Fairy tales have captivated audiences across cultures and media for millennia. As Maria Tatar notes in her introduction to The Annotated Brothers Grimm, “Even in an age when the attractions of high-tech entertainment distract us from stories found between the covers of books, fairy tales continue to work their magic. They ceaselessly migrate from one medium to another, shape-shifting to suit audiences both young and old and morphing into variants that crackle with renewed narrative energy.”
I certainly count myself among those captured by the lure of fairy tales’ siren song. These stories (and the people who tell them) have shaped everything from my scholarship and creative work to my communities and close friendships. It’s hard to imagine a world without the whisper of “Once upon a time…” waiting just around the corner, full of promise and peril and possibility.
Fairy tales are one thread of traditional folk narratives that focus on the wondrous and are taken to be fantastic rather than grounded in historical events. Although “fairy tales” is a term specifically associated with European variations, as writer Amanda Leduc notes, they are a subset of folk narrative with parallel versions appearing in cultures around the world and back through thousands of years of history. (See Sara Cleto’s and Brittany Warman’s analysis of distinctions between the folk genres of myth, legend, and fairy tales for a more detailed discussion of the differences between these genres.)
Apparently simple on the surface—and often associated with storytelling for children—fairy tales’ imagery, characters, and narrative rhythms have nevertheless become deeply embedded as part of a shared cultural system for making sense of the world. Fairy tales rely on consistent patterns, as Vladimir Propp has identified in Morphology of the Folktale, which makes them highly adaptable across multiple media forms while remaining fundamentally recognizable. For example: the naïve youngest child succeeds where older siblings fail; strangers must be treated with kindness and hospitality, or dire consequences will ensue; peasants can outwit kings with cleverness, luck, and a little help; challenges come in sets of three; and warnings not to leave the path or open a door will inevitably be ignored. Fairy tales offer strategies for survival and hope in the middle of the darkest forest, as Jack Zipes explores in “Once There Were Two Brothers Named Grimm,” and I still curl up with these familiar tales for comfort when the world seems at its most chaotic.
Fairy tales are deeply rooted in both oral (such as the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm) and literary (such as the works of Hans Christian Andersen) traditions, and they have continued to make themselves at home more recently in various popular narrative media such as film, television, comics, social media, and more. Many people may be familiar with fairy tales today through their popular Disney adaptations, such as Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010), and Frozen (2013)—just to name a few!
Other popular adaptations include short-story collections such as Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch; Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” (both a short story and a graphic novel illustrated by Colleen Doran); Bill Willingham’s Fables comics series (which also includes a video game adaptation, The Wolf Among Us); and Marissa Meyer’s New York Times bestselling novel series The Lunar Chronicles, which puts a futuristic sci-fi twist on classic fairy tales. Additionally, live storytellers continue to bring voice and breath to oral fairy-tale traditions. I spent several years immersed in the magic of competitive storytelling through my secondary school’s speech program, and professional storytellers such as Milbre Burch spin traditional and original tales on stages around the country and the world.
One particular way storytellers and visual artists have reimagined fairy tales in contemporary media is through an annual Instagram challenge called #FolktaleWeek. I’ve participated in the past four challenges, starting in 2018, and have found it a fantastic way to connect with other artists online through our shared passion for retelling fairy tales. The challenge brings together creative makers across media to respond to a list of one-word prompts connected in some way to traditional narratives. Participants then post their interpretations of the prompts throughout the week. The organizers choose favorite posts to feature on the official account. Responses are varied and take on a range of styles, and the organizers encourage participants to imagine the prompts however they like instead of relying on a strict interpretation. Some connect the prompts explicitly to traditional narratives, while others create their own folklorically inspired original stories.
This most recent Folktale Week took place November 15–21, 2021, and the prompts were primarily nature-based: Moon, Dream, Awakening, Feast, Bird, River, Sky. For me, these terms immediately brought to mind a group of dear friends, seven women whose work as creative professionals is inspired in some ways by folklore, fairy tales, and traditional narratives: Grace Nuth (artist, writer, and fine art model); Lindsey Márton O’Brien (designer, painter, and photographer); Meenoo Mishra (jeweler); Shveta Thakrar (author); Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman (poets and educators); and myself, Erin Kathleen Bahl (English professor, digital maker, and cartoonist). Since we’re scattered across the country, we connect primarily over social media apps to share our work and ideas, and we offer support and encouragement to one another within a broader community of fairy-tale enthusiasts and creative makers.
In developing this particular short comic, I wanted to create a piece that honored two creative communities that inspire my own digital design work: the artists around the world participating in #FolktaleWeek and my friends (and heroes!) who create fairy-tale-based work. To complement my vector-art illustration style, I chose a narrative voice inspired by folk narrative with repeated key phrases/refrains and simple language with symbolically rich imagery. I used the metaphorical frame of “threads” to highlight continuities of folk traditions that connect people across time, space, and communities, then introduced the spider’s web as a metaphorical frame that highlights the World Wide Web’s potential to both build and damage communities.
I also added references to specific fairy tales through key symbolic objects, such as the mirror, apple, and red-hot shoes from “Snow White,” Cinderella’s glass slippers, and thorns from “Sleeping Beauty.” (The goblin fruit is a literary reference to Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem “Goblin Market,” but enchanted fruit abounds aplenty in the fairy-tale narrative tradition!)
This comic provides but one tiny glimpse into the myriad ways the fairy-tale tradition continues to spread, flourish, and thrive online via social media. It’s one instance of the fairy-tale tradition’s continued vibrancy, stability, and flexibility, and how much continued power these stories have to bring people together through shared creative storytelling practices—with each new remediation highlighting the re-teller’s own creative spin and variation.
As Cristina Bacchilega observes in “Adaptation and the Fairy-Tale Web,” “Not only are there new media platforms, but new adapters of fairy tales to connect with and learn from. Thinking of fairy tales and their transformative possibilities in a hypertextual web raises the stakes of exploring… adaptation.” Social media offers opportunities to bring together more diverse voices, perspectives, and traditions from around the world and different corners of life, and to connect people in interpreting these tales and discussing them together, sharing the ways they’ve resonated uniquely in our own experiences. Just a few sites that encourage this participatory dialogue and creativity around fairy tales include literary journals such as Enchanted Conversations and Fairy Tale Review, Facebook groups such as Domythic Bliss and Daily Fae-shion, and podcasts such as Of Slippers and Spindles.
Among these examples and countless others, #FolktaleWeek highlights the potential of social media to amplify and continue folkloric traditions by fostering connection and community around shared storytelling. Certain remediations may look a little different from the oral and literary traditions in which they find their roots, but the stories themselves spring to life in these shared (re)imaginations, and they continue, to borrow from Maria Tatar, to “crackle with renewed narrative energy” as they have for countless years—and will for countless years to come.
Erin Kathleen Bahl is an assistant professor of applied and professional writing in the English Department at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as an independent comics creator. Her work explores the possibilities digital technologies offer to create knowledge and tell stories.