February 22, 2013

On The Nature of Retellings

Retellings are tricky matters. On the one hand, writers are explicitly giving credit to an older story/idea. On the other hand, however, writers are expected to do something more with their new stories, offer a fresher take, add in bits and pieces that make the retelling uniquely theirs. It can be a very fine line to walk indeed.

While writing my thesis on changes to the "Beauty and the Beast" tale over the years, I found Perry Nodelman's spine theory to be extremely helpful. Nodelman is a prominent scholar on children's literature and attempts to explain the draw and sense of unity that we feel between various versions of the same tale
in Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books:
If we investigate what remains the same and what differs in different versions of the same fairy tale, we discover that each of the tellings contains something like a spine: a series of actions that appear in every version and that always appear in the same order... (p. 269).

If we consider "Tam Lin" versions and retellings, a spine, or  the major points of the story, those that get transferred from one retelling to the next becomes clear:
  • Tam Lin is a mortal man who is currently under a supernatural spell
  • Tam Lin and Janet meet in a place where the natural and supernatural worlds collide (Carterhaugh)
  • Janet saves Tam Lin from being tithed by holding on to him as his body morphs into many different shapes
  • Janet is successful and Tam Lin is free from supernatural forces

Even considering my relatively small sample size of "Tam Lin" retellings from this month, I can say without a doubt that they all hit those major points. Setting, character genders, additional plot points, narrative techniques, and more all not relevant to whether a story retells "Tam Lin." According to Nodelman's spine theory (which I firmly believe in myself), what really matters in determining a retelling is whether key concepts and plot points remain prevalent in the story. I want to be clear, however, that substitutions do work only to some extent. I could easily see a "Tam Lin" retelling where Tam Lin is the captive of other supernatural forces that may not specifically be fairies. But if someone tried to tell the tale by removing the supernatural elements, I imagine it would be an utter disaster. How would that author explain Tam Lin's captivity, his imminent death, and the trials that Janet must endure in order to save his life?

Sometimes I wish there was a specific formula for determining how authors should write retellings of classic stories, and then another one to help readers and critics decide how to regard these retellings. But that ruins the fun of them. Every author seems to approach a retelling in a different way, and it's fascinating to see what elements of the original story stuck with them and in what new directions they've taken the story. 

I'd like to say that I tend to prefer retellings that stay a little closer to the source material, but that's not necessarily true. What I really appreciate is simply a well-told story that gives credit where credit's due to the original, but also makes some intelligent changes to the original story in a context that makes sense.

Here are a few of my favorite retellings:

Now let me know: What are your thoughts on retellings? Anything that you love, or anything that really turns you off? What are some of your favorite retellings?
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Great discussion you have here. I've only read a few retellings, and I noticed that I prefer retellings that are faithful to the original story. And one factor that greatly affects my impression on how well the retelling is written is also the character development.

    1. Thanks, Rhin! I think there's something to be said for the faithful retellings - after all, the story is being retold for a reason. :) Though a well-written but radically different retelling can still be satisfying.

  2. That's interesting to learn about spine theory. I do like a good retelling, but I can be a bit picky... I do prefer that they maintain the main story and concept of the original, but offer up enough new things to keep me interested. I dislike retellings that are so similar to the original story that they become boring and predictable. Ella Enchanted is one of my favourite books of all time!

    1. The spine theory is the best ever lol. It's a really cool concept to examine. And I agree - I'm much the same way in my thoughts on retellings. And yay! Ella Enchanted deserves all the love. I'd love to blog about it, but anything I write on it would be purely emotional and just end with me demanding that people read it. :)


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