I think there are a myriad of ways to consider a story a “retelling.” It could be a contemporary retelling of a classic tale (such as Ella Enchanted as a retelling of Cinderella), which is perhaps the most common interpretation. But I also think that retellings can be so much more than that.
Quite a few titles came to me when I thought about the idea of “retellings” – basically everything by Gail Carson Levine (especially the already mentioned Ella Enchanted), Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons, and some titles I’ve already reviewed, like The Princess in Black. And then it occurred to me that rather than write a review of one or two books, I wanted to talk about why retellings are so important to me: they are an opportunity for rewriting stories in a way that creates space for something/someone in a narrative that didn’t exist before. Now, allow me to attempt to explain that thought.
My master’s thesis was a novel intended as a retelling of sorts. I wanted to rewrite a particular narrative, and though the story is still not quite in its final state, I’m pleased with the outcome. I did not set out to retell any one specific story, but rather the trope that hero = male. So I wrote a story about a young girl who is not only a hero but a feminine hero. Because another trope I wanted to combat was the idea that when a female is the hero she often succeeds due to stereotypically masculine traits/acts.
In the traditional hero story, the hero is male and he saves the day/the damsel/the kingdom/etc. When people, like myself, rewrite that narrative replacing male characters and masculinity we create a space for female readers to identify with an empowering character. We are creating representation.
Another form of retelling is retelling in the form of parody. It’s important to note, though, that this kind of retelling has the potential to be damaging. Think, for example, of Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. No doubt a classic. But it falls under the category of parody because the princess’s success is contingent on the prince’s failure. So we have merely reversed the gender roles. This means we empower female characters (and thus readers) at the expense of male characters (and thus readers). For more on this see, Anne E. Altman’s essay “Poetry and Poesis in Feminist Fairy Tales” (1994).
Basically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that all humans are entitled to take up space in this world. Some humans have to fight a little harder than others to create a space for themselves. For me that comes from being female – for others that comes from the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, whether they are mentally or physically differently abled, etc (and in many cases some combination of the above #intersectionality). Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but this is a relatively new realization for me. I’ve spent a lot of my life in quiet existence. And I don’t think it’s farfetched to propose that this is, in part, due to a lack of female role models with the audacity to exist loudly and freely in my formative years.
So, when we rewrite narratives we do so in an attempt to create spaces for ourselves. And this is so, so important to me.