Caroline Jones, editor

Fairy Tales for a New Generation: An Examination of Selected Re-written Fairy Tales by Donna Jo Napoli

Anna Seipp

Anna Seipp grew up in Whitehorse,Yukon, where she spent many cold winters curled up with a good book. She is currently completing a Master of Library and Information Studies degree at the University of British Columbia School of Library, Archival & Information Studies, and is looking forward to a rewarding career in children's library services.

This paper was originally written in Judith Saltman's course "Literature and Other Materials for Children: An Introduction" at the University of British Columbia's School of Library, Archival & Information Studies.

In recent years, Donna Jo Napoli has done a wonderful job of bringing fairy tales to a young adult audience in numerous complex and enjoyable novels. Three of these novels may be particularly appealing to young adults: Zel, a version of Rapunzel; Spinners, a collaboration with Richard Tchen in which Napoli tells the tale of Rumplestiltskin; and The Magic Circle, a unique re-telling of Hansel and Gretel from the point of view of the witch. All three of these novels offer rich, entertaining stories, which are greatly enhanced by the author's creation of complex, sympathetic villains, her skilled use of narrative voice to complement both plot and characterization, and her inclusion of strong themes that act as through-lines for the narrative.

Elizabeth Wanning Harries has said that retold fairy tales can "...see what needs to be seen again and seen afresh -- and show it to us." (163) Napoli's complex and entertaining works will certainly allow her readers to see these three well-known fairy tales through new eyes, in particular, through the eyes of their traditional villains. The device of making villains sympathetic to the reader is a fairly common one among modern re-tellings of fairy tales. Often, however, this is done quite simplistically and the story's characters remain either black or white, good or evil figures. Napoli has not fallen into this trap, and provides her readers with complex villains, who while sympathetic, are nevertheless often motivated to act for selfish or misguided reasons. The complexity of these characters adds depth and realism to the novels, and caters well to a maturing young adult audience.

In Zel, a young Rapunzel lives happily with Mother, who is in fact a witch, controlled by the devils that gave her magical powers, but who loves Zel deeply and cares for her as a daughter. As Zel nears maturity, however, and draws the attention of Count Konrad, the witch cannot bear the possibility of being separated from her and instead confines her to an isolated tower. In Napoli's presentation of this fairy tale, the woman Zel knows as Mother is the strongest character of the story. She is not the one-dimensional selfish witch of the traditional tale; it is made clear to the reader that Mother's love for Zel is very real, and that her happiness is dependent on her daughter's: "I will watch where her eyes light; I will indulge her small desires. Treats bring a glow to her cheeks. I will bask in that glow." (19) Also greatly adding to the reader's empathy with the witch is the story's 'tale within a tale' of how the witch obtained Rapunzel. This is one of the most compelling parts of the book, and her motivation for wanting a child to the point of giving up all else, even her soul, is made understandable to the reader: "How much was a daughter worth? ... 'Anything and everything.' The answer was absolute." (129-130)

The horror of the witch's confinement of Zel to the tower is also softened by the fact that she wants Zel to choose to stay with her of her own accord, but just can't bear the idea of Zel choosing a life of her own. In her desperation she calls on the devils that control her, and it is they who compel her to put Zel in the tower. Although the witch is clearly beyond her own control or judgement when it comes to losing Zel, she is nevertheless aware that this action is wrong; despite her real and well-intentioned love for her daughter, the witch must still be responsible for her actions, and thus gives her life to save Konrad, Zel's lover, at the end of the novel. Readers may see the witch's death as her redemption rather than as a punishment, as it is clearly her final release from the devils that control her.

In Spinners, the character of Rumplestiltskin is a somewhat less appealing villain than Zel's witch, but is still a convincing and sympathetic character. He too is a loving parent gone awry, as he was never allowed to raise his daughter Saskia due to the fact that her mother rejected him on account of his deformity. Instead, he must watch her from afar and finally rescue her from her predicament when the king orders her to spin straw into gold. Despite his terrible demands on his daughter, Napoli and Tchen do an effective job of making Rumplestiltskin sympathetic and understandable to the reader. His obsession with his daughter Saskia's mother may be slightly distasteful to the reader but is believable, and serves as the motivation for most of his later actions. The reader also views him for the most part as a victim of this obsession, and his ostracism from the rest of the world makes the reader feel sympathy toward him.

Also understandable to the reader is Rumplestiltskin's desperate desire to be a part of his daughter's life, since he is so isolated: "...he imagines their first meeting. She isn't afraid of him.... He tells her who he really is. She cries and opens her arms." (98-99) When the circumstances of their first meeting are very different, he clearly wants to help his daughter for her own sake but seems compelled, once more by his obsession, to ask for a gift in return. The final, terrible request for her firstborn child stems from the anger he feels from being deeply hurt by his daughter's revulsion toward and rejection of him; the reader cannot forgive him for this but neither can he forgive himself: "The spinner listens to the echo of his own hideous words. He knows his request is unpardonable. Someone cries inside him."(132-133) His terrible request is further balanced by his extreme anticipation and love for the expected child as he prepares for its arrival, allowing him to remain a sympathetic character to the end of the novel.

Like the father in Spinners, the protagonist of The Magic Circle loves her daughter very much (perhaps too much). This witch narrates the novel entirely, making her one of the deepest and most complex characters of all the books. Although she is motivated mainly by a desire to do good, this impulse is muddied by both her own hubris and her overzealous desire to surround her daughter with beautiful, valuable things because she loves and values her daughter so highly.

The witch first becomes a sorceress who heals the sick by controlling the devils that possess them, out of the desire to use her knowledge and skills for good. Her motivation changes to include her desire to surround her daughter with beautiful things when she realizes that nobles will pay for her services with jewels. Most damning, though, is the pride that she soon begins to feel in her skills: "I am like a treasure myself. When I think like this, sometimes a finger of fear makes a cross on my heart. [...] Knowing my own value is dangerously close to hubris."(45) By her own admission it is this pride that makes her slip and allows the devils to control her instead of she them, transforming her from a sorceress into a witch.

Despite her flaws, she remains a sympathetic character, even once she has become a witch. This is done by the author's skillful depiction of the influence the devils have over her. The reader can believe their power over her and comprehend her struggle against their demands:

If I cross the path of a human family, I may not be strong enough to resist the voices inside my head. They will demand I eat a human child. This is the initiation rite; this is what separates a witch from all her past for the rest of eternity. (66)

The witch therefore flees into the deep woods, where by mischance Hansel and Gretel come upon her cabin. Although the witch fights the devils for as long as she can, eventually they gain control, and she allows Gretel to push her into the oven so that the children may escape. As with the witch in Zel, the reader feels once again that this witch's death is not truly a punishment for her behaviour but rather is her redemption and final escape from the devils that torment her: "I am dying. Dying into the waiting hands of God.... Oh, glorious death. I am dying. Dying. Free." (118)

Along with creating a sympathetic villain, the literary technique of using a subjective narrator is another common device for re-written fairy tales, as allowing one character to tell the tale can allow for more interpretation on the part of the reader. The use of shifting and first person narration is exploited very well by Napoli in her fairy tales, and in all three books narrative voice contributes greatly to further both characterization and story. This technique adds yet another dimension to the depth of the novels and enjoyment of the reader.

Zel has the most complex and interesting narration of the three novels. The narrative voice shifts throughout the book, as each chapter is told from the differing points of view of Zel, Mother or Konrad. Adding to the complexity is the fact that while Zel and Konrad's perspectives are narrated in limited omniscient, that of the witch is told in first person. Giving the first person voice to the tale's traditional villain makes Napoli's presentation of her as a sympathetic character very effective. The witch's unique first person perspective contributes greatly to the reader's understanding of her character and motivations, and makes the reader more sympathetic to her actions. Zel's limited omniscient perspective is not without purpose either, as it demonstrates to the reader how Zel is at the mercy of her mother's actions. Konrad's limited perspective makes him, too, seem to be clearly at the mercy of both the witch and Zel. The shifting voice from chapter to chapter carries the reader along through the story, as it adds to the tension between the narratives of the three characters.

The narrative voice used in Spinners is not as dynamic as those of Zel, but it too contributes to both story and characterization. Here, the narration consists of a limited omniscient perspective that alternates between the points of view of Rumplestiltskin and Saskia. The use of limited omniscient for both characters suits the balance of the story, not allowing one character's point of view to dominate the other's. This balance also allows the reader to understand the motivations of and sympathize with both of the main characters, and adds to the tension between their narratives as it puts them both on equal footing with the reader.

The Magic Circle is narrated entirely in the first person, from the point of view of the witch. This voice is key to the novel's presentation of the witch as the protagonist of the story, and contributes greatly to the reader's understanding of the character and his empathy for her. The first person perspective is crucial to understanding not only the witch and the motivations behind her actions, but also in allowing the author to communicate the power and influence the devils have over her, and her long desperate struggle against them. The reader is allowed to listen in on this battle: "Oh, most hideous and hateful demons, if you are listening now, listen closely. I will beat you yet. I will never never never practice your evil." (71) With the insight given by this personal perspective the reader is able to fully accept the witch as the tale's protagonist.

In addition to Napoli's skilled use of narrative voice and her creation of credible, sympathetic characters, her novels are further enhanced by strong literary themes. An excellent demonstration of this is the clear theme of family and family relationships that acts as a through-line in all three books. Her use of the family as a theme for all three novels seems particularly apt and well-suited to her audience, since family relationships are still among the strongest that adolescents have yet experienced.

The theme of family and the repercussions of family relationships is particularly clear in Zel. At the beginning of the story the author presents us with a very strong, healthy relationship between Zel and her Mother. Mother's love for Zel is described beautifully:

I have been enjoying the unity of Mother and Daughter, weaving through the crowds like a single strand of yarn. As I leave Zel with the smith, I feel a sharp loss. I am sacrificing our wholeness. (13)

Napoli creates a foil for this strong relationship, which is manifested in Konrad's father's anger when Konrad refuses to marry the girl chosen from him. This situation quickly reverses, however, and as Zel and Mother's relationship breaks down and becomes more dysfunctional, we are shown the strength of Konrad's family bond and the love and concern his parents have for him. His parents, and especially his mother, are shown to be sympathetic and concerned over his growing obsession with Zel and its effects on him. Rapunzel has always been a fairy tale about family and the consequences of giving up one's child, and Napoli skillfully juxtaposes these two families to deepen the theme of family and show the repercussions family relationships can have on our lives.

Like Zel, Spinners also has a very strong family theme as part of its narrative. This theme begins with Rumplestiltskin's healthy desire to marry Saskia's mother and have a family, which is then transformed into an unhealthy obsession. This unhealthy dynamic plays a role in his sad and lonely fate, when he is so broken by her death that he must leave the town where they lived. His daughter Saskia is also the victim of an unhealthy family life, as her adoptive father, the miller, descends so far into alcoholism that she is forced to take care of them both. Even more telling, it is this dysfunction that eventually prompts her life or death predicament of being forced by the king to spin bales of straw into gold, as it is the miller's alcoholism that causes him to make the dangerous boast that his daughter can spin straw into gold. As a counter to this, the great skill at spinning that Saskia and Rumplestiltskin both share can be seen as a strong link connecting them, and suggests the successful family life they may have had together if fate had not stepped in.

The theme of family also motivates many of the main characters' actions in the story. It is clearly Rumplestiltskin's continuing obsession with having a family of his own that causes him to make his greatest demand of Saskia, and ask for her firstborn child. Saskia however does not want to be denied the chance to build a healthy family relationship of her own, and this motivates her to deny the same thing to Rumplestiltskin, even though she pities him and knows it will destroy him.

Yet another dysfunctional family dynamic contributes to the story of The Magic Circle. At the beginning of the story, the witch is motivated greatly by her desire to cater to all of her daughter's possible needs, to the detriment of her own. This unhealthy relationship escalates to the point where this placing of her daughter's needs so far above her own finally leads in part to her becoming a witch, as she wants the ring the devils finally trap her with for her daughter.

Having lost her daughter forever as a result of this dysfunction, the witch then tries desperately to build a healthy family relationship with Hansel and Gretel, for both their sakes and her own: "So long as no devil knows that these children are here, so long as no devil can speak within my head, these children may live here with me [...]. We can be a family of sorts." (93) She does succeed for a while, but fails once again when she relaxes her vigilance against the devils' spies as a result of wanting to surround Gretel with jewels. This time, however, her love for the children gives her the strength to fight the devils and finally escape them in death, showing that the transgression of caring too much is a forgivable one.

The strong theme of family and the consequences of family relationships on our lives add a wonderful dimension to Zel, Spinners, and The Magic Circle. Along with this powerful through-line, Donna Jo Napoli's complex villains and skilled use of voice also add a great deal of depth to these re-written fairy tales. As a result, young adult readers will be able to enjoy these novels on a number of levels. With these three novels Napoli has certainly done an admirable job of re-imagining traditional fairy tales for a young adult audience, and shown them the elements of these tales that indeed need to be seen again and seen afresh.


Works Cited

Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. Twice Upon a Time: Women writers and the history of the fairy tale. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2001.

Napoli, Donna Jo. The Magic Circle. Dutton Children's Books: New York, 1993.

Napoli, Donna Jo. Zel. Dutton Children's Books: New York, 1996.

Napoli, Donna Jo and Richard Tchen. Spinners. Dutton Children's Books: New York, 1999.


Anna Seipp

Volume 7, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, April, 2003

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Fairy Tales for a New Generation: An Examination of Selected Re-written Fairy Tales by Donna Jo Napoli" © Anna Seipp 2003
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