and Rose Daughter, both Beauty and the Beast retellings, by Robin McKinley

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan, about the life of the goddess Chang’e 

His Hideous Heart a collection of Edgar Allen Poe retellings, edited by Dahlia Adler

…and about ten thousand fics written in the Untamed fandom…

 

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3 comments On What Makes a Satisfying Retelling?: A Wyrd & Wonder guest post by Tessa Gratton

  • Great post! I liked Rose Daughter but couldn’t get into Beauty. Have you read Spindle’s End, which is McKinley’s spin on Sleeping Beauty? It’s one of my favorite books. I think Sleeping Beauty is a difficult fairytale to rewrite because the princess is just such a passive character, compared to the heroines of say Beauty & the Beast, or East of the Sun, West of the Moon, or quite a few others. But McKinley makes it work. And the narration is charming. 🙂 And I have to mention Deerskin, which is much much darker than McKinley usually goes for, but it’s astonishingly good.

    I also loved Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which retells The Aeneid the perspective of Aeneas’s second wife. (His first wife Kreusa died in the sack of Troy before the beginning of The Aeneid.)

  • Great topic for a guest post! Thanks for hosting Tessa; I enjoyed reading the thoughts of someone who has written a few retellings themselves 🙂

  • Pingback: Wyrd & Wonder Adventure Log: Week the Second – Dear Geek Place ()

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