Gender Swapped Fairy Tales

Jonathan Plackett and Karrie Fransman

Faber, £20 Hag:

Forgotten Folktales Retold Various authors Virago, £12.99

Review by Susan Flockhart


Cinders, Aladdin and their fairytale cohorts have been spreading enchantment for centuries. What’s not to like about a world in which beauty is synonymous with goodness, marriage is the pinnacle of female aspiration and the aristocracy’s innate superiority can be detected through layers of feather mattress?

Quite a lot, by today’s standards – which is why authors, filmmakers and pantomime scriptwriters are increasingly injecting those stories with contemporary values. In Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales, for instance, Red Riding Hood subverts her familiar frail victim status by leading the wolf-pack into eco-battle against deforestation-bent woodcutters.

In Gender Swapped Fairy Tales, Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett have taken narrative modification into the cyber-age by using a computer algorithm to convert he to she, son to daughter and valiant prince to equally valiant princess. Thus, the beanstalk-scaling giant-killer becomes Jacqueline and it’s an adventurous princess who hacks through brambles to awaken the Sleeping Handsome with a lustful glance.

The book is a treat: gorgeously illustrated and entertainingly embellished with clever innovations such as Mr Rapunzel’s long golden beard. But it has to be said that, unlike the revivified Handsome, these stories are not entirely woke. Cinder the kind-hearted skivvy is “100 times” better-looking than his nasty, manipulative step-brothers. Monarchs reign supreme and in Handsome and the Beast, the down-on-her-luck merchant’s salvation involves regaining material wealth that was doubtless ill-gotten in the first place.

The authors say they deliberately refrained from influencing the stories with their own “prejudices”, instead, choosing texts from Andrew Lang’s 1889-1913 Fairy Books and leaving them “untouched bar the gender-swap”.

Ironically, Lang’s books were themselves based on previously published versions of traditional European stories, many of which had been heavily edited by folklore collectors who’d excised gruesome details, turned filicidal mothers into step-parents and air-brushed marauding rapists into charmingly romantic suitors.

In adapting those tales for the page, folklorists like the Grimm brothers were arguably doing just what storytellers had always done: tailoring narratives to suit their listeners, sometimes inserting in-jokes or changing plots to reflect contemporary politics.

Eimear McBride does exactly that in Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold. Originally created as a podcast, Hag presents 10 brand new stories by female authors, each inspired by a time-worn myth from her part of the British Isles. And in McBride’s version of Ireland’s Tale of Kathleen, the narrator meanders eccentrically, directing knowing asides towards her audience and echoing the spirit of oral storytelling.

The original tales were deliberately chosen for their comparative obscurity and while the selkie myth – catalyst for Kirsty Logan’s story – feels familiarly Scottish, I’d never heard of the others and enjoyed discovering them in the book’s appendix.

Daisy Johnson’s wittily disquieting take on The Green Children of Woolpit is a storytelling masterclass. Inspired by a medieval legend about two strangely-hued siblings found crying at the edge of a Suffolk wolf-pit, it begins as a kind of journalistic investigation into the story’s historical roots. Then subtly, magically, those elemental forces infect, and eventually inhume, the narrator.

Hag swarms with mermaids, boggarts and shape-shifters but it also explores the hopes, fears and visceral dreads from which those creatures emerged in the human imagination. Not surprisingly given the dangers once associated with pregnancy and childbirth, fertility is an abiding theme of folklore, recurring here in Logan’s Skye-set tale, Emma Glass’s reimagining of Wales’s The Fairy Midwife and Naomi Booth’s atmospheric take on a hoary old Yorkshire yarn.

If there’s a feminist edge to these stories it’s not overt, though a domestic abuser certainly gets his comeuppance in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s version of Old Farmer Mole. Then again, even in the original Somerset tale, the slap-happy old soak got his just deserts.

Was it the cider, the pixies or his long-suffering “missus” that lured him into a deadly bog? There, readers must use their imaginations.