Home » Books » Fairytales Retold: The Rise Of The Fantasy Genre

Fairytales Retold: The Rise Of The Fantasy Genre

Fairytales Retold: The Rise Of The Fantasy Genre

So Much For Happy Endings

They can be no doubt that the fantasy genre is on the rise. Motivated largely by the success of the movie phenomenon that was Lord of the Rings, perception of the genre is no longer ruled by stereotypes of basement-dwelling geeks obsessing over hermetically sealed collections of limited edition action figures. Whisper it, but fantasy is gradually becoming mainstream.

This growth of popularity has seen the release of two fantasy-themed TV shows in fairly quick succession: Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Each deals with the premise of fairy tales existing in the modern world, though each gives the concept a completely different spin.

Just a Small Town Girl

Twenty eight years ago, the Wicked Queen of a fairytale realm cast a curse to transport the entire kingdom’s population to our world, a place where the lines of evil and good were not so clear cut, and happy endings were not just the right of the latter.

The people now live in the aptly named town of Storybrooke with no memory of who they once were. They don’t realise that they exist frozen in time nor do they consider it strange that nobody ever seems to enter or leave the town.

Right before the curse was cast, Snow White and Prince Charming magically transported their newborn daughter to our world, who grew up into the bounty hunter Emma Swan. She comes to the town after Henry – the son she gave up for adoption ten years ago – tracks her down to convince her to “bring back the happy endings.”

As a child of both worlds – as well as simply a child – Henry is able to perceive how everything should be, and possesses a book of unknown origin that details the tales of the townsfolk prior to the curse and convinces Emma to stay to help people find the happiness that the curse denies them. She agrees, though less on account of believing what he says is true and more with meeting his adoptive mother (the town mayor) and being somewhat less than impressed by her parenting aesthetic.

Some of the townsfolk’s names and occupations give indications to their previous lives, with varying degrees of subtlety. Ashley (Cinderella) is an overworked cleaner; Regina (the Queen) is the mayor; Sydney Glass (the Magic Mirror) is a newspaper editor; and Ruby (Little Red Riding Hood) is a diner waitress.

Each episode focuses on the lives of one or two of the characters, jumping between the real world and the fairytale realm, telling two parallel stories that mirror each other. Some of the stories are one-shot deals, such as Hansel and Gretel, while others detail ongoing sagas, such as the dual romances of Snow White and Prince Charming.

Bad Guys and Evil Queens

A fairy tale is often only as engaging as its antagonists, and in this case as well as the Wicked Queen frequently manoeuvring to gain as much control as possible over the town and the fairytale realm, there is also the pawnbroker Mr Gold, who with stoic menace matter-of-factly states himself to be someone the townspeople fear even more than the overbearing mayor. In contrast, he is gleefully manic in the fairytale realm as Rumpelstiltskin, a power-hungry broker of deals whose manner of calling everyone “dearie” almost makes your skin crawl.

Although the power of the curse was to stop people from being aware of their former lives, some memories seem to have started bleeding through the cracks. How this will affect their lives in Storeybrook is yet to be developed.

The show’s core concept, that of fairytale characters living together in a real-world town, was considered somewhat similar to that of the comic book Fables, which has run for going on a decade with over 100 issues, and motivated the series’ legion of fans began denouncing it as a rip-off to anyone who would listen. However, the title’s creator Bill Willingham was considerably more understanding of any superficial similarities, eloquently discussing them and issuing a “call to disarm” to his readers.

By Name and by Nature

Grimm is a different beast entirely, while still possessing a distinctive fairytale aesthetic. The Grimms are normal people apart from one difference: they possess a hereditary ability to perceive the creatures responsible for many fairy tales through their everyday masks of humanity. The series protagonist Nick Burkhardt was unaware he was a Grimm for most of his life, until his lineage was explained to him by his aunt shortly before her death.  Inheriting the sight from her, he can now see what was hidden from him for so long and fight against it with the tools, weapons and reference books his aunt left him.

As Nick grew up unaware of his ancestry, he was never taught how the Grimms typically operated, specially decapitate first, ask questions later. However, as a police officer, his first instinct is to try to understand rather than simply kill and as a result the humanity of many of the so-called monsters is allowed to be seen.

Humanoid Monsters 

Instead of traditional mythological creatures, the humanoid monsters are given names that mostly consist of German words – often in compound – that give clues to their natures. The first kind seen is the blutbaden – which one claims was bastardised into Big Bad Wolf – and comes from the German word blutbad (bloodbath). Also there such creatures as hexenbiests, a compound of hexen (witch) and biest (beast), spinnetod (spider and death) and jägerbär (hunter and bear).

 Although it has been commented that the German is somewhat gratuitous and badly pronounced, it really doesn’t matter so long as the meaning is imparted. Anyway, try pronouncing Samhain (the Celtic festival Halloween grew from) to any Scottish or Irish person and watch them try to hold back the sniggering.

 No show is complete without an air of mystery, and this is initially seen via the Hässlich – also known as Reapers of the Grimms – who are ugly, scythe-wielding humanoids that have a particular hostility to the Grimms. Precisely who they are and what they want remains to be seen.

Castles in the Sky

Although the generally specialised nature of the fantasy genre has long kept it from achieving conventional popularity, now that TV shows such as these are appearing on major US networks, the tide is definitely shifting towards acceptance of its idiosyncrasies. Grab some snacks, slouch on the leather sofa, dim the lights, and let yourself be transported to worlds existing in the shadows of our own. You won’t regret it.

When the pilot of Grimm was first pitched to NBC, it went up against another one named 17th Precinct. This was a cop show set in an alternate reality where instead of petrol, electricity and guns, the world ran on fire, plants and magic, yet was all grounded in the gritty realism of  police procedural. NBC were only willing to commit to one fantasy show and opted for Grimm, but if you can track down a video of 17th Precinct somewhere in the dusty corners of the Internet, you’ll be treated to just what potential there is for fantasy in the future.

Guest Post by Izzy Woods.

If you liked this post, check out these: 
Top 15 Shows to Binge Watch
6 TV Shows Based on True Stories to Watch on Netflix
Book Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville
Book Review: Drown by Esther Dalseno

Stay up to date with What’s Hot?
Bloglovin’ / Instagram / Facebook / Twitter / Pinterest



Laura is a culture and travel blogger based in London. She studied French at Oxford University and now studies Law in London. She’s an avid reader and traveller and loves to combine the two with literary travel. Find her tips and reviews on the best reads, eats and destinations on whatshotblog.com.

Find me on: Web | Twitter


1 Comment

  1. mike
    1st March 2012 / 3:43 PM

    Thank you for this excellent & thoughtful post, so full of ideas that I have printed it out so i can read again

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Looking for Something?