FAIRY TALES ARE EMPTY.
It’s part of their appeal.
Once upon a time, an archetype faced a universal situation and lived happily ever after. How irresistible to a writer! Such endless possibilities for reinvention and subversion!
The beckoning emptiness of fairy tales has drawn countless writers over the years. One of the best at filling that emptiness is Gail Carson Levine. Her debut novel, the 1998 Newbery Honor Book Ella Enchanted, is a classic in the field of fairy-tale retellings.
Everyone knows the story of Cinderella: a kind girl loses her mother, her father marries a cruel woman with two cruel daughters, they mistreat her, fairy tale magic ensues. Variants of the story exist in every culture, the oldest dating back to ninth-century China. The tale is classified as 510A in Aarne-Thompson’s tale type index. But in Ella Enchanted, Levine brings something special to the classic.
First, Levine modernizes things. She doesn’t make the setting contemporary — we are firmly in quintessential storyland — but her Ella is strong, smart, and funny. She’s not the submissive dreamer from Disney’s 1950 movie version. She’s a girl that we can admire and relate to; Levine’s Cinderella doesn’t submit to servitude meekly. Her response to her horrid finishing school:
But in bed, before I fell asleep, I’d imagine what I would do if I were free of Lucinda’s curse. At dinner I’d paint lines of gravy on my face and hurl meat pasties at Manners Mistress. I’d pile Headmistress’s best china on my head and walk with a wobble and a swagger till every piece was smashed. Then I’d collect the smashed pottery and the smashed meat pasties and grind them into all my perfect stitchery.
Second, Levine explains some of the original story’s nuances and incorporates them into her retelling. For example, Ella has tiny feet because she’s descended from fairies, who all have tiny feet. This (not-so-incidentally) is the same reason she has a fairy godmother. Also, Levine’s Ella is forced to be obedient because she is under a fairy’s curse. The curse was meant to be a gift, like Sleeping Beauty’s grace and beauty. The irresponsible fairy didn’t understand the ramifications of such a gift…but Levine does, and she runs with it, taking Ella on adventures far beyond the parameters of Perrault’s version. As Ella puts it, “If you commanded me to cut off my own head, I’d have to do it. I was in danger at every moment.”
Third, Levine enhances the story. She adds ogres with magical mesmerizing voices, centaur colt pets, and both kind and dreadful fairy godmothers — creating her own fully realized fantasy world with cultures, languages, and politics. She adds depth, motivation, and, quite frequently, charm to her secondary characters. The prince likes Ella not because they share one romantic night of dancing, but because she writes letters that make him laugh and is able to outwit ogres. Ella’s fairy godmother, who calls herself Mandy, works as a cook and makes curing soups with unicorn hairs. Even Ella’s mother, who dies at the beginning of the novel (as she does in the original fairy tale), is imbued with so much personality that the reader wishes she had lived to slide down more banisters and climb up more trees with Ella.
In Ella Enchanted, Levine proves she is one of the best fairy tale retellers in the world: she doesn’t just retells the story — she reinvents it. More importantly, she does so cleverly and beautifully. She takes the stock characters, the universal themes, and the nebulous world of the bare-bones tale, and she crafts a new, relevant, and charming novel that should be required reading for anyone who has ever felt drawn to the phrase “once upon a time.”