The Language of Fairy Tales by M. T. DeSantis

It’s often said of Shakespeare’s classics by many modern readers—his stories are timeless, but the language is inaccessible. The same could be said for the original versions of fairy tales. Writing, like any other part of a culture, has evolved. If the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen picked up a modern novel, they’d share the confusion we often feel when reading Shakespeare. With the recent popularity of fairy tale retellings, especially those aimed at young readers, it’s important to write in a voice kids and teens can identify with. Equally important, though, is to preserve the original integrity of the tales woven centuries ago. Quite the balancing act.

Let’s talk about language. Kids are smart. They want smart but accessible books. They want to be swooped off on a grand adventure but still feel as if they can relate to the characters in the book. In order to accomplish this, the writing must feel modern even if the story draws on a tale written a long time ago.

“Little Red Hunting Hood,” my story in the After the Happily Ever After anthology, tells the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” ten years after the infamous wolf incident. Genni (Red) is sixteen and finding out she was promised to the son of the hunter who rescued her and grandma in return for the hunter’s service. Though rooted in a classic fairy tale, I use today’s language to tell this update to Red’s story:

“Very good,” Grandma says in her I-have-news voice. Nothing good ever follows the I-have-news voice. “It’s about time you two met. The arrangements were made ten years ago, and Gunter asked if I would do the introductions.”

What is she talking about?

“You two are betrothed.”

The world goes away.

Did another wolf barge in and swallow me whole?

I blink a bunch of times until reality comes back. The words future and husband flit around in my skull like a fly trying to break free of a jar. I heard wrong. Or maybe Grandma’s going nuts in her old age.

Not exactly how Perrault or the Brothers Grimm would have worded it. “Nothing good ever follows the I-have-news voice” is a clear trademark of more modern language with the hyphenated descriptor text employed for humor. Similarly, “going nuts in her old age” is not a new concept, but it’s definitely updated language. The story’s snappy narrative voice gives it a feeling of freshness present in much of today’s young adult literature.

So we’ve modernized the story. But what about staying true to the original version? The few short paragraphs quoted above deal with many elements present in the original “Little Red Riding Hood”—the hunter, the rescue, a wolf. They also touch on aspects present in many fairy tales—arranged marriage, decisions being made for young people. The story unquestionably harkens to “Little Red Riding Hood” and fairy tales in general. The familiar elements are embedded in the framework of “Little Red Hunting Hood” enough so “Little Red Riding Hood’s” integrity is maintained, but the updating of the language takes this classic tale and makes it accessible to today’s young readers.

In our quickly changing world, it is so important to keep our culture’s history alive. From Disney to the After the Happily Ever After anthology, fairy tales are having an impact on people, kids included. It’s often argued that the original stories are the ones kids need to read in order to keep the classics alive. I agree, but the updated versions are equally important. If young readers are given a story they can relate to and language they can get lost in, they will grow an appreciation for reading and, more importantly, fairy tales. They’ll go back and read the originals to see where the stories they love so much came from. So by giving these tales a fresh new wording, the Brothers Grimm, among others, will gain a following. And, hey, Shakespeare might even benefit, too.


M. T. DeSantis currently lives in a small city on the U.S. eastern seaboard. When not writing, she can be found practicing yoga, attempting to answer trivia questions at restaurants, or plotting her next adventure.

Photo credit: “Little Red Riding Hood” (c) Jerry Cai




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