Magical Realism: Our Modern Fairy Tales

May 23, 2014

storytelling opening phrase

A giant beanstalk, a man with a blue beard, a spinning wheel wound with gold: we need only hear mention of these magical emblems to think of the fairy tales attached to them. Fairy tales beg to be retold. It is no surprise that many contemporary authors who often gravitate toward magical realism have written stories based on fairy tales. Magical realist fiction takes place in a world that resembles our own, except for the introduction of a magical element (which cannot be explained by the conventions of our reality). Certainly, a story that takes after a fairy tale need not contain any magic at all; one could write a story based on the plot of a fairy tale, a line of dialogue from it, a moment. But it is interesting to see how many writers who often favor magical realism have plucked the uncanny elements from fairy tales to use in their stories.

Kevin Brockmeier’s first published story, “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” originates from a version of the story’s ending in which Rumpelstiltskin literally splits himself in two. Aimee Bender’s “The Color Master,” the title story of her latest collection, was inspired by the dresses of impossible colors in “Donkeyskin,” by Charles Perrault. Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum draws on the menacing figure of the Erlking in her New Yorker story of the same name.

All of these stories also appear in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, a 2010 anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer, who has done so much to honor, and examine, the place these stories have in our collective consciousness. The stories in Bernheimer’s anthology are based on fairy tales from all over the world; at the end of each, the author explains how the fairy tale influenced her work. In the introduction, Bernheimer writes: “When asked by some contributors what a fairy tale was, I would answer: You already know. A fairy tale is a story with a fairy-tale feel, I told them.”

It’s true. Fairy tales are recognizable in myriad forms. Take, for example, “Goose,” this week’s story. No one has to say “Mother Goose” or “The Brothers Grimm” for the reader to identify them instantly. Built into even the telling of fairy tales is a unique lore, a magical quality. I once had a student who said she wanted to write a kind of fairy tale and, without her explaining further, the class knew what she meant. (The story itself brilliantly played with our preconceptions; right as we expected magic to enter as the evil force, it turned out the dangers of the real world were far more menacing.)

Of course, the retelling of fairy tales is by no means a new tradition. It is built into the very nature of these stories that they be told over and over, endlessly. Perhaps it is the fairy tale’s latest trick to fool us into thinking that we are the ones reimagining its various incarnations; because all this time it has been the stories themselves, speaking to us, using our modern devices to convey what they want to say.

by Sadye Teiser


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