Of course, this act of altering a traditional story has been done for centuries, by oral storytellers, collection building folklorists, and enterprising animated mice alike. But why fracture a fairy tale? Why take something that clearly works and break it apart and rebuild it with the risk of getting it wrong?
Well, for a laugh. That’s one reason.
Here’s another. Fracturing fairy tales can be a way to engage in a sort of dialogue with the story itself, and of course, with other readers. Just as a scholar might analyze a story, the writer of the fractured fairy tale might write a new one precisely to question interesting or baffling elements of the original. As a writer of fractured fairy tales, I often find myself writing stories to answer questions I have. If the princess of "The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body" knows exactly how to defeat the giant, why does she need the prince to carry out the task? Isn’t it interesting that a “true princess,” a la "The Princess and the Pea," must be very finicky, sort of like a cat? By the way, you can read the stories these questions inspired at my site Mythopoetical (http://www.beatrixcottonpants.com/). Right now, if you like. I’ll wait here.
Let’s take a look at this idea in action. In the introduction to The Rumpelstiltskin Problem (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Vivian Vande Velde writes that the book emerged out of her realization that the original tale made no sense. Why, she wondered, did the miller make such an outrageous claim about his daughter’s ability? And why did the king believe him? Why did Rumpelstiltskin need a baby, anyway? Each short story in the book is an attempt to answer one or more of these questions. Maybe Rumpelstiltskin wanted to eat the baby. Maybe the whole spin straw into gold thing was just a metaphor, and things got out of hand. Maybe the miller’s daughter was in on it the whole time. Vande Velde also recently released Cloaked in Red, a similar approach to "Little Red Riding Hood."
Gail Carson Levine, too, wrote a few books out of a desire to understand why. Her series of fractured fairy tales, The Princess Tales (Harper Collins, 1999-2002), often work to explain or flesh out fairy tales. She explains her motivations on her website in discussing her book, The Fairy’s Mistake.
It isn’t likely, she posits, that a prince, coming upon a girl “blessed” with an inconvenient habit of spitting up valuable gems, would fall in love with her. More likely, he’s in it for the gems. The Fairy’s Mistake tells the story from that point of view. Her stories often attempt to explain how characters fall in love in fairy tales, or why they decide to undertake various quests (think the Prince’s long trek through the briar patch in "Sleeping Beauty"), giving them back-stories to make more sense.
Through reading these books, and others like them, readers are exposed to both the questions the authors have about fairy tales and possible answers to those questions. But it’s always worth it to try it yourself. Take a fairy tale you love and rewrite it. Then take a step back and read over your own work. You might be surprised at what you learn about your favorite tale, and of course, yourself.