Sometimes we all need a fairytale. But once you've stepped out of childhood and into the world of hangovers, STD tests, and tax season, sickly-sweet fantasy worlds can lose their charm a little. There's always a place for the Cinderellas and the Belles, all sassy comebacks and uncomplicated happy endings, but there are periods where grown-ups need their fairytales and legends with a heavy dose of grown-up darkness.
Why do we keep lusting for fairytales long after we've accepted that we will never find a reptile that turns into a royal or win some golden eggs with our cunning? Phillip Pullman, author of fantasy classic His Dark Materials, has said that his lifelong love of fairytales came from their simplicity. "They have no depth, no psychology," he wrote in a 2013 essay. "They don't fret about their feelings; they often don't appear to know that they have any feelings. Everything they do is on the surface, because the surface is all there is." Fairytales are easy-to-read patterns, infinitely repeatable because of their structure; change the pattern and the story is new.
Or perhaps we love them because they're all about shifting: prince to pauper, straw to gold. Marina Warner, one of the world's top academic experts on fairytales and their history, traced her own kinship with them to their emphasis on change. In From The Beast To The Blond: On Fairy Tales And Their Tellers (1995), she explained that fairytales "seemed to offer the possibility of change, far beyond the boundaries of their improbable plots or fantastically colored pages. The metamorphoses offered much of the same, not only in fairy land, but in this world."
Adulthood is, on my very crude estimate, 97.5 percent change. If fairytales can help us deal, then we need as many of them as possible. Here are 12 grown-up fairy stories that definitely won't make you feel like a five-year-old.
1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente
Valente's eccentric fantasy, which was first published online before it gained a rapid adult following and garnered her a book deal, is inspired by The Wizard Of Oz, The Golden Compass and other girl-ends-up-in-a-magical-land narratives, but it's tongue-in-cheek as well as fantastical. Think Lemony Snicket crossed with The Brothers Grimm.
2. The Sleeper And The Spindle, Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell
Picking one Neil Gaiman interpretation of a fairytale was difficult, but this, one of his most recent efforts, is both beautiful and very creepy. It's a riff on Sleeping Beauty, with beautiful illustrations, a skin-crawling atmosphere, and a hell of a twist. This is most definitely a grown-up fantasy.
3. Tinder, Sally Gardner
This exquisite and very bloody picture book is a fairytale about war, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story The Tinderbox, and a reinterpretation of the myth of Prometheus, all at the same time. For the illustrations alone it's worth a place on your shelf. And no, it's nothing to do with online dating, unless you're in the habit of dating Death himself.
4. Let The Right One In, John Lindqvist
You may be familiar with the acclaimed film (and its bland American remake — why do studios DO that?), but the original book is a skin-creeping, fragile wonder. A child vampire and a young boy's delicate love story, including rampant gore, makes for a charming ride.
5. Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs
Combining orphans, shape-shifters, time travel, remote islands, ghosts and incredibly horrifying villains, this novel — which features gorgeous vintage photography — was a bestseller for a reason. It's peculiar in the best sense, and it is definitely adult: a film is coming out soon will be directed by Tim Burton, who's a good match for its eerie, threatening eccentricity.
6. The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August, Claire North
The eternal-child story is a key part of many fairytales, and was recently the centrepiece of Kate Atkinson's award-winning Life After Life, but Harry August is a more YA-focussed, childlike turn, as August — a kalachakra, an eternal being who frequently dies but retains memories of all his past lives — attempts to save the world.
7. The Children's Hospital, Chris Adrian
This is Noah's Ark for the modern satirical age: a children's hospital floating free in a worldwide flood, a young medical student who finds herself in possession of bizarre powers, and four angels of the apocalypse. It's been hailed as a new adult fairytale classic.
8. The Blue Fox, Sjon
One of Bjork's favorite books— possibly because Sjon, the author, has also written some of her lyrics — this Icelandic novella intertwines a pastor's search for the mythic blue fox and a naturalist's life caring for a woman with Down's Syndrome in a short, elegant punch of a book.
9. The Book Of Lost Things, John Connolly
If you loved The Pagemaster, this is a YA update on the same concept: a young boy (this time grief-wracked after the death of his mother in WWII) finds himself in a kingdom populated by brilliantly twisted fairytale characters. It's gruesome, grisly, and cheerily disturbing.
10. The Golem And The Jinni, Helene Wecker
Myths and fairytales from different cultures collide as a golem, a woman made of clay by a twisted ex-rabbi, and a jinni imprisoned by a desert sorcerer both find themselves free in 1930s New York. The result is half-love story, half-Arabian Nights/Judaic folklore romp.
11. The Snow Child, Eovyn Ivey
This Pulitzer Prize-nominated eerie novel is bleak and beautiful. It takes a fairytale common to many cultures — a childless couple find a mysterious child in the forest, and raise it as their own — and invests it with the violence and brutal landscape of 1920s Alaska.
12. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke
Dueling magicians in 19th century England become embroiled in a wildly Dickensian narrative involving the war with France, ships made of rain, hideously tedious dinner parties and Raven Kings. Pick up Clarke's short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, too if you can't get enough of her dense mythic tales.
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