Here’s a bit of a backstory before anything else.
April 2003 and there I was looking for a thesis topic already. It was the summer before my senior year in college and I knew that I wanted to write about fairy tales. I found this curious little book online called Confessions of An Ugly Stepsister by apparently well-known author Gregory Maguire. It was about the story of Cinderella but from the stepsister’s point of view. I had found the perfect thesis topic.
I begged my cousin from the US to buy me a copy because it was not available here at that time. Thankfully, my cousin agreed, and a few months later, just in time for thesis writing, my book arrived.
I devoured it. Up all night? Definitely. Skipped meals to finish it? Almost. I lifted my eyes only to pee and turn on the lights in the room when it got too dark.
It was brilliant.
Here was a beloved children’s story, a fairy tale, a happy-ever-after tale, and this genius of an author takes the whole thing on its head and uglifies it. And there lay its brilliance.
Fairy tales have this tendency to show only the happy parts, and if there be any unpleasant ones, they make sure that these highlight heroism and gallantry against dragons and such. In Maguire’s world, though, there’s none of that. He knows that the medieval age isn’t all about dragons and stolen kisses like in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. There are no fairy godmothers to whisk you away to your prince when your heart’s broken. No. It’s a hard world out there, and Maguire shows us that ugly side in his versions.
Take Confessions, for instance. The original tale had us sympathizing with the beautiful Cinderella who was orphaned at a young age and left to the care of an evil stepmother. Yes, she had to scrub the floor and do her stepmother’s and stepsisters’ every command, but Disney and other popular versions portrayed her as this pure lovely girl who never complained about her work and who even sang songs while she did. Maguire, on the other hand, makes us dislike said girl. She was an only child, spoiled to death by her rich father. Does she get the prince? Sure, but under different circumstances. As for the stepsister, she’s not evil, nor is the mom. They’re just struggling to survive. I’ll leave it at that.
Here’s another example: Wicked. We know about Dorothy and her visit to Oz, but what about the witch she was sent to kill? The novel makes us sympathize with the witch, whom we get to know as Elphaba. We get to know her story, and we discover that she is merely misunderstood. She is a rebel, an outcast, a woman who stands up for what she believes in, fights for Animal rights, and even longs for love like the rest of us.
He has other tales of famous characters in fairy tales: Snow White in Mirror, Mirror; the Cowardly Lion in A Lion Among Men (book 3 in the Wicked series); Dickens’ Scrooge in Lost, but in this one, Scrooge doesn’t actually make an appearance. His story is central to the plot.
Gregory Maguire is one of my favorite authors. He has original stories, but it’s his retellings that he’s come to be known for. He’s the master of retellings.