The Sisters Grimm is a homage to all the fairy tales I’ve ever loved. It’s set mainly in Cambridge and London, and a dreamlike place called Everwhere which can only be accessed through certain special gates. Now, of course I know enough not to believe that these gates won’t take me another realm, especially since I made them up myself. But generally I’ve still been known, from time to time, to fantasise of portals that could take me into fairy tale worlds. As a child fairy tales gave me what I wanted to believe in most of all: that the world I lived in wasn’t tediously mundane but latent with hidden magic. And, if only I tried hard enough I would be able to find it. As an adult, reluctant to give this up, I dedicated myself to recreating these magical worlds as best as I could.
The Sisters Grimm was born with my daughter. With her I resurrected all the fairy tales I loved before and read them aloud. I’d never directly approached writing or re-writing fairy tales before, but they’d always seeped unbidden into my work anyway. Like most readers, I’d already learnt the tales by heart as a child, they were the foundations of my storytelling lexicon. It was natural then that when my daughter wasn’t sleeping I began telling her my own versions of the fairy tales I’d learned as a little girl. I whispered to her the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Beauty & the Beast… But, wanting my daughter’s earliest sensibilities to be fortifying, I changed the protagonists into more empowered versions of the ones I knew and their stories into ones that ended with self-actualisation and empowerment rather than simply marriage.
Soon, I started thinking of the characters in these stories – Cinderella, Red, Snow and Belle – as my fictional daughters, and as each other’s sisters. Thus the Sisters Grimm were born. Now my daughter is nearly four and I read her sanitised versions of these fairy tales. She’s enthralled by them and, I’m sure, will be for the rest of her life. I think we’re so enchanted by fairy tales for several reasons. Firstly, because they’re so simple and the characters so two-dimensional (breaking a major rule of storytelling telling us that we must write complex and contradictory characters) that we can easily put ourselves in their place. This is especially useful because fairy tales are so short and ripe for our own personal embellishment.
Thus virtually every girl (and a good many women) dreams of living Cinderella’s story, for example. Secondly, the imagery is so vividly simple. We don’t get purple prose here. Snow White has black hair and red lips, Red Riding Hood has a red cloak, Rapunzel has golden hair, while Cinderella’s features aren’t described at all. We’re only told, as with so many of the fairy tale heroines, that she is “beautiful”. And so, we can picture them each as we wish and, all the more easily, put ourselves in their place. I believe this is why they lend themselves so well to both childhood games and adult fantasies.
It is unsurprising then that so many writers employ fairy tales in their writing, either explicitly or implicitly. Writers are first of all readers and these fairy tales are, from the very first, in our literary blood. Ultimately, fairy tales are a natural wellspring of the human mind, given the enduring pull of pessimism and appeal of optimism, the descent into fatalism and the draw of idealism, the belief of mortality but the wish for eternity. It’s a balance between the knowledge of the mundane and the desire for the magical. Thus, we all know we’re muggles but still, in a small secret part of our minds, we cannot help but hope that we might actually be magicians.
About the Author:
Menna van Praag was born in Cambridge, England and studied Modern History at Oxford University. She’s the author of five magical realism novels, all set in Cambridge. The first instalment of her fantasy trilogy, The Sisters Grimm, will be published in 2020 by Transworld (UK) & HarperVoyager (US).
She reads too many books & eats too much cake. Find her here: https://www.mennavanpraag.com/