Telling and retelling fairy tales is a tricky business. It is not simply that everyone already knows how the story ends that makes it difficult either. A fairy tale is not defined by its plot or its characters, however familiar. Neither is it defined by its fantastic elements nor even its antiquity. Of course, many fairy tales have all of those things, but that is not what makes them what they are. A fairy tale is defined by the breathless wonder and inexplicable power tied up in the story itself. Stories, clever and ancient and wise, that capture our imagination again and again and again no matter how many times we hear them. It is this that defines a fairy tale, and this that makes them almost impossible to retell.
Alethea Kontis, in her new young adult novel Enchanted, has managed the almost impossible. She takes the familiar stories, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, the Princess and the Frog, even the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, breaks them up into their component parts, and recombines them into a fairy tale that is at once new and old, full of wonder and magic and humanity. She braids the tales together around a single family, the Woodcutters, who live in a rather shoe-shaped house at the edge of the Wood. Peculiar and magical things keep happening to this particular family, and in the midst of it all the seventh daughter, Sunday, wanders off into the Wood and meets a frog named Grumble who lives in an old wishing well. Grumble and Sunday become friends, and, soon enough, fall in love. When Sunday gives Grumble a hurried kiss goodbye, he is transformed back into the prince he was. Unfortunately, that cannot be the end of the story. The prince is the son of a nameless and ageless king, the godson of a fairy named Sorrow, and at the heart of the Woodcutter family’s most bitter loss. So he invites all the women in the kingdom to three midnight balls to hide the fact he wishes to invite only one. And in the meantime Sunday discovers more than she ever wished to know about herself and her family.
This story is not a lighthearted one, nor is it a tale for children. It retains the spirit of the old tales it repeats — dark, bloody and captivating. This is a tale of magic and wonder, yes, but it is also a story about a young woman searching for love, hope and independence, of a family burdened with secrets, and of a young man looking for redemption. And amid these profoundly human trials we find the ancient words of wisdom from those old familiar stories: One good turn deserves another. Words have power. Be careful what you wish for. And above all, true love’s kiss will break the curse.