Leigh Bardugo Explores Traditional Fairy Tales in a New Light

Fairy tales are, for many of us, the first introduction to stories in their most basic form. Writers and collectors, such as the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault, spread stories by collecting, writing, and publishing them. The tales we were told as children are generally either abridged or edited versions of the originals. Original collected fairy tales were dark stories that served as moral lessons to children; they weren’t meant as fully fleshed-out tales.

Leigh Bardugo attempts to bridge the gap between original dark fairy tales and fully-explored short stories with her six-tale collection titled The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic. The stories are set in her Grisha universe. The Grisha are an order of magicians with various powers, and though this story collection deals very little with them, they are mentioned in passing. The fairy tales in the series are split up by the country from which they originated and are intended to serve as stories that the characters would have heard in their own childhoods.

The original Grisha series focuses on Ravka, a fantasy version of Russia, as it is embroiled in a civil war. A later duology deals with six criminals trying to pull off a heist in Kerch, which is primarily inspired by the 18th-century Dutch Republic. An upcoming duology will focus on a supporting character from the original series as he learns how to be a king. It’s obvious, however, that Bardugo used traditional fairy tales and fables from the real world in order to craft her remastered stories.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

The first story is “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” which features the thorns of the collection’s title. Ayama is an underappreciated girl in Novyi Zem, a nation inspired by Australia, where the king’s monstrous son was sent away years ago because of his beastly nature. That said, the son is still causing havoc. Ayama is sent multiple times to the thorn wood where the monster lives in order to reason with him.

“Ayama and the Thorn Wood” has undertones of “Beauty and the Beast,” as the king’s son is monstrous, and Ayama is, while not as gorgeous as her sister Kima, still pretty. However, the story opposes the role of traditional beauty for Ayama in the end. Ultimately, it showcases the power of truth, as well as the idea that stories bring emotion and life to people, even when they feel they have lost all hope.

The Too-Clever Fox

The second story is “The Too-Clever Fox”, and is the first from Ravka. The tale features a fox named Koja who is, as the title tells us, too clever for his own good. He attempts to help a young woman who appears to be in distress, but the tables soon turn on him. The tale draws from fables and lesser-known fairy tales where animals speak and assist humans, such as “How Jack Found His Fortune.” The main difference is that the human Koja helps, the seemingly fearful Sofiya, doesn’t really need his help at all. Instead of teaching a lesson to the reader, Koja learns one himself: there is a difference between being clever and being wise, and even frail creatures must become strong.

The Witch of Duva

“The Witch of Duva” is also from Ravka and is a reworking of “Hansel and Gretel.” In the tale, Nadya lives with her father in the village of Duva after her mother dies and her brother goes off to train as a soldier. Her father remarries a woman named Karina, whom Nadya doesn’t like. Nadya is resentful and leaves home one day when Karina sends her out, eventually coming upon a witch in the woods.

Contrasting the original story, the witch invites Nadya to assist her in caring for people since snow is falling so thickly she can’t make it home. The witch, Magda, uses magic to give people what they ask for, whether they need it or not. For example, a woman who lost her child to fever asks for another child, and the witch gives her one created out of gingerbread. It doesn’t matter that the child isn’t really alive, but what the woman asked for was what she received. Bardugo says in her author’s note that she always thought the character of the father in the original story of “Hansel and Gretel” was troubling, as he was so weak-willed that he let his wife send his children into the woods to die. Her tale takes that thought to a distressing conclusion.

Little Knife

The Ravkan tale titled “Little Knife” follows a man named Semyon as he tries to use a river to gain the hand of a princess. The princess has little interest in marriage, and the river, dubbed Little Knife, soon grows tired of doing Semyon’s bidding when he fails to reward it. The story takes on the familiar premise of several men seeking a princess through three seemingly impossible tasks. Usually, it is the suitor who is seen as most unlikely to accomplish the tasks who rallies, gains help from mentors, and ultimately wins. However, Semyon, even in this traditional role, is a prideful person who cares little for the princess he seeks to marry, or the river who performs his tasks for him. Sometimes, choosing your own way is the best path, and it is the princess and Little Knife who ultimately prove victorious.

The Soldier Prince

“The Soldier Prince” is the only tale from Kerch and is heavily inspired by “The Nutcracker.” In fact, two of the characters are named Droessen (similar to Drosselmeyer) and Clara. Droessen, a greedy but talented toymaker, gives the titular soldier prince to 12-year-old Clara, and she plays with him for years, telling him all of her desires, mainly to live in a fairytale world with him as her prince. The soldier prince, believing he really is a soldier, eventually begins to doubt his own reality. The story also has elements of “The Velveteen Rabbit”even though that particular work a picture book instead of a fairy taleas it debates the concept of whether love is enough to make a toy real.

When Water Sang Fire

Scandinavian-inspired Fjerda gives us “When Water Sang Fire,” which, like the previous story, was obviously inspired by a traditional tale, this time Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Best friends Ulla and Signy are mermaids. During the summer, they go to a nearby human kingdom with several other members of the mermaid court, along with the sixth prince, Roffe.

The princes must bring back gifts to prove their worth as candidates to be king. Ulla and Signy both get wrapped up in assisting Roffe to create such a gift. “When Water Sang Fire” is Bardugo’s version of a background for “The Little Mermaid,” and it is as dark and twisted as can be expected because it includes themes such as betrayal and murder. Ultimately, Ulla must learn her own worth, as well as that of her friendship with Signy, in order to survive.

Many of Bardugo’s endings change our perceptions of the entire story up to that point, as character motivations shift and loyalties change. It’s an interesting tactic, and luckily, one that is hard to see coming. The dark tales relate well to traditional stories, which are also quite dark.

At the end of the day, Bardugo’s stories add a humanistic element as we feel and grow with the characters, which is almost impossible to truly do with traditional fairy tale characters. Her characters grapple with complex issues that don’t have easy solutions. Bardugo begs the readers to ask several questions: how do I save my father from someone I believe to be a bad influence? How do I protect my family and neighbors from being killed by a beast or a hunter? Do I grant my best friend her heart’s desire, even when it costs me my reputation and maybe my life?

Ultimately, these six stories fill in the gaps of the original stories they are drawing inspiration from. They maintain and occasionally expand on the dark tone of the originals. The few original stories in this collection are well-crafted and keep pace with the remastered stories. These new fairy tales are therefore solid additions to the fairy tale genre and wonderful stories in their own right; they are both lovely and brutal. There are few truly happy endings because, as the title implies, these stories have thorns.

Topics:  
I am a journalism and history student who loves reading and writing. I write for two lifestyle magazines, and would like to go into publishing. I also love literature and European history. I write poetry, dark fairy tale retellings, and am currently working on a novel. You can often find me drinking tea, contemplating my unruly characters, and eating cookies for inspiration.

Want to start sharing your mind and have your voice heard?

Join our community of awesome contributing writers and start publishing now.

LEARN MORE


ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

Leigh Bardugo Explores Traditional Fairy Tales in a New Light

Fairy tales are, for many of us, the first introduction to stories in their most basic form. Writers and collectors, such as the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault, spread stories by collecting, writing, and publishing them. The tales we were told as children are generally either abridged or edited versions of the originals. Original collected fairy tales were dark stories that served as moral lessons to children; they weren’t meant as fully fleshed-out tales.

Leigh Bardugo attempts to bridge the gap between original dark fairy tales and fully-explored short stories with her six-tale collection titled The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic. The stories are set in her Grisha universe. The Grisha are an order of magicians with various powers, and though this story collection deals very little with them, they are mentioned in passing. The fairy tales in the series are split up by the country from which they originated and are intended to serve as stories that the characters would have heard in their own childhoods.

The original Grisha series focuses on Ravka, a fantasy version of Russia, as it is embroiled in a civil war. A later duology deals with six criminals trying to pull off a heist in Kerch, which is primarily inspired by the 18th-century Dutch Republic. An upcoming duology will focus on a supporting character from the original series as he learns how to be a king. It’s obvious, however, that Bardugo used traditional fairy tales and fables from the real world in order to craft her remastered stories.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

The first story is “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” which features the thorns of the collection’s title. Ayama is an underappreciated girl in Novyi Zem, a nation inspired by Australia, where the king’s monstrous son was sent away years ago because of his beastly nature. That said, the son is still causing havoc. Ayama is sent multiple times to the thorn wood where the monster lives in order to reason with him.

“Ayama and the Thorn Wood” has undertones of “Beauty and the Beast,” as the king’s son is monstrous, and Ayama is, while not as gorgeous as her sister Kima, still pretty. However, the story opposes the role of traditional beauty for Ayama in the end. Ultimately, it showcases the power of truth, as well as the idea that stories bring emotion and life to people, even when they feel they have lost all hope.

The Too-Clever Fox

The second story is “The Too-Clever Fox”, and is the first from Ravka. The tale features a fox named Koja who is, as the title tells us, too clever for his own good. He attempts to help a young woman who appears to be in distress, but the tables soon turn on him. The tale draws from fables and lesser-known fairy tales where animals speak and assist humans, such as “How Jack Found His Fortune.” The main difference is that the human Koja helps, the seemingly fearful Sofiya, doesn’t really need his help at all. Instead of teaching a lesson to the reader, Koja learns one himself: there is a difference between being clever and being wise, and even frail creatures must become strong.

The Witch of Duva

“The Witch of Duva” is also from Ravka and is a reworking of “Hansel and Gretel.” In the tale, Nadya lives with her father in the village of Duva after her mother dies and her brother goes off to train as a soldier. Her father remarries a woman named Karina, whom Nadya doesn’t like. Nadya is resentful and leaves home one day when Karina sends her out, eventually coming upon a witch in the woods.

Contrasting the original story, the witch invites Nadya to assist her in caring for people since snow is falling so thickly she can’t make it home. The witch, Magda, uses magic to give people what they ask for, whether they need it or not. For example, a woman who lost her child to fever asks for another child, and the witch gives her one created out of gingerbread. It doesn’t matter that the child isn’t really alive, but what the woman asked for was what she received. Bardugo says in her author’s note that she always thought the character of the father in the original story of “Hansel and Gretel” was troubling, as he was so weak-willed that he let his wife send his children into the woods to die. Her tale takes that thought to a distressing conclusion.

Little Knife

The Ravkan tale titled “Little Knife” follows a man named Semyon as he tries to use a river to gain the hand of a princess. The princess has little interest in marriage, and the river, dubbed Little Knife, soon grows tired of doing Semyon’s bidding when he fails to reward it. The story takes on the familiar premise of several men seeking a princess through three seemingly impossible tasks. Usually, it is the suitor who is seen as most unlikely to accomplish the tasks who rallies, gains help from mentors, and ultimately wins. However, Semyon, even in this traditional role, is a prideful person who cares little for the princess he seeks to marry, or the river who performs his tasks for him. Sometimes, choosing your own way is the best path, and it is the princess and Little Knife who ultimately prove victorious.

The Soldier Prince

“The Soldier Prince” is the only tale from Kerch and is heavily inspired by “The Nutcracker.” In fact, two of the characters are named Droessen (similar to Drosselmeyer) and Clara. Droessen, a greedy but talented toymaker, gives the titular soldier prince to 12-year-old Clara, and she plays with him for years, telling him all of her desires, mainly to live in a fairytale world with him as her prince. The soldier prince, believing he really is a soldier, eventually begins to doubt his own reality. The story also has elements of “The Velveteen Rabbit”even though that particular work a picture book instead of a fairy taleas it debates the concept of whether love is enough to make a toy real.

When Water Sang Fire

Scandinavian-inspired Fjerda gives us “When Water Sang Fire,” which, like the previous story, was obviously inspired by a traditional tale, this time Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Best friends Ulla and Signy are mermaids. During the summer, they go to a nearby human kingdom with several other members of the mermaid court, along with the sixth prince, Roffe.

The princes must bring back gifts to prove their worth as candidates to be king. Ulla and Signy both get wrapped up in assisting Roffe to create such a gift. “When Water Sang Fire” is Bardugo’s version of a background for “The Little Mermaid,” and it is as dark and twisted as can be expected because it includes themes such as betrayal and murder. Ultimately, Ulla must learn her own worth, as well as that of her friendship with Signy, in order to survive.

Many of Bardugo’s endings change our perceptions of the entire story up to that point, as character motivations shift and loyalties change. It’s an interesting tactic, and luckily, one that is hard to see coming. The dark tales relate well to traditional stories, which are also quite dark.

At the end of the day, Bardugo’s stories add a humanistic element as we feel and grow with the characters, which is almost impossible to truly do with traditional fairy tale characters. Her characters grapple with complex issues that don’t have easy solutions. Bardugo begs the readers to ask several questions: how do I save my father from someone I believe to be a bad influence? How do I protect my family and neighbors from being killed by a beast or a hunter? Do I grant my best friend her heart’s desire, even when it costs me my reputation and maybe my life?

Ultimately, these six stories fill in the gaps of the original stories they are drawing inspiration from. They maintain and occasionally expand on the dark tone of the originals. The few original stories in this collection are well-crafted and keep pace with the remastered stories. These new fairy tales are therefore solid additions to the fairy tale genre and wonderful stories in their own right; they are both lovely and brutal. There are few truly happy endings because, as the title implies, these stories have thorns.

Scroll to top

Follow Us on Facebook - Stay Engaged!

Send this to a friend