Twenty Must Read Retold Tales – An Introduction to the Genre

As part of our ongoing genre introduction series, we’ve decided to share a list of retold tales that will forever change the way you think about some old childhood favorites. This genre is often called Mythic Fiction, but we’ve chosen to be a bit more restrictive in our list than that larger category. Virtually every fantasy work draws in some part on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology from around the world. So where to draw the lines? We’ve decided to focus solely on works that reinvent or retell already existing stories, no matter their origin. So along with the Grimm brother’s collection of German folktales and classical mythology, below you’ll find reinventions of tales like The Wizard of Oz. You will not see works like American Gods or the The Lord of the Rings, which are both based in mythology on differing levels, but which tell original tales.

This list is not meant to be an all-encompassing list of retold tales, but a sampling of the styles available within this genre. We’ve cast our nets far and wide on this one, and we feel certain that there’s something here for everyone. There are books that were published within the past year, and there are a few from the early days of the fantasy genre as we know it today. We do not expect that everyone will like everything. Some of these works are light and entertaining; some are dark and gritty. Some retellings are more traditional, while others are highly literary. What this list is meant to show is the wide variety of works available. For the most part, we’ve chosen to only feature a single title from any series of books, with one exception: you’ll see multiple entries from the Fairy Tale Series only because these are all by different authors and are in different styles. Their connecting thread is the editor, Terri Windling, who was a central figure in the revival of this genre during the 1980s and 1990s. You will also see only one title per author, although several of these authors have multiple works that qualified for this list.

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1. Happily Ever After edited by John Klima
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If you’ve never read a retold tale, this may be a good place to start. Happily Ever After is a large collection of short stories, and all of the tales within are retellings. This collection features authors such as Gregory Maguire, Charles de Lint, Jim C. Hines, Jane Yolen, Gregory Frost, Neil Gaiman, and many more. Along with being a great collection of modern fantasy authors, it also contains just about every style of retelling out there. From literary fiction to dark realism, traditional to urban fantasies, this compilation has it all. What better jumping off point could there be?
2. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
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This is perhaps the most well-known retelling of our time. Wicked follows Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and tells the story from her viewpoint. This is a very literary piece of fantasy, and Maguire uses Elphaba’s tale to ask questions about differing perspectives, racism, and what it means to be human. There are three more books in Maguire’s The Wicked Years Series, and Wicked has also been made into a Tony Award winning musical. For those who are only familiar with the musical, do be warned that the book is meatier, more complex, and much darker than the show.
3. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis
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One of Lewis’s lesser known and more literary offerings, Till We Have Faces was originally published in 1956 and is based on the tale of Cupid and Psyche from The Golden Ass by Apuleis. Rather than focusing on Psyche and her “God of the Mountain,” this book follows Psyche’s older sister Orual. She is left at home to dispense advice that is not always good, and to live a very human life while Psyche becomes increasingly divine. Unlike more well known Lewis works, this tale is fairly dark and reflective. Lewis is also fairly liberal with the interpretation of the original tale, showing how folklore and mythology can change its memory of events even within a single lifetime.
4. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
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An unexpected retelling of Sleeping Beauty, this book will haunt you. It’s part of The Fairy Tale Series compiled by editor Terri Windling, and won the Mythopoeic Society Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. While this title finds itself on the young adult shelf nowadays, do not be fooled into thinking it’s an easy read emotionally. The tale follows Rebecca Berlin, who has a feeling there is more to her grandmother’s life story than she’s ever told the family. Becca’s hunt takes her to Poland and the Chelmno extermination camp, where she learns the horrors of the war through which her grandmother lived. This tale is understandably dark, and extrapolates from the Grimm tale by using ideas like the Evil Witch as metaphors for far more complex ideas like Nazism.
5. Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis McKiernan
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This is a wonderful tale where the peasant girl rescues her prince. Based on an old French tale, Camille triggers a curse and has a year and a day to rescue her love. To do this, she must find him in a land that is “east of the sun, west of the moon.” This adventurous yarn is the first in a five part series, all more or less based on French fairy tales. They are all very solidly in the traditional realm of fantasy, and are highly accessible.
6. 1,001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham, illustrated by James Jean and Charles Vess
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This is a prequel companion volume to the popular Fables graphic novel series, which follows some of our favorite storybook characters as they try to live in hiding in modern America. While it’s fabulously fun to watch Prince Charming squirm when confronted by all three ex-wives (Snow White, Briar Rose, and Cinderella), that alone wouldn’t qualify Fables for this list. 1,001 Nights, however, does. Taking place an indeterminate time before the first volume of Fables, it features Snow White, who finds herself cast as Shaherezade. Inside this larger tale are the nightly tales Snow must tell to save her life. Some of these stories are themselves retellings, while some are original. Each tale is illustrated by a different artist with the in between pieces done by Charles Vess. This graphic novel can be read completely separate from Fables, though it does provide an incredible amount of background information for several characters. Don’t be fooled by the medium; this collection (and its parent series) are for mature audiences!
7. Beauty by Robin McKinley
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Robin McKinley has written multiple retellings in her career, including two of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty is the first of the two, and has been in print for over thirty years. There isn’t much here that is innovative, per se, but it is a quietly touching tale about how and why people change. More so than many others on this list, Beauty is extremely faithful to the style of story it retells, rather than bringing a modern outlook to it. It is also one of those few books that is equally accessible to both teens and adults.
8. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
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Perhaps Bradley’s most enduring work, The Mists of Avalon retells the Arthurian cycle from the point of view of Morgain, Arthur’s older half-sister and the mother of Mordred. Set in a post-Roman, pre-Saxon British Isles, this book is beautifully researched and written. We follow Morgain from her birth as the daughter of the Duke of Cornwall through her training as a pagan priestess at the temple of Avalon in a world that is growing decidedly more Christian. Her life takes several interesting turns while her brother is king, and the book ends with the Battle of Camlann and Arthur’s death. There are several prequel books that were written after Mists was published, but they are not necessary for the full appreciation of this book.
9. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
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Marilier’s debut novel, and basis for her Sevenwaters Series, Daughter of the Forest retells the Celtic myth Swans, which was also used by Hans Christian Anderson. Marillier stays close to the original myth, using a historical setting and introducing a romantic line. Sorcha, the youngest of seven children, must save her older brothers from an enchantment laid on them by their evil stepmother, all without speaking a word.
10. Deathless by Catherynne Valente
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Based on a Russian folk-tale Koschei the Deathless, Deathless is set during the Russian revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century. Marya Morevna is the youngest of four sisters, and is chosen by Koschei, the Tsar of Life, to be his mortal bride. When your sister-in-law is none other than Baba Yaga, you know your life isn’t going to be easy. Marya must fight to maintain her husband’s affection while securing a position of respect within her marriage. Valente is known for fabulous descriptions, but the tone here is dark and sometimes ambiguous, with a fair amount of feminism thrown in. If you’re familiar with Valente’s YA work, know that this book is for mature audiences and has little in common with her other work.
11. The Child Thief by Brom
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This is Peter Pan like you’ve never imagined him before. This dark novel takes a look at the war between Peter and the Captain and the lost boys who serve as soldiers in that war. Forget any ideas about the boy who won’t grow up; this is a story about those who find themselves in bad situations with no good choices to be made. The majority of the story takes place in a fleshed-out Neverland that is an interesting blend of Celtic and English mythology, making it quite different from the child’s paradise found in most incarnations of Peter Pan. The book also jumps between the present story and Peter’s origin story.
Check out our review of The Child Thief here!
12. Jack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint
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This is part of Windling’s Fairy Tales Series, and it is actually an omnibus edition of Jack the Giant-Killer and its sequel Drink Down the Moon. In de Lint’s version of the tale, the Jack of too many tales to count is a woman called Jacky from modern Ontario. She is swept up by the Wild Hunt and taken to the land of Faerie, which is just out of sight of her modern city streets. Drawn into the war between the Faerie Courts, Jacky must use all her ingenuity to help defeat the giants and save both Faerie and her own city. These are also two of the earliest examples of urban fantasy, first published in 1987.
13. The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
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The first book in a trilogy of the same name, The Looking Glass Wars takes Alice in Wonderland to new heights. Fleeing from a palace coup in Wonderland, Alyss confides in the aspiring author Lewis Carol only to see her life story turned into a piece of children’s fiction. Instead of being an innocent child from our world, Alyss is the rightful Queen of Hearts, who has been ousted and is willing to fight a bloody war to reclaim her throne. If you’re looking for a loving tribute to the original work, keep looking. This young adult trilogy goes in a completely different, and new, direction.
14. The Once and Future King by T. H. White Buy on Amazon.com Buy at The Book Depository Buy at Barnes and Noble Find this book on Goodreads
This is the second oldest book on our list, and also one of the most famous. Originally published in 1958, this work has become a touchstone of the fantasy genre as a whole and casts a huge shadow over any author working with the Arthurian myths. In fact, Disney’s Sword in the Stone is based off the first quarter of this book. At the time this was written, it was meant to be a highly accessible version of the Arthurian cycle with modern references and a relatively informal voice. However, sixty years later, some of the modernism is a bit dated. On the other hand, the book is masterfully written and a worthy classic.
15. Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey
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Lackey has worked a lot with retold tales, but this is one of my personal favorites of hers. It’s the fourth book in the Elemental Masters series, but it does not require a reading of the previous three novels in order to enjoy it. In this retelling of Cinderella set in England during WWI, we follow Eleanor as she struggles to escape her abusive family and help the handsome but mentally traumatized pilot Reggie. Lackey has also written several other retellings, including the rest of the Elemental Masters series and Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms.
16. Hood by Stephen R. Lawhead
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This is a very historic reinterpretation of Robin Hood. Set in the tumultuous time right after the Norman conquest of England, Lawhead follows Bran ap Brychan of Wales as he transforms from the son of a noble to a landless outlaw. Bran initially is not a very likeable character, though he does grow into his role as a hero. There’s also a fair amount of history to keep up with at this time: Great Britain is split between a number of warring factions living in highly localized areas with their own laws and culture. There are two sequels to Hood, rounding out a complete trilogy.
17. Beastly by Alex Flinn
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Another retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but this time it’s from the Beast’s point of view. Once upon a time, Kyle had everything any teenage boy could want, until he blows off the wrong girl. The main thrust of the book is how Kyle comes to terms with being a beast instead of a handsome boy, and how that in turn must change how he sees everyone else. Luck comes his way when a drug dealer gives Kyle his daughter, and Kyle’s last chance to return to a human identity. This is a teen romance novel, and the basis of a movie by the same name.
18. Enchantment by Orson Scott Card
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A Russian flavored retelling of Sleeping Beauty, Card follows a modern day Russian man who was raised in the United States as he returns to Russia just before his marriage. Following his memories of a sleeping girl in a forest, he gives her the fatal kiss and thus the story starts. Ivan and Katerina must get to know each other while madly dashing through time and space, fighting the evil witch who first enchanted Katerina. This is another title which is typically rated for mature audiences.
19. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
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The last installment we’ll feature from the Fairy Tale Series, Tam Lin is based on the tale of the same name. Set on a 1970s liberal arts college campus, we follow Janet through her college years and her dealings with a certain Professor of Classics. The story is deeply loyal to the original tale, making updates mostly to time, place, and personalities. This is a special treat for those who enjoy literature and classics.
20. The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines
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Last but not least, why not explore what happens after the fairy tale is over? What is a princess to do? Become an enchantress? How about an assassin? What if she needs to rescue her prince? Hines takes three Grimm princesses (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella), and takes them on a new adventure and fleshes out their origin stories in new and interesting ways. While Hines is known for comic fantasy, some of the themes running through his Princess series are very dark and sometimes controversial. Overall, however, The Stepsister Scheme and its sequels are fun romps.

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Did you enjoy our Introduction to Retold Tales list? Was it helpful? Do you agree with our choices or disagree? What would you add to the list? Discuss it with us on the forums!

About Janea Schimmel

Janea Schimmel
Janea is an avid fantasy reader who after college inexplicably found herself working in a library. She was the only one surprised by this strange turn of events. When not surrounded by books, she enjoys working on her own fantastical fiction (thereby restoring order to her universe by having a book nearby), as well as making music (clarinet, vocals, renaissance recorder), cooking, and honing various skills made obsolete by the industrial revolution.

View all articles written by Janea Schimmel.

8 comments

  1. Enjoyed reading this, though always tough to compile a limited number of titles (some favorites always get left out). Really can’t believe that Grendel by John Gardner didn’t make your top 20 (Beastly seems such an obvious rip off). Would have loved to see Jonathan Carroll’s “Sleeping In Flame ” in this list as well. Thanks for the list though, there are a couple titles I was not familiar with and now have something to read in the near future…R

    • Janea S

      Again, this wasn’t mean to be exhaustive, though Grendel is a good read and qualifies for the list. I haven’t heard of Sleeping in Flame, I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Realise list not meant to be exhaustive but would have thought Helen Lowe’s “Thornspell” (Knopf) and McKinley’s “Deerskin”  worthy contenders …

    • Janea S

      I had three or four McKinley titles on my consideration list, but in the name of variety, I could only do one. I would certainly agree that all of them are worthy reads.

      I haven’t heard of Thornspell, I’ll have to check it out!

  3. Oh, this is very good. I didn’t know about this site. I’ve bookmarked it now.

  4. you definitely should have put Ella Enchanted up there. Its the classic Cinderella retelling.

  5. Enchantment is one of my favorite books. I am ecstatic to see it on your list!

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