Journal of Writing & Environment

Web Rove: The Modern Dystopian Fairytale

New Money and Poison Apples: The Modern Dystopian Fairytale, as told by Taylor Swift

By Renee LeClaire

I’ve always been a sucker for a retold fairy tale. The music video for Taylor Swift’s new single, “Blank Spaces” (released last week), is rife with classic fairy tale iconography – a poison apple, live deer wandering through drawing rooms, cakes that (like the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel) contain something rotten and bloody inside.  Our heroine rouses her charming prince by taking his bottom lip between her teeth.

But most present in the depiction is the fairy tale aspect of transformation. We’re not only watching the character played by Taylor Swift transform from a romantic, painterly beauty into a crazed maniacal knife-wielding cake stabber, but we’re also seeing Taylor Swift herself transform from her roots as the virginal half of the Madonna-whore dichotomy into a playful sexual being who talks about her ex-lovers. Taylor portrays both Snow White and the apple-poisoning witch, embodying multiple personas to create a more complex personality.

The Guardian calls this version of Swift “the woman we’ve been waiting for,” contrasting an earlier piece calling Swift a “feminist’s nightmare” and this new “dystopian fairytale” that allows Swift to embrace all aspects (positive and negative) of her image, and play with them. The acceptance of this turnaround demonstrates the power that fairy tales have to speak to us, to draw us in, and to make us believe.

Today’s web rove explores fairy tales from a few angles – a literary journal, a short story, and childhood classics. In addition to Swift’s video, last week also saw the release of an unexpurgated and beautifully illustrated collection of the Brothers Grimm’s tales in all their gory glory.  Clearly the time is ripe for fairy tales in all their forms.

The Punk’s Bride” by Kate Bernheimer (The Masters Review)

Bernheimer, the editor of the annual literary journal Fairy Tale Review (which publishes issues themed around fairy tale topics, tales, and motifs) last month released a retelling of a brief and lesser known Brothers Grimm tale, “The Hare’s Bride.” “The Hare’s Bride” relies mostly on repetition and fairy tale logic, whereas Bernheimer’s retelling is more grounded; however, the language has a dreamy quality as one action slides into the next and years pass with a feeling of inevitability. The story is presented on the site so that the reader scrolls from page to page, which enhances the feeling of repetition and provides a children’s book quality to the reading. Make sure to read the text below for a link to the original story, and Bernheimer drawing parallels to David Bowie.

The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link

This is one of my favorite short stories by my favorite short story author. Link, who won an O’Henry Prize last year and who has a new collection coming out in early 2015, here tells us an actual “faery” tale from the perspective of a reluctant nonbeliever. My favorite line in the story is when the grandmother says to the granddaughter (before agreeing to tell her tales), “Promise me you won’t believe a word.” This ritual dialogue speaks to the reader about the power of story to allow us to tell the truth in the guise of lies, to hide behind a mask of folklore to describe our own experiences.

“Guardians of the Fairy Tale: The Brothers Grimm” By Thomas O’Neill (from National Geographic)

You can read the entirety of the Grimm Brother’s edited collection on Project Gutenberg  (or pick up the new collection from Princeton University Press for maximum carnage and sleep disturbance), but I also stumbled across this delightfully outdated National Geographic curation of a few of the tales. National Geographic published this article about the Brothers Grimm alongside (because it’s NG) a map of the German Fairy-Tale Road, but also twelve stories set up choose-your-own-adventure style. Click “Tell me a story” to be taken to a series of options (a wicked stepmother, a young girl, or animals) that branches off into further options. The fascinating aspect of this setup is that it demonstrates how so many of these stories have the same bones. Some might dismiss this as formulaic folklore, but to me it calls up the appeal of the oral traditions of folklore – the recitations, the familiar openings (“Once upon a time…”). They start in the same place but end up somewhere very different, merging the comfortable and the strange.