Review – Roses and Rot

Roses and Rot – Kat Howard

Saga Press, 2016

As a child, Imogen escaped from the misery of her home through writing, while her sister Marin did the same through dance. Even as adults, they are not free. When they are both accepted into a prestigious artists’ retreat, it seems the perfect opportunity to reconnect while they chase their dreams. But Melete is not quite the paradise it appears. There is a price for the greatness it offers – the question is which sister is going to pay.

This is a loose retelling of Tam Lin, one with a very original premise that is centred around a complicated sister relationship, all of which appealed to me very much. I also enjoyed the many references to fairy tales, and the intensely personal way Imogen interacted with them. I thought some of the secondary characters were not fleshed out as well as they could have been and at times the plot skimmed over moments I’d have liked to read in more detail. Overall, though, Howard drew the different threads of the story together very well, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout. Roses and Rot is Howard’s first novel. Her second, An Unkindness of Magicians, is slated for release in September.


Review – Valor

Valor – ed. Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton

Fairylogue Press, 2015

What’s in a name? Maybe a secret, maybe a spell. In this anthology of fairy tale retellings, you’ll have to run fast to escape the masquerade, and hold onto your courage to break a terrible curse. Monsters are not always what they seem, love can be discovered in the strangest of places and a happy ending is all about where you choose to look for it.

Most of the stories in Valor are comics, though there are a few that are almost entirely text. As with all anthologies, some stories were stronger than others – there were a couple that just felt incomplete to me. My favourites included the charming ‘Bride of the Rose Beast’, the bittersweet romance of ‘Nautilus’ and the utterly delightful ‘Lady Tilda’. This collection has a refreshing emphasis on diversity and I was very pleased to see retellings of some more obscure fairy tales.

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 1: The Princess and the Flamethrower

With the sad news of SF Signal’s closure, I am reposting the first article in my Feminism in Fairy Tales series here on my own blog. It was originally posted on the SF Signal website on 13/06/13.

Tales are not lies, nor are they truths, but something in between. They can be as true or as false as the listener chooses to make them, or the teller wants him to believe.

– Juliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I’m pretty sure 2012 was the Year of the Fairy Tale. There wasn’t an official announcement or anything, but the nod was clearly given in secret circles and the retellings spread outwards like ripples on the waters of speculative fiction. Novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder were released, there were big movie adaptations Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, there was even a TV series. Hell, there were two TV series! I’m a fiend for fairy tales; I was in paradise. And I was seriously impressed by the ingenuity of all these storytellers for finding something new to say about stories that have been retold over so many years.

But there was also a bitter aftertaste that’s been bothering me for some time. It was so subtle, and so pervasive, that it is difficult to pin down when exactly I first noticed it – in the reviews? The promotional interviews? The posts I read afterwards? What I noticed was this: that when people spoke about a fairy tale adaptation, the assumption was that it would be better than the original. Specifically, that the women would be better.

Because everybody knows women in fairy tales are weak. They are at the mercy of wicked stepmothers and nefarious kings! They always need princes to ride to their rescue! And that’s really pathetic, right? We of modern times are better than that. We know that what every princess really needs is to ditch the frocks and get herself a flamethrower. (Admittedly, I have not yet seen a fairy tale adaptation in which the princess literally has a flamethrower. It is the new dream of my existence that one exists.)

The popular impression of a fairy tale princess is a Disney beauty in a ball gown. The thing is that, like a lot of the other things that ‘everybody’ knows, it’s wrong.

I grew up on the fairy tales retold by Ruth Manning Sanders: a handful of loved-to-death ’80s reprints with missing pages and cracked spines. Manning Sanders covered classics like ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Aladdin’, but she didn’t stop there. Through her, I discovered stories from Jamaica and Iceland, Sicily and Russia, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy. I read about girls who bribed themselves a better destiny, who freed slaves, who met and married wizards or witch’s sons as well as princes. I learned, not by anyone telling me but from my own insatiable reading, that women in fairy tales are not weak. They are not necessarily strong either. They are something more than either.

They are people.

And I kept reading. I found myself heroines like Tatterhood, the hideous elder daughter of a queen, who goes forth to fight witches and rescue her sister; Princess Blue-Eyes, the gorgeous ruler of her own kingdom who beats a Czar and all his three sons in battle; Tokoyo, daughter of an exiled samurai, who saves a sacrificial maiden by jumping off a cliff and fighting a sea monster. Where are their retellings? Why aren’t there movie adaptations of their stories, or an introduction to the Disney canon? If readers of the 21st century are so dissatisfied with the way women are written in fairy tales, why not look beyond the standard Grimm brothers selection pool?

But let’s take a look into that pool, since it is rather irresistible with its sparkling shallows and murky depths. The women in Grimm favourites tend to get the worst kicking, so stuck with labels you’d think they’d been mistaken for a corkboard. Passive! Submissive! Weepy, soppy, weak.

Why? Because they don’t get into swordfights with their evil stepmothers? Because they don’t take on all comers with a metaphorical flamethrower? Modern retellings often put an emphasis on their heroines physically or verbally defending themselves, which can be excellent and deeply satisfactory, but there are other ways of being strong. Surviving in an atmosphere of hatred without letting yourself get infected by it, like Cinderella does – that takes strength. Making a new life among strangers, like Snow White, takes courage. Being imprisoned with no resources for an escape, like Rapunzel, and keeping on hoping for something better anyway, takes fortitude. It’s a quiet bravery, easy to ignore, and so people do ignore it. They pretend that women in fairy tales don’t ‘do’ anything. But they are wrong.

It isn’t about the stories. It is all about the telling. There are very few fairy tales out there that can’t have excellent female characters if they are told by someone who wants them to be that way, and you don’t have to change the stories at all – all you have to do is understand and respect the characters in them. Women in fairy tales can be villains, they can be heroines, they can be ordinary and in between, but they all have individuality until a storyteller chooses to take it away.

Or gives it back.

As Aladdin could tell you, something new is not automatically better than something old. We need them all, the fairy tales that have been transmuted into shining unfamiliar shapes standing beside the ones that are as old as the path in the dark woods. There’s magic, and strength, enough to be shared without belittling either one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write a fairy tale about flamethrowers.

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 2: The Demon’s In the Double Standard

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3: In Dire Need of Dynamite

Disney Reflections No.10: The Modern Royal’s Guide On How Not To Parent

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

It is a rare fairy tale where the protagonist’s parents are a) alive, and b) capable of raising their children without life-damaging trauma. In this, the final post of Disney Reflections, the royal family of Arendelle fail both spectacularly. I was introduced to Tumblr’s opinions on this movie – including various versions of ‘Let It Go’, genderbent art, and meta I tried really hard not to read – before seeing it myself, which meant I was spoilered for several things on top of my usual ‘You’re Doing My Fairy Tale Wrong’ literalism. A rewatch is definitely necessary for judging this one.

The fairy tale: Frozen is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Snow Queen’, which is one of my favourites (admittedly, the list is lengthy) and was reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project. You can read my thoughts here.

The film: We start in the kingdom of Arendelle, which sounds like a dress shop rather than an actual place and what, may I ask, was wrong with Denmark? I mean, I can’t prove ‘The Snow Queen’ starts in Denmark but that’s where Andersen was from and later in the story Gerda travels to Lapland, so it would be reasonable to assume…

…you don’t really care, do you? It’s just I MISS the days when Disney set its fairy tales in real places, hyper-stereotyped though they usually were.

Anyway. Arendelle. It’s very north. In a sequence that reminds me of The Little Mermaid’s opening number, ‘Fathoms Below’, we see the ice-breakers at work on the river, hauling away vast frozen chunks with skill and speed. Tagging along behind is a little boy, with an equally diminutive young reindeer. He’s trying to learn the trade without anyone actually teaching him or, in fact, noticing he’s there. the castle, Princess Elsa is trying to sleep. The colours of the aurora borealis swirling in the night sky outside are not enough to wake her, even her little sister Anna’s determined tugging can’t get her up, until the magic words are deployed: “Do you wanna build a snowman?” The answer is YES. Elsa wants to build a snowman. And in the echoing great hall of the palace, that’s precisely what she does, because Elsa has magic that allows her to create winter at will. She makes the floor an ice rink, waves the stick arms of a snowman she calls Olaf, makes little hillocks of snow for Anna to jump between. But Anna keeps jumping higher and higher, and Elsa can’t keep up. Nor does Anna listen when she’s told to stop. A stray bolt of ice magic strikes her across the head; she tumbles to the ground and goes still. A streak of white appears in her hair. Panicked, Elsa screams for their parents.

Who at least know about the magic, though they don’t really like it. They take their daughters to the trolls, little mossy people who strongly resemble boulders. Trotting alone through the woods, the pint-sized ice-breaker is nearly mown down by the frantic royals and hurries after them to see what’s happening. “Cuties,” one troll remarks, petting both boy and reindeer approvingly. “I’m gonna keep you.”

The rest of the trolls are focused on the frightened family huddled in their midst. The chief troll comes kindly forward to examine his patient. It’s lucky – to a given value of ‘luck’ – that the blow struck Anna’s head, not her heart. By stripping away all memories of magic and modifying them to normal winter fun, the troll heals her. He warns Elsa that her power will only get stronger, and that she must learn to control it or disaster will follow. He illustrates his point with flashing red illusions that terrify the young princess and her parents, who decide the best way to handle their daughter’s burgeoning abilities is to go into full lockdown. The castle gates are locked; the staff reduced. Elsa’s things are moved out of the room she shared with her sister. She is encouraged to stay away from people until she learns to control her power…but the tighter her restrictions, the worse her control. Seeing that she makes frost with her bare hands, her father gives her gloves. The outside world becomes a terrifying place for a little girl with a secret.

And on the outside is Anna, bewildered at the sudden change in her sister, trying to coax her out of her room with slowly declining hope. She resorts to dangerous stunts to entertain herself, like riding a bike down a staircase, and starts talking to the paintings. When the girls are in their teens, their parents go on a fortnight’s sea voyage and are caught in a storm. They don’t come back. Now Elsa is utterly alone, and so is Anna.

Three years later, the stillness on the castle cracks. Elsa is about to ascend the throne and that means, “for the first time in forever”, the gates are about to be opened. Anna is almost hysterical with excitement. She whizzes past ‘wow, am going to meet someone new’ straight to ‘TRUE LOVE IS OUT THERE’. Though her notion of true love is basically just someone who wants to talk to her. Oh, honey.

In the city outside, the festival mood is echoed in flower garlands and ribbons. The little boy, Kristoff – all grown up to lumberjack proportions, along with his reindeer Sven – is among the hopeful crowd. More distinguished guests, including a gang of dodgy-looking dignitaries, arrive in the port. When the gates are flung open Anna dives out, plunging into the crowd like she’s taking her first deep breath in years. Her enthusiasm is infectious. Her co-ordination could use some work, though. She runs straight into a horse, falls in a boat and ends up face to face with a prince. He’s handsome and courteous; she’s instantly smitten. Conversation stutters along in awkward mutual apologies until the introductions are made. He’s Hans; she’s the soon-to-be-queen’s younger sister; oh yes, and the coronation is about to start, she should probably be there.

Underneath a veneer of regal composure, Elsa is freaking out. Whatever she touches with her bare skin immediately frosts over, but part of the ceremony requires her to hold the traditional orb and sceptre aloft in front of everyone. She takes them in her hands for the briefest possible time and whips her gloves back on afterwards.

The following party is far less formal. Once Elsa has been introduced by her official title, with Anna by her side – and it’s desperately sad how uncertain Anna is about being there, edging diffidently away so they don’t stand too close – there is jaunty music and dancing. The sisters attempt to have a conversation. It’s reserved but kind on Elsa’s side, awkward and eager on Anna’s. Both are a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people suddenly in their home,  both sniff longingly at the aroma of chocolate. Their chat gets interrupted by the Duke of Weselton (one of those dodgy-looking dignitaries from earlier on), who asks for a dance. Being the queen has its perks; Elsa can say no, but Anna gets whirled around on the floor while the duke tries to pump her for information and simultaneously perform an acrobatic sort of hornpipe. Coming back to Elsa after the dance, Anna makes another tentative overture – “I wish it could be like this all the time” – and Elsa obviously agrees, but the reminder closes her down again, making Anna back off in tears. 

And who should she stumble into at that moment? The handsome, the dashing, the much-better-dancer-than-that-duke Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who proceeds over the evening to prove himself a fantastic listener. They swap stories: he’s the youngest of twelve brothers and three of them once pretended he didn’t exist, she doesn’t feel welcome in her own home. After hours of sneaking around the castle and gardens like little kids, Hans spontaneously proposes in a romantic spot beside a waterfall and Anna spontaneously accepts. They both drunk on finding someone who actually likes them. Bursting back into the ballroom to tell Elsa, their dizzy vibe is abruptly dampened when she points out they’ve only just met, this is weird, she’s not giving her blessing and definitely not hosting their wedding. She’s not very tactful. One thing leads to another, the sisters get into a screaming row and Anna accidentally pulls off one of Elsa’s gloves. Instantly, a wall of razor sharp icicles flash across the floor.

Elsa’s secret is finally out. Horrified, she flees into the village square but everyone wants to stop and congratulate her. The Duke of Weselton – who has somehow taken charge – shouts out an order to stop her. In her panic, Elsa lashes out again and her people shrink back in fear. She runs down to the fjord. When water meets her feet, it turns to ice, making a bridge for her to pass across. Which is pretty damn spectacular. Behind her, the whole fjord ices over, trapping the ships. Elsa’s fear is so great she has brought a sudden winter down on Arendelle. is not one of those calling Elsa a monster. She feels guilty about the fight and worried about her sister; leaving Hans to hold the fort, she gets a horse and rides off to find Elsa. “She’s my sister,” she reassures Hans. “She would never hurt me.” But Elsa does not want to be found. Climbing high into the mountains, the snow a whirlwind around her, she has gone right through panic into something like elation: she can’t go back so why bother with the rules? Why not do whatever she wants? Why not…LET IT GO, LET IT GO, SHE CAN’T HOLD IT BACK ANYMORE…

Had to be said.

Crafting a palace from ice, she frosts herself a dress and conjures up a snowman just for the hell of it. Elsa likes being banished. The cold never bothered her anyway. It does bother Anna, who didn’t change out of her summer ballgown and just lost both her cloak and her horse in the woods. Staggering through knee-deep snow towards the rising smoke of a chimney, she discovers a little shop that is stocked almost exclusively for summer. Managing to acquire a warm dress and boots, she and the shopkeeper are both taken aback when a snow-encrusted stranger stomps in demanding carrots. It is Kristoff, who has just come from the North Mountain, where scary magic stuff is happening. Anna perks up. In return for buying his hideously expensive winter supplies – the shopkeeper is not sympathetic to sorcerous changes in season – she enlists Kristoff’s help to reach the mountain and hopefully convince Elsa to stop freezing Arendelle to death.

Kristoff has grown up a bit odd. He prefers his reindeer Sven to human beings (well, that’s not odd, Sven is adorable, if a bit dog-like) and has a ventriloquism thing going on where he pretends Sven is singing along with him, but he’s all Anna’s got, even if he does tell her off for scuffing his freshly lacquered sled and takes Elsa’s side in the Hans argument. Anna sticks to her guns. It is TRUE LOVE. When wolves attack the sled, she works off her anger beating them away with Kristoff’s guitar.

I feel really sorry for wolves in Disney films, they get so badly typecast.

Anna and Kristoff end up running straight at a cliff. Because it is Disney, they get over safely; the freshly lacquered sled, however, ends up at the bottom of a ravine. Anna guiltily promises to buy a new one. Kristoff isn’t very forgiving, but Sven likes her so Kristoff ends up having an argument more or less with himself and comes along grudgingly.

As the sun comes up, the wintry world Elsa has created glitters bewitchingly. Anna and Kristoff are walking through it (with a very bouncy Sven) toward the mountain when they come across Olaf the mobile snowman, Elsa’s creation from last night, who is cheerfully critiquing the lack of colour. Despite initial misgivings, Anna gives him one of Sven’s carrots for a nose. When he introduces himself, she recognises the childhood name and realises they have a lead on finding Elsa. Olaf is delighted to help, though it means bringing back summer. He likes summer. Just doesn’t understand quite what it is…

As a side note: being a Queenslander, I find his desire to get tanned really unhealthy. Snow melts. Skin burns. Don’t tan, people!

Meanwhile, in the city, Hans is great in a crisis. He’s handing around cloaks and blankets, offering hot soup from the castle kitchens, tamping down the Duke of Weselton’s hysterical accusations. When Anna’s horse returns without its rider, he rapidly gathers volunteers for a rescue party. The Duke sends along two men who do not have the royal family’s interests at heart. Unaware of the concerns for her safety, Anna climbs higher into Elsa’s winter wonderland. The closer they get to the top, the spikier the ice formations grow. At length they come to a cliff-face that’s too steep to climb. Nothing daunted, Anna launches herself at it anyway. “You know, most people who disappear into the mountains want to be alone,” Kristoff points out. “Nobody wants to be alone!” Anna declares. Olaf politely interrupts by finding a staircase round the back that leads straight to Elsa’s massive ice palace. Kristoff falls in love with it on the spot.

He’s indignant when Anna insists on going in alone, but doesn’t push it. Olaf trots in anyway. Elsa is astonished to see him alive; apparently her magic has even less limits than she thought. Anna reminds her of the snowmen they built as children, asking her to come home; Elsa gets a painful flashback to when her magic and her sister last collided and demands she leave, go back to the castle where she’ll be safe. Only she won’t, because eternal winter. Hearing what her magic has done, Elsa is appalled – she doesn’t know how to undo it and Anna’s blithe assurance that she can is maddening. Ice starbursts out from her, a splinter accidentally lodging in Anna’s chest.

The noise brings Kristoff running. That’s the last straw for Elsa, who calls up a giant snow bouncer to throw them out. Unfortunately, like Olaf, it has more personality than she intended. When Anna insults it, the snow bouncer chases after them all in a homicidal rage. Kristoff rapidly rigs up his rope and pick to swing them down the side of the mountain, but the snow bouncer starts pulling them back up and they have to cut the rope, falling into deep snow. As they get up and try to decide what to do next, Kristoff notices Anna’s hair slowly turning white. Realising she was struck by Elsa’s magic, he leads her to meet some friends.

They really do look a lot like boulders. Olaf is skeptical. But the stones quickly reveal themselves to actually be trolls, who are so wildly overjoyed about Kristoff finally introducing them to another human being that they start planning a wedding straight away. I find this a bit creepy. Finally, when Anna collapses, they figure out this is a medical emergency rather than a marriage, but the news gets no better – Anna has been struck in the heart and the only cure for that is an act of true love.

Kristoff lifts her onto Sven. His idea is to bring her back to Hans for true love’s kiss, but Hans is at the ice palace getting attacked by Elsa’s snow bouncer while the Duke’s men slip past with crossbows. Elsa begs them to just leave, flinging up ice to defend herself – but by the time Hans gets there, she has both men at the mercy of her ice and is about to kill them. “Don’t be the monster they fear you are!” Hans calls out. Elsa wavers. One of the Duke’s men grabs the chance to fire his crossbow; in deflecting it, Hans brings down a chandelier. Elsa is knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she’s in a cell under the castle, hands gloved in iron to prevent her using her magic, and Hans comes in pleading with her to bring back summer. She tells him what she told Anna: she doesn’t know how.

At the same time, Kristoff is riding like mad for the castle. He leaves Anna with the people there, unwilling to go but not sure what else he can do, and she’s quickly bundled into a quiet, warm room with Hans. She explains as best she can, already very weak, and he leans in to kiss her…only their mouths don’t meet. He pulls back at the last minute. “Oh Anna,” he remarks. “If only there was someone out there who loved you.” In a screeching narrative U-turn, he reveals his hand. All he actually wants is the kingdom and as it looks like he can have that without her, he’s going to let the magic take its course. To be sure it does, he locks the door behind him when he leaves. Heartbroken, Anna collapses on the floor.

If this is really based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, I think it’s a bit much they’ve named the villain after him.

Hans then goes straight to the council room to announce Anna’s death at Elsa’s hands. “At least we got to say our marriage vows,” he whispers, “before she died in my arms.” He should be off on stage doing Romeo and Juliet. Instead he gets the throne and everybody’s approval to execute Elsa. But it won’t be quite that simple. As Anna told him, he’s no match for Elsa – her ice freezes the metal gloves to breaking point and she breaks down a wall to escape her cell.

Up on the hill overlooking the city, Kristoff is walking away from the royal family drama. Sven completely disagrees with this life choice. Kristoff kind of does too, though he can’t quite admit it. This is probably their first fight ever. It breaks off when they see the massive storm building around the castle – Anna is down there and Kristoff doesn’t even hesitate, plunging back the way he came.

The one to reach Anna first, however, is Olaf. He picks the lock with his carrot nose (there’s an interesting line to type) and throws caution to the winds by kindling a fire to warm her up. Though she can barely talk, Anna tries to warn him. “Some people are worth melting for,” he tells her. That is an act of true love, if you ask me, but he thinks they should get Kristoff, who is riding hard for the castle. If they’re going to reach him, it had better be soon – spikes of ice are spreading across the castle, turning it into a death trap. Breaking open a window, Anna drops onto the frozen fjord. Unknown to her, Elsa is close by, lost in the storm of snow. Hans is in pursuit; Kristoff and Sven are searching. It’s like a game of Murder. Guess who’s the murderer?

Hans comes up behind Elsa. He tells her that she killed Anna and the shock of it brings her to her knees, the storm collapsing with her. Raising his sword, Hans prepares to finish her off – but Anna sees them first. With the last of her strength, she throws herself between them, just as she turns into a statue of pure ice. Hans’s sword shatters on impact, sending him flying. Elsa sobs brokenly over what is left of her sister while Kristoff, Sven and Olaf look on helplessly.

Magic is tricky. Anna thought she needed to receive an act of true love; instead she showed one. The ice melts and the sisters share their first hug in a very long time. Elsa realises that love is the key; if fear can set off an eternal winter, a sibling reunion is enough to end it. The deep snow around doesn’t thaw, it vanishes, leaving them all standing under a warm summer sky. Including Olaf. Who does start melting, but Elsa promptly fixes that with a personalised snow cloud to follow him about.

Which means there’s only Hans left to deal with. Anna faces him with disdainful composure. “The only frozen heart around here is yours,” she informs him, before decking him in the face. Everyone approves. Including the councillors, who are watching from a balcony and have changed their minds about a lot of things. For example, Elsa gets her crown back uncontested, while the Duke of Weselton is sent packing on the next ship out. Hans is taken home to face his big brothers. they’re handling unfinished business, Anna prepares a surprise for Kristoff. He gets a brand new sled, the official post of Royal Icemaster and Deliverer, and a quite enthusiastic kiss from the crown princess. Olaf and Sven play practical jokes with a carrot and Queen Elsa creates an ice rink in the castle square to show off how fun her powers can be. “I like the open gates,” Anna confides. “We’re never closing them again,” Elsa declares. Skating together, surrounded by the people who love them, they both have all they ever wanted.

Spot the Difference: Okay, so this is a sweet movie. I love to see anything about sibling relationships take centre stage, particularly sisters, and there are some interesting – if not terribly well explained – narrative subversions. Anna breaking the spell on herself was a delightful touch that took me a second viewing to recognise, I thought Elsa’s grief broke it the first time around. Elsa is an unusually ambiguous character for Disney, which is also good to see. A lot of Elsa’s behaviour suggests she has an anxiety disorder, making her the first Disney princess with a mental illness, and her emotional upheaval gets a lot of very welcome nuance. These are all great things. On the other hand, a retelling that bears less resemblance to the original story would be difficult to find. The overlap is extraordinarily small and the differences are…interesting.

Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ is all about friendship – not just between Gerda and Kay, but the host of allies Gerda receives support from along the way. Most of whom are female, occupying a wide spectrum of ages: the lonely enchantress, an exceptionally well-educated princess, the robber girl and a pair of wisewomen. The Snow Queen is a distant and largely disinterested villain. Anna and Elsa appear to be an odd amalgamation of Gerda, Kay and the Snow Queen – actually, that’s too much of a stretch, they appear to be entirely original characters with no basis in the fairy tale at all. There are no other significant female characters. Every secondary character of significance is male. This movie is about frightened girls finding their ground, and that is an important story to tell – but in the process, a host of fantastic women have been ignored.

Why pretend this is based on ‘The Snow Queen’ at all? It isn’t! It has a queen who likes snow. That’s not the same. I can appreciate all the good things about this movie and rewatching it was enjoyable, but as a retelling, it is a complete failure. I hope they make another version of ‘The Snow Queen’ someday and do it a bit more justice. Frozen stands perfectly well on its own.

This has been a fun project for me. It’s always exciting to see how fairy tales are adapted for changing times and audiences, what different ideas each iteration draws from the same story. Over Disney’s long history, the approach has evolved markedly. The next Disney princess to hit screens will be Moana, in a movie of the same name which will be released next year. I’ll definitely be watching it. Thank you for reading – I hope you’ve had fun too!

Disney Reflections No.9: In Which Blondes Are Not Having More Fun

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

I can be quite demanding when it comes to fairy tales. Occasionally I go on impromptu rants about feminist princesses who should be household names but aren’t and I’ve written several retellings – including, as it happens, one about Rapunzel. When I first saw Tangled, shortly after its release in 2010, I was a little underwhelmed. As with The Princess and the Frog, this is my first rewatch.

The fairy tale: I reviewed the Grimm brothers version of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.

The film: We begin with a wanted poster for one Flynn Rider that you’d be forgiven for confusing with a pin-up, what with the roguish smile and good hair. I believe it to be the only one in the movie that doesn’t deliberately get his nose wrong. “This,” announces the voiceover, “is the story of how I died.” Flynn hastens to clarify that it is not as depressing as it sounds! Nor is it his, it actually belongs to a girl called Rapunzel. So it would appear he is already nicking the story.

Once, he tells us, a drop of sunlight fell to earth and where it landed, a magical golden flower grew with the power to heal the sick. When the pregnant queen of a nearby kingdom falls desperately sick, her subjects turn out in droves to search for the legendary flower. Unfortunately, someone else found it first. For centuries a woman called Mother Gothel has been hiding the flower under a cunning leafy basket. By singing over it, she calls on its power to restore her youth and beauty.

But the deluge of miracle-seekers takes her by surprise and despite her best efforts, the flower is found. The queen drinks it down, recovers at once and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. In celebration a painted lantern is lit and floats away into the sky.

Magically assisted pregnancies always come with side effects, however, and in this case it is a creepy wannabe immortal sneaking into their daughter’s bedroom to take back the magic. Rapunzel’s hair glows like the flower when she hears the song, but the spell doesn’t last when a lock is cut off. Does that stop Mother Gothel? Not a bit of it! She takes the child and spirits her off to a tower deep within the woods, to bring her up in complete isolation. A more sophisticated version of the leafy basket, really. Refusing to give up hope, the king and queen send up thousands of lanterns every year on their lost daughter’s birthday, hoping that one day she’ll see them and come home.

Years pass. Rapunzel grows and so does her hair. Having found myriad uses for the endless blonde coils – from a lasso to a bungee cord – she’s technically capable of leaving the tower. In fact, frenetically active individual that she is, she needs to leave the tower, she’s painted all over the walls and has made enough candles to open a small shop, plus she’s driving her chameleon sidekick Pascal crazy with games of hide-and-seek. The world outside scares her, though. Mother Gothel has drummed it into her since infancy that no one out there can be trusted.

At this point Flynn Rider finally crashes into the movie, leaping across rooftops with some very large thugs in pursuit. They’re on the same side, nominally. Flynn wants his own castle, where he can pose dramatically on the battlements; the Thugs want the royal treasure. Letting him down through the roof – because OF COURSE Flynn thinks he lives in a heist movie – they acquire a heavily guarded tiara and leg it like mad.

Meanwhile, at the foot the tower, Mother Gothel has arrived for a visit. She doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s hair, that’s for losers, she lets her adopted daughter haul her up instead. She then proceeds to tear down Rapunzel’s self-confidence with carelessly unkind jokes that are excused with an ‘I’m just teasing!’ that actually make them WORSE. Rapunzel, though, has a plan. She turns eighteen tomorrow and she wants one thing: to go and see the floating lights that rise every year on her birthday.

Mother Gothel tries to brush her off. When Rapunzel persists, she’s treated to a litany of horrors that are sure to pounce on her the second she sets foot in the outside world, ranging from men with sharp teeth to the plague, and accompanied by rapid-fire criticisms, until Rapunzel is so distraught she’ll promise anything for a reassuring hug. “Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again,” Mother Gothel tells her, and Rapunzel agrees. It’s deeply disturbing to watch. Assured that her charge is sufficiently cowed, Mother Gothel departs again into the forest.

Which is unexpectedly full of soldiers, in pursuit of Flynn and his associates. Despite Flynn being distracted by a badly drawn wanted poster, they’ve managed to maintain their headstart, only to run into a rocky dead end. He convinces the Thugs to give him a boost up in exchange for the treasure-filled satchel, but filches it on his way up and runs off without them. The soldiers are hot on his heels, led by a moustachioed commander on the white charger Maximus. Flynn swings down from a tree, knocking the commander to the ground and replacing him in the saddle – but Maximus immediately skids to an outraged stop and does his level best to rip the satchel out of Flynn’s hands. It goes flying instead, hooking on a branch, swinging precariously over a clifftop. Flynn and Maximus brawl to get to it. Unable to bear their combined weight, the branch snaps and they fall from a great height.

Because this is a Disney movie, they survive it. Maximus springs up. The forces of justice cannot be stopped by so trifling a thing as a near-fatal fall! He tries tracking Flynn, but the thief has ducked behind a curtain of leaves and is hiding in a cave. From the other side it opens onto a flower meadow…and a hidden tower.

Flynn doesn’t need magic hair. He scales his own way up and is promptly knocked out cold by a frying pan. Rapunzel has a perfectly reasonable freak-out over his unconscious body and shoves him in a cupboard. Once she gets over the panic and confused attraction, she zooms in on the really important point: one of those untrustworthy people Mother Gothel has been warning her about came into the tower and she handled it. Also, he has nice teeth.

Then she sees the open satchel, and inside, the sparkling tiara. It takes her a few tries to figure out what it’s for, but once it’s on her head…

Mother Gothel naturally chooses that precise moment to interrupt. Hiding the satchel and tiara, Rapunzel hauls her up as usual and tries to explain what happened, but at the first reference to their earlier argument, Mother Gothel flies off the handle. “You are not leaving this tower!” she shouts. “Ever!” Rapunzel stares at her with wide shocked eyes and right then makes the decision to lie. She pretends that she wants paints for her birthday instead, ensuring Mother Gothel will take a three-day trip away. As soon as she’s out of sight, Rapunzel cautiously approaches the cupboard. is still out cold, possibly with permanent brain damage from all the whacking. When he finally wakes up, he’s tied to a chair with suspiciously silky golden rope and a gorgeous girl armed with a frying pan is standing over him. Quickly sizing his captor up, Flynn tries out the charm card but just baffles her. She makes him an offer: he can have his satchel if he takes her to see the lights and brings her safely home. Considering he just robbed the royal family, that sounds a bad deal to him. But it’s that or be tied up with hair for the forseeable future, so he agrees to her terms.

For the first time ever, Rapunzel sets foot on grass and earth. She meets her first Disney bluebird! She alternates between dizzying joy at her escape and paralysing guilt at deceiving her mother, while Flynn looks on with stony resignation. He tries to exploit her conflict to make her go home, but Rapunzel turns contrary immediately. She is going to see those lights.

Meanwhile, Mother Gothel gets ambushed by Maximus. He backs off, disappointed, when he realises she’s not his quarry – but she sees that he’s a palace horse and hurries back to the tower. Of course, Rapunzel isn’t there. Mother Gothel finds the tiara instead…and a wanted poster of Flynn Rider.

Who is trying out another tactic to get rid of his unwanted companion. He drags her to a hardcore pub for lunch. It’s called the Snuggly Duckling, and is full of ruffians, rogues and generally the kind of armoured blokes who look like knock-off orcs. Turns out this was a terrible plan because they recognise Flynn (those wanted posters are inescapable!) and decide to hand him over for the reward money. Only everyone wants the reward money so he’s thrown from one thug to another while they bicker it out. Rapunzel finally catches their attention with a violent flick of her hair. It is not something you can ignore. “I don’t know where I am and I need him to take me to see the lanterns, because I’ve been dreaming about them my entire life,” she pleads. “Find your humanity! Haven’t any of you ever had a dream?”

Forget orc extras, these guys wandered off Les Miserables. THEY ALL HAVE A DREAM. From wannabe concert pianists to interior designers to that guy who makes ceramic unicorns, they all seize on Rapunzel as the eager listener they’ve been waiting for all their lives. Even Flynn (admittedly at swordpoint) joins in, though his dream is to be hideously rich on his own personal island. No one sympathises. Gothel arrives at the door in time to see her adopted daughter dancing on a table surrounded by cheering thugs. And look, she’s the worst in pretty much every respect, but that is a legitimate maternal nightmare. Rapunzel is having the time of her life, though, and Mother Gothel can’t get near. Instead, the door slams open for the palace guards. The Ducklings, having had a total change of heart mid dance number, spirit Rapunzel and Flynn out the back door so she can achieve her dream. They’re out of luck anyway because Maximus kicks in the door, reunites with his commander and tracks Flynn’s scent to their escape route. Flynn’s associates – who were caught but not very well restrained – grab the opportunity to free themselves and set off to catch their double-crossing partner.

Rapunzel’s attempt at bonding with Flynn over backstory is spoiled by soldiers thundering in pursuit. They fetch up in an abandoned quarry, cornered by the variety of enemies Flynn has acquired. Rapunzel swings to safety with her hair, leaving Flynn armed with her frying pan – it is an excellent weapon but not so useful against Maximus, a horse with a grudge and a knife between his teeth. Disarmed, Flynn is cornered until Rapunzel throws him a length of her hair and drags him to safety. Well, not actually safety. Maximus has kicked down a beam to make a bridge so he can get to them, but they’re already gone, swinging away on loops of hair. That’s when the floodgate collapses, water floods the quarry and they get stuck in a dark tunnel. With the water rising and no way out in sight, Rapunzel sobs out an apology. Flynn confesses that Flynn isn’t his name at all, his real name is Eugene Fitzherbet.

Smiling wanly, Rapunzel shares her secret: she has magic hair that glows when she sings. Realising what she just said, Rapunzel starts singing. By the light of her hair, they dig their way free of the tunnel and tumble out, scrambling up onto a riverbank. Rapunzel is blissed out on being alive. Flynn is still rather gobsmacked by the hair.

Mother Gothel, in the meantime, has caught the wrong escapees. She gets Flynn’s erstwhile thieving friends instead, and convinces them to join forces with her. They get the tiara and a promise of revenge.

Flynn has other problems right now. Rapunzel has wrapped her hair around his injured hand and he watches with increasing bewilderment as she literally sings him better. Flynn would really like to flail and flee for a bit, but Rapunzel is giving big sad kitten eyes so he forces himself to be cool with the glow-in-the-dark hair and she ends up telling him how her hair stops working when it’s cut, how Mother Gothel was afraid for her (HA) and that’s why she’s never left the tower before now. It’s obvious she is feeling guilty again. On the other hand, it’s less than a day since she left the tower and Flynn is already returning the kitten eyes. 

Rapunzel drops the subject of whether she’s going back home in favour of needling ‘Eugene’. He tells her that when he was a child, growing up in an orphanage, he’d read to the younger kids from a book of adventure stories and dream about a life of swashbuckling excitement. He swears her to secrecy. He has a reputation to protect. A bit awkward after all the oversharing, he jumps up to go get firewood and Rapunzel gazes after him fondly.

So obviously this is the moment Mother Gothel arrives to ruin everything. It’s a gift.

She takes her usual tack of maternal guilt-tripping, trying to pull Rapunzel into the woods, but Rapunzel digs in her heels and won’t go. She thinks something is happening between her and Flynn, something good. Mother Gothel’s reaction is instantaneously spiteful, mocking the very idea of anyone wanting Rapunzel, and tosses the satchel – complete with tiara – at her foster daughter, telling her to put Flynn to the test. If he gets what he really wants, he’ll leave. Rapunzel is standing there shell-shocked and alone when Flynn comes back. She quickly hides the satchel while he rabbits cheerfully on about superpowers.

The next morning he wakes to a dripping wet and utterly enraged Maximus looming over him like the Charger of Doom. Rapunzel wakes to Flynn howling blue murder as the horse hauls him off by the boot to face justice. She grabs his arm and they have a brief tug-of-war. The boot pops off and we discover Flynn Rider does not wear socks. He must have terrible blisters.

Of course Rapunzel doesn’t wear SHOES, so… her and Pascal and some authoritative babytalk, she gets Maximus to stand down. The sympathetic murmurs of ‘nobody appreciates you, do they’ probably help. She brokers a 24 hour truce between horse and thief for her birthday, though they squabble wildly behind her back. She doesn’t care – she’s arrived in the royal city and it is gorgeous.

Not, however, really designed for a woman with hair about treble her own height, so Flynn enlists a group of enthusiastic little girls to plait it all up. Able to walk freely, Rapunzel wanders about wide-eyed. A mosaic of the royal family – complete with the lost baby princess – catches her eye. Then she gets distracted by a group of musicians and kicks off a dance party. She’s adorable, and also one of nature’s leaders. No one sees saying ‘no’ to her as an option. Flynn watches on, trying to pretend he’s exasperated instead of totally besotted. Over the course of the day she paints sunbursts on the cobblestones, they eat sweets in alcoves, he shows her maps in the public library (I assume it’s public, he might have broken in) – and they dance, dance, dance.

It is the best birthday ever. When night falls, Flynn acquires a boat and they sail onto the water to watch the lanterns rise. As they wait for the light show to begin, Rapunzel wonders aloud what she’ll do after this. “Well, that’s the good part, I guess,” Flynn says. “You get to go find another dream.” the palace, the king and queen – worn down by years of hope and grief, so tired of waiting for their little girl to come home – step onto the balcony to light the first lantern. After that everyone joins in, sending a galaxy into the sky. Rapunzel is transfixed. Flynn surprises her with a lantern of her own and she responds by shyly returning his satchel. He doesn’t actually want it. He takes her hands instead. Leaning in for a kiss, he sees a terribly unwelcome sight over her shoulder – his ex-cronies waiting expectantly on the shore. Realising that he’ll have no peace until they have the tiara, he leaves a very confused Rapunzel in the boat while he heads off to hand over the satchel.

But of course they are working with Mother Gothel now, who doesn’t want riches, she wants her pet magic princess. Rather than letting him go, the thugs knock Flynn out and tie him to the helm of a ship so it looks like he’s leaving Rapunzel of his own free will – while she stares after him, devastated, the thugs bring out a sack. They know about her hair and they know how much that’s worth. She flees, but her hair snags on a bit of driftwood and while she’s desperately trying to tug it loose she hears the sounds of a struggle, followed by Mother Gothel’s familiar voice calling out her name. She turns back to find her foster mother standing over the unconscious thugs with a large branch. So relieved to be saved, Rapunzel agrees to return to the tower.

Meanwhile, Flynn’s boat knocks up against the castle walls. The tiara is tied along with his wrists, which makes no sense if he was trying to get away, but the castle guards are not looking for logic and lock him up on the spot. Maximus overhears Flynn frantically shouting Rapunzel’s name and realises everything has gone wrong.

The following sunset, the guards come to take Flynn to the gallows. At the same time, Mother Gothel has finished unbraiding Rapunzel’s hair and is trying to pretend nothing ever happened. “The world is dark and selfish and cruel,” she declares, but Rapunzel is looking at the world through different eyes. Thinking about the sunburst on the royal flag, she sees it everywhere in her paintings and remembers where she saw it first: dangling above her cot. She’s the lost princess and suddenly she knows.

(Memories do not work quite like that. But never mind! Revelations are afoot!)

On his way through the cells, Flynn spies the thugs and knocks aside his guards to plunge at them, demanding to know how they found Rapunzel. They tell him it was ‘the old lady’, and he works out what must have happened. As he fights the guards, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel, refusing to accept her weak lies. “I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power,” Rapunzel cries. “I should have been hiding from you!” She sees now that Mother Gothel stopped Flynn coming back to her. Admitting that she sent her foster daughter’s boyfriend to the gallows, Mother Gothel tries to patch it up with another ‘mother knows best’ line.

Rapunzel turns spitfire. She will not be used any more.

Back at the palace, doors are suddenly slamming shut, locking Flynn and his guards in a small corridor. It is an ambush – this time in Flynn’s favour, as the dreamers from the Snuggly Duckling come swinging in to the rescue. AND THEY BROUGHT THE FRYING PAN. The whole army mobilises to face the threat. The Ducklings calmly catapult Flynn out of the courtyard and onto Maximus’s back. The horse may not like Flynn much, but Rapunzel is in trouble and if that means organising a prison break? Maximus has a MISSION, people. They go whirling off in a mad gallop towards the forest.

Arriving at the base of the tower, Flynn calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair (it had to be said!) and a golden cascade spills out the window. He catches hold and climbs up – only to see Rapunzel chained and gagged on the floor. Mother Gothel knifes him in the back. “Now look what you’ve done, Rapunzel,” she says dismissively. As she hauls on Rapunzel’s chains, Pascal bites her skirt and is kicked into a wall for his pains. “For every minute for the rest of my life,” Rapunzel swears, “I will fight. I will never stop trying to get away from you. But if you let me save him, I will go with you.”

Mother Gothel agrees. She chains Flynn up instead and Rapunzel flies to him, ignoring his feeble attempts to make her stop healing him. It means she’s not paying attention when he grabs a shard of broken mirror off the floor and slices away Rapunzel’s hair. Without it, Mother Gothel doesn’t want her; without it, she can’t save him. The magic fading, it all turns her natural brown and Mother Gothel’s years finally catch up with her. In a frenzy, she reels backwards – and tumbles from the tower window, to her death.

Rapunzel stares after her, horrified, then goes back to Flynn. She sings the magic song hopelessly, holding his limp body in her arms. But magic is a part of her, and cutting off her hair doesn’t change that. When her tears fall on his face, they melt into his skin and flare gold. He wakes up groggy and flirty. They kiss passionately on the floor. after that, a guard bursts in on the king and queen with the news they have been hoping to hear for so, so long. They run to the palace balcony, where Rapunzel and Flynn turn to meet them. The queen is the first to step forward – incredulity gives way to joy and before you know it there’s a huge family group hug underway. Flynn watches on smiling until the queen holds out a hand and hauls him in.

With Rapunzel restored to her true home, dreams start coming true left, right and centre. The Ducklings give up banditry in favour of performance art and romance. Maximus becomes chief of police. Pascale eats a lot of fruit. As for Rapunzel and Flynn…well, he goes by Eugene these days. Still tells outrageous stories about his life and occasionally nicks her tiara. And they are living very happily ever after.

And just for the record, there’s no reason to stop lighting the lanterns just because the princess is found. She wants to CELEBRATE.

Spot the Difference: Well, there’s hair. And towers.

Look, it’s not got much common ground with the fairy tale and that bothered me on the first watch, but to be fair to Disney there’s a lot of non family-friendly content in the original story: the wild tower-room love affair, the resulting pregnancy, the prince’s eyes being put out with thorns, Rapunzel wandering the wilderness with twins. The Disney version steers clear of all that, opting for a lovable rogue instead of a prince and a princess instead of a bartered peasant girl. As with many retold fairy tales, this one tweaks the traditional structure (well, more yanks violently) to make each character’s motivations more understandable. Rapunzel’s parents desperately need the plant and are unaware of the consequences that will ensue from taking it; Mother Gothel wants something specific from Rapunzel; the magic in the hair is probably why it’s so ridiculously long.

What’s delightful about this version of Rapunzel is how she uses that hair. It could easily be a terrible hindrance to her adventurous personality, but she grew up with it and makes it work for her, and Flynn helps her come up with a sensible solution when she really needs it out of the way. In fact, Rapunzel has a tendency to use stumbling blocks as launching pads. The naivete Mother Gothel mocks is tempered with fierce determination; she expects the best from people and usually gets it, but she’s prepared to deal with danger too, even when it comes from someone she wanted to trust. She and Flynn are a well suited couple: outgoing, exuberant, personable, cause havoc wherever they go.

As for Mother Gothel, she is…unnerving, because she’s so believable. It’s difficult to say for sure how much of her relationship with Rapunzel involves genuine maternal fondness, however twisted and abusive, and how much is just possessive pride in Rapunzel’s power. Dominating and vicious when crossed, Mother Gothel gas-lights her foster daughter to keep her obedient, and it’s terrifyingly effective. It takes explicit certainty of her ill intentions for Rapunzel to finally break away, and it’s hard. That’s an important story to tell.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that both Rapunzel’s parents survived to the end of the story and that we got to see traces of Rapunzel’s personality in her loving father and brave, open-hearted mother. There are not enough mothers in Disney.

Maximus is obviously fabulous. The Ducklings are adorable in a weird, unhygienic sort of way. This version of ‘Rapunzel’ may not stick as closely to the original as I’d have liked, but it is irrepressibly good fun with a respect for emotional realities, and anyone who can look at Rapunzel’s big sad eyes without wanting to give her the moon is probably evil. One thing that still irritates me: did her eyes have to be that big, and her waist that small? Disney princesses have always had unlikely proportions, but the principal female characters in Tangled have only-in-animation measurements while the men – even the stupidly handsome Flynn Rider – have more natural shapes. It’s a trend to discourage.

Lakes and Liars: Deconstructing a Retelling

I tend to have a slightly prickly relationship with myths and legends, probably because I’ve read too many of them. My feelings about King Arthur and his knights are pretty muddy since on the one hand it’s this grand sweeping drama with knights and quests and sorceresses – these are a few of my favourite things – plus the Arthurian legends have inspired a remarkable number of fantasy books and what’s possibly my favourite poem ever, Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallott. On the other hand, Arthur is sort of a jerk and almost all of the women around him are characterised as untrustworthy because sexism. Then there’s Merlin, the very definition of the elderly mentor trope, down to the long beard and general tendency to speak in riddles. when I first heard about the BBC series The Adventures of Merlin, my reaction was a vague ‘what’ and it went in the ‘probably will irritate me’ mental box. To be honest, that’s where most Arthurian retellings end up, and Robin Hood ones too. A few months ago, though, I caught some of the series repeating on TV and liked what I saw, enough to start from the beginning. That was the start of a five season binge watch plus a fanfic feeding frenzy and it happened to coincide with me writing a speech about fairy tale retellings for an event at my local library. In this post I will be talking about the process of a retelling, using Merlin as an example of how it can be done well, and how you can really stuff it up. It will be absolutely ridden with spoilers and forceful opinions. You have been warned.

So Small For Such a Great Destiny

The really wonderful thing about folklore is that there’s so much of it, and it’s soaked so deep in the cultural subconscious that as a storyteller, you can play with it in all kinds of ways without losing that instinctual punch of recognition. Everyday names and phrases can become weighted with centuries of symbolism when the right context is evoked – and because everyone knows the context, at least vaguely, a writer can have enormous fun playing with the reader’s expectations. The same goes for most classic literature, actually, hence the unending parade of Jane Eyre adaptations and Austen spin-offs. first ingredient you need to produce a good retelling is an original concept, a way to make the old story new again, such as adapting the setting, altering the character dynamics or coming at the story from a previously neglected perspective. Merlin winds back the myth of King Arthur to when the legendary monarch was a headstrong young man and in an extra twist, makes Merlin the same age. While he’s still most powerful sorcerer in the land, that is unfortunately the land of Uther ‘I Execute All Things Magical On Principle’ Pendragon and thus Merlin must keep his gifts secret, while using them to keep Arthur alive long enough to succeed the throne. Morgana Le Fay is the king’s beloved ward; Guinevere is her loyal serving maid.

When we first meet Merlin he’s a gawkily adorable teenager fresh from his small village and overawed by the magnificence of Camelot. Even the sight of what’s presumably his first public execution can’t crush his optimism. Born with an innate and irrepressible gift for magic, it comes naturally to him to use that gift for anything from rescuing an old man from a deadly fall to moving a cup closer when he’s tired. It takes a lot of explaining for him to understand how dangerous that habit is. Gaius, the court physician and Merlin’s guardian in Camelot, moves into the elderly mentor role by training him in spellcraft while Kilgarrah, a dragon imprisoned in the caverns beneath the castle, gives cryptic advice whenever necessary. And sometimes when it isn’t., meanwhile, starts out as an entitled, arrogant bully with daddy issues and great hair. Merlin has no reason to like him throughout the entire first episode – reasons to actively dislike him, in fact, given that the second time they meet Arthur beats him up very efficiently in a messy street duel – but he doesn’t even hesitate to save the prince from a vengeful witch who has infiltrated Camelot. It’s an interesting moment, because it’s the first time we see Merlin use his magic to kill. He doesn’t have time to think, only react, and he instinctively protects Arthur, who is helpless against the witch’s spell.

It’s also important to me because it sets up what will be Merlin‘s status quo. Magic users are relentlessly persecuted yet when it comes to an actual fight, only another sorcerer is a true opponent, leaving the mundane citizens of Camelot (including its knights and royal family) as collateral damage.

In a Time of Myth and Magic

Deciding on setting is a crucial aspect of writing a retelling. A story is always shaped by the place and period of history in which it plays out and even entirely fictional settings need some grounding context to make them plausible. Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings are historical reimaginings, such as Juliet Marillier’s heart-wrenching Daughter of the Forest, set in medieval Ireland, or The Tower Room, in which Adele Geras plays out Rapunzel in a 1960’s boarding school.

Merlin is a teen fantasy TV show based off a very old, very much embroidered legend. Going in, I didn’t expect the teeniest grounding in historical fact, which is lucky because Merlin glories in anachronisms and absurdities, from Prince Arthur announcing he’s ‘going undercover’ to the giant scorpions that apparently infest the woods. The setting is a sort of Dark Ages default: horses, flaming torches and a rigid social structure. Appointed Arthur’s manservant after the witch incident in episode one, Merlin struggles to comprehend how entrenched these class boundaries are. Unfortunately, the script writers struggle with it too.

The basic set-up works fine. Merlin’s habitual insubordination is rather charming; he’s genuinely terrible at the duties of a manservant, as Arthur frequently reminds him, but their dynamic is based on that push and pull, constantly testing each other’s boundaries. Gwen’s working relationship with Morgana is similarly consistent – there’s much more trust but also a clearer understanding of the rules, which makes sense as Gwen’s lived in Camelot all her life. Both Arthur and Morgana have a tendency to flex their authority when they’re angry or insecure, but strong bonds of loyalty and respect bind all four protagonists throughout the first two seasons.

That Uther shares no such respect for his social inferiors is made clear early on – I mean, he’s willing to let a servant die just to win an argument with his son – and it’s strongly implied that the nobility tend to share his attitude. That’s not really shown, though, as we see almost nothing of Uther’s court beyond the small circle of main characters, so there’s not much in-universe social context against which to judge a character’s behaviour. Laws are fairly arbitrary, obviously invented solely to serve a plot point. When Arthur has borderline breakdowns in seasons four and five over whether he’s changing too much too fast, it looks like panic rather than the political insecurity of a young monarch who doesn’t have the full support of the nobility. Why? Because we barely see the nobility. Traditional upper class values are represented by Arthur’s treacherous uncle Agravaine, who advocates things like executing one’s cheating girlfriend, and visiting nobility who are almost always the villain of the week in disguise.

Am I taking this too seriously for what is, as I said, a teen fantasy show? Probably! But therein lie two more problems. The first, a younger audience deserves decent plots and coherent world-building every bit as much as adult viewers do. Also, Merlin never really settles into an intended demographic. A good deal of the humour is distinctly childish, damaging character development in favour of clumsy slapstick, while other storylines delve into grim and ambitiously emotional places. When writing a retelling – when writing anything – it’s crucial to have a consistent tone. Merlin never achieves that.

There are also all kinds of in-world details that the show never gets around to explaining properly, like why a monarch who despises magical creatures as much as Uther would keep a dragon on his crest (tradition, I assume, it’s the reason behind a lot of stupid things that happen in Camelot, but no one ever asks the question) or how, in fact, a magic-hating monarch could manage to slaughter dragons wholesale when they can only be killed with magic. How exactly does he perpetuate a reign of terror against sorcerers when a lone magic user is capable of lifting a hand and simply flinging grown men about like ragdolls? As Lloyd Alexander put it: “Once you have a magical object, the magic has to be limited. If it isn’t, you will end up having logical problems. For instance, if you have an invicible weapon…the story is over. Whoever has it, wins!”

Uther’s systematic oppression of magic users raises all kinds of real-world comparisons, of course. Minority groups have been (and are being) persecuted for everything from religion to ethnicity to sexual identity, and it is a classic genre trope for magic users to suffer injustice for their difference, as people suspected of sorcery have throughout history. To draw that parallel, however, you have to offer an in-universe power balance or what’s meant to look like bigotry ends up looking like perfectly reasonable terror.

For example: every one of the second-generation royals on the show suffers at least one serious violation caused by magic. Vivian is enchanted to adore a man she could hardly manage civility toward before, Elena is possessed by a Sidhe and Mithian is terrorised by acts of magic. It’s usually played off as comedy, but Arthur is inflicted with two ‘love’ spells, leading to wildly uncharacteristic behaviour, and Uther goes so deep under the influence of a troll that he literally cannot see what’s in front of him. In both cases it’s nothing short of sexual assault. In season four, Gwen’s old love for Lancelot is re-awakened by a magical bracelet and neither she nor Arthur ever find out that her betrayal was no choice at all. Both Gwen and Uther suffer a mind-altering magical torture, in Gwen’s case leading her to a second involuntary betrayal.

It’s logical to assume many mundane citizens have suffered similar injustices. There was that time a dead sorcerer tried to conquer Camelot with gargoyles, and how about when the cursed cat girl with wings went on a killing spree? Even our hero, Merlin, is capable of abusing magic. In order to rescue Arthur from an attack on Camelot in season four, he uses an enchantment that reduces his king to childlike dependence. It’s well-intentioned, but a massive breach of trust that he then exploits by berating Arthur while he can’t defend himself.

Crucially, there seems to be no method for mundane humans to protect themselves from magic. Only sheer force of numbers can overwhelm a powerful sorcerer, and even then there’s the question of containment. Prison doesn’t work, they can just blast their way out. Keeping hostages is a possibility…if you’re a morally bankrupt monarch with inexhaustible resources. If Arthur had ended up legalising magic – as I feel the show should have allowed him to do – he’d have had a nightmare enforcing his policy.

The magic of Merlin is bound up with the highly non-specific ‘Old Religion’, another minority group persecuted by Uther Pendragon. They have a lot of prophecies that really only exist to bully everybody into various plot positions (there’s an episode in season five when a group of priestesses known as the Disir try to blackmail Arthur into religious conversion which, as an atheist, was very unsettling to watch). This is symptomatic of the show as a whole: magic is always a plot point, and a messy one at that.

I write fantasy. This exasperates me NO END.

The Once and Future Queen

It’s a double-edged sword, recreating a familiar and beloved character, because the biggest fans will be the most impossible to please. Me, for instance! I adore fairy tale retellings, have ALL THE OPINIONS and can be consequentially brutal about what I don’t like. I can’t say I’ve ever had that level of attachment to the Arthurian legends, but I have a defined sense of what they are to me: a sun-drenched vision of greenwood and golden fields where shining knights ride toward tragedy and lovers passionately express their devotion through sword fights and early death. It owes an enormous amount to ‘The Lady of Shallott’, and the medieval-esque picture books I loved as a child.

The wonderful thing about a retelling is that you are meant to challenge and surprise. That’s the point. The central quartet of Merlin are Merlin himself, Arthur, Morgana and Guinevere, though she’s better known in the show as Gwen. She probably experiences the greatest level of reinvention. Traditionally the nobly born queen at the centre of a kingdom-crippling love triangle, in Merlin she’s a blacksmith’s daughter, Lady Morgana’s maidservant and the most sensible, down-to-earth person on the show. She’s very beautiful, yes, but it’s her honesty and sense of justice that catch Arthur’s attention. She’s also mixed race, the most noticeable part of a diverse casting trend. Merlin doesn’t hit every note right on this front, but it isn’t for lack of effort. While she does technically cheat on Arthur with Lancelot, it is not her conscious choice, nor is it the beginning of Camelot’s downfall – she repairs her relationship with Arthur like a grown-up and after his untimely death, goes on to rule the kingdom alone.

Gwen is marvellous. She deserves treble the amount of screen time she gets.

However, in what’s entirely a script-writing failure and no reflection on the actress whatsoever, Gwen’s romances with both Arthur and Lancelot are clunkily constructed and move forward in awkward bounds with little effort at emotional development or shared experiences in between. Even after their marriage, Gwen and Arthur share minimal plot space and Arthur is always slightly on ceremony with her. ‘Epic romance’ is not a low-maintenance concept. Placing two attractive characters in the same space and adding violins won’t cut it; it takes a careful arc of development to make that romance feel earned, and shortcuts are very obvious.

The Problem of Morgana

Morgana is introduced as a clear-cut heroine, a warrior princess with a fairy tale face. She is a loved and loving part of the Pendragon family (with all the getting locked up in dungeons and inventive assassination attempts that involves), close to Arthur and Gwen, fond of Merlin, brave in the face of Uther’s fury the way no one else can be. That neither she nor Arthur knew they were related during their prickly season one flirtation (which later shifts into a far more sybling-like dynamic) neatly acknowledges the incestuous storyline of the traditional legends without demonising either character – though Uther is either an idiot for not recognising his charges’ sexual chemistry or a criminally irresponsible guardian for knowing how they felt and valuing his reputation over an intervention. Or both! Uther is a multi-tasker.

In five seasons Morgana goes from a k member of Team Good to its primary antagonist, from Gwen’s best friend to her torturer, from having Arthur’s back to stabbing it. It’s a big twist, to put it mildly, and not carried off with particular elegance.

It’s been suggested that her path to villainy was set in motion by meeting her half-sister Morgause and that possibly Morgause ‘mandraked’ her (the same magic Morgana later uses to warp Gwen’s loyalties). That’s a compelling idea, but has some fairly major flaws. Morgana was drawn to Morgause the moment she met her. Even if their blood relationship turned out rather tenuous, what with the paternal switch-up, Morgause showed a strong loyalty to Morgana and a fiercely protective streak that continued right up until her death. Morgana might not have understood entirely what Morgause wanted from her at the end of season two, when she became the conduit for a powerful sleeping curse upon Camelot, but she put herself willingly into Morgause’s hands and had a better chance than anyone at working out what was happening once the curse took effect. Yet she did nothing to protect her family, her home or her people.

The problem with Morgana is that no one in Camelot takes her seriously. Uther mistakes her criticism and later, her rage, for girlish naivete. Gaius chooses to drug and dupe her, hoping to suppress her powers, rather than trust in her ability to handle them. Partially to protect her, it’s true, but also because she is a complication he doesn’t want to deal with. Arthur remembers acts of kindness that were actually acts of manipulation; Gwen mistakes flashes of malice for humour.

The signs are there right from the start. In the second episode of season one, when Arthur is placed into competition with the formidable knight Valiant, he gets the most support from Merlin and Gwen – neither of whom has much to like about him yet apart from his good looks and athleticism. Morgana, meanwhile, has a spat with Arthur and declares she wishes Valiant would win. Gwen takes it as a joke, even when Morgana insists it’s not. Later, Morgana helps Arthur defeat Valiant with quick thinking and a sharp sword; her instinctive loyalties to her adoptive family are strong. But when they break, they break irreparably.

Morgana is not kind or sweet. She’s driven. It is a classic Pendragon trait – from her father’s anti-magic crusade to Arthur’s obsessive need to save the day – and like all Pendragons, personal drama tends to triumph over practicality. Morgana is devoted to the people she lovesuntil she loves someone else more. She despises injustice, but as she comes to grips with her magic, that drive is warped into a brutal need to prove herself worthy of Camelot’s throne by murdering anyone who gets in the way. Right from the start she’s willing to fight and lie and scheme to get what she wants. She is Mordred’s rescuer rather than his mother and wants the throne for herself, not the boy.

None of this makes her evil – actually, it’s what makes me like her. Beauty and charm and badassery are not a surefire recipe for heroism; ferocity and cunning do not automatically make a villain. Unfortunately, a mix of plot contrivance and narrative mismanagement frequently make Morgana’s plans look unnecessarily over complicated at best and appallingly incompetent at worst. Her arc of character growth and descent into a monomaniac power struggle just happens too damn fast.

This is partially remedied in seasons four and five. Despite her determination to see him dead, Morgana is still struck hard by Uther’s death, and she’s shaken by encountering Arthur. She wants Gwen at her side, even if brainwashing is the only way to keep her there. Though she does not understand Merlin’s real position at Camelot until the end, she wants to understand what makes him tick. These are the kind of grace notes that give a character depth.

The problem isn’t that Morgana became a villain. No one in this show keeps their hands clean for long: Arthur was the sword hand in a genocidal regime, Merlin nearly destroyed Camelot by releasing a vengeful dragon, both kill countless times for what they see to be the greater good. Even Gwen can be ruthless when necessary. The problem is that Morgana wasn’t the spectacularly excellent villain she could have been.

It’s indicative of a wider trend in the show. Each season’s primary antagonist is female, with a fairly reasonable grievance against Camelot, but their actual plans tend to be messy and incoherent. The legendary Nimueh is given almost no backstory and wasted on just one season. Morgause fares a bit better, keeping a more consistent tone, but the link between female power and villainy is unnervingly consistent, backed up with season one’s Sophia, season three’s Catarina, season four’s Lamia and in season five…well, take your pick, there’s Sefa, Kara, Eira, the Disir.

I certainly don’t think it’s intentional. There are great female characters who get positive arcs, including Elena, Mithian, Annis and Merlin’s mother Hunith. And I delight in a well-crafted female villain. But in a show dominated by male characters, not to mention male authority, there’s not enough balance.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

As I mentioned at the start, I have never cared that much for Merlin and Arthur in the legends. Nor, for that matter, in most retellings I’ve encountered. Colin Morgan gives Merlin a quirky, vulnerable charm, no easy task when Merlin is blasting his enemies away every other minute. Bradley James, meanwhile, infuses the legendary king with such genuine warmth and complexity that even the U-turns of conflicting scripts and some seriously unnecessary slapstick couldn’t ruin the character for me. Let’s be honest, he may be a mighty warrior, but this version of Arthur rules mainly through personal charm and a headstrong inability to accept to word ‘impossible’. Also, Merlin does his level best to get rid of anyone who so much as makes him sad.

The initial passionate dislike between them rapidly gives way to a loyalty that is staggering and a little scary in its intensity. Off the charts chemistry gets cemented by an entire first season that’s basically them rescuing each other from all things under the sun while everyone looks on indulgently.

(SERIOUSLY. Merlin’s mum spends an entire episode assuring Merlin that Arthur cares about him; Gwen and Morgana gossip about them and Kilgarrah insists their bond is inescapable. Camelot is full of closet romantics.)

Were these events taking place between male and female protagonists, it would be almost certainly be the set-up of an endgame romance. Bearing in mind Foz Meadows’ fantastic article on proof of love in fictional relationships, it’s difficult to argue that this isn’t precisely what happens. Arthur and Merlin get the most screen time of any two characters, share an incredibly intimate level of domesticity, see the worst and best sides in each other. Arthur’s relationship with Gwen depends heavily on Merlin filling in the gaps and she casually accepts Merlin’s presence in all kinds of private situations, including their wedding anniversary picnic. In episodes where Arthur and Merlin are kept apart, they spend the entire time pining, sulking or searching for each other. The finale has Arthur dying in Merlin’s arms, using his last breaths to thank him, and Merlin patiently awaiting his king’s prophesied return. That, right there, is unmistakably the arc of a romance.

Of course, the show never acknowledges this openly, because we can’t have nice things.

This Land and All Its Peoples

Which brings me to the subject of diversity. This is an important aspect of retellings, since literary history has not been kind to the experiences of anyone not white, straight, male and/ or cissexual. When retelling a familiar story, it’s much more interesting to explore the neglected possibilities rather than re-treading the same old ground.

As I’ve already said, Merlin makes an effort with racial diversity. There are characters of colour in a variety of major and minor roles, including several knights. Unfortunately, none of those knights make it to the end of season five. That could have been handled better.

As for sexual diversity, well, there are no openly gay characters. Instead we get deniable subtext: Arthur and Merlin’s entwined destinies, Morgana and Gwen’s close and eventually badly twisted bond, Princess Elena’s romantic uncertainties, Gwaine’s flirtation with Merlin. The characters most strongly coded as gay (i.e. openly express attraction towards someone of the same sex, are not in a pre-existing relationship with someone of the opposite sex – like I said, burden of proof is STUPID) are antagonists: the Witchfinder, a war-mongering rival king and his creepy jester. All the most positive relationships go under the official label of friendship.

Stories about friendship are fantastic. We can never have enough of them. But if they have the chemistry, structure and narrative space of a romance, it’s doing everyone a disservice to pretend they are something else.

For the Love of Albion

So where does this particular retelling take us? The Arthurian cycle is, at heart, a tragedy and Merlin holds true to its source material. Each of the central four protagonists ends in heartbreak. Arthur falls on the battlefield at Camlann without having united the kingdoms of Albion. Merlin, for all his sacrifices, fails to save his beloved king and is forced to wait for his return from Avalon. Morgana dies bitter and unmourned. Gwen inherits a throne through the death of her husband, and peace through the death of a woman who was once her closest friend. No one gets trapped in an oak tree or fades away in a convent, but loss permeates season five in a way that you’d never have predicted from watching season one.

The saddest thing, to me, is how seasons four and five focused heavily on the personal troubles of Camelot’s heroes rather than the political events that would have given weight and purpose to all that tragedy. Arthur’s policies as king are frustratingly vague; he ends the persecution of the druids and intervenes in the attempted execution of an accused witch, but magic is still illegal and he’s openly distrustful of sorcery. He has alliances with several fellow monarchs, yet it’s clearly not the legendary union. He only learns about Merlin’s magic at the very end of his life. Prophecy, it turns out, is a kick in the teeth.

Camelot will be fine. It has Gwen. But it isn’t really Camelot the viewer cares about, it’s the characters we followed to get there, and all of them end in grief.

Long Live the King

The story, however, doesn’t stop there. Because along came the fans, and with them the wide world of fanfiction. ‘Tis a glorious sight to behold.

Fandom is a remarkable middle ground. The material still belongs to the original creators, but it becomes the playground of its audience and there is genuinely no limit to what they’ll do with it. What results is a kaleidoscope of the inventive, the intelligent, the hilarious and the flat out weird. It’s kind of beautiful.

The fic for Merlin is a fascinating concept from a reteller’s perspective because it’s a mix of reimagining the show and reimagining the legend and both at the same time. ‘Canon’ stories take place in the fictional world established by the show, some trying valiantly to mesh it with history while others plunge headlong into fantasy. Modern AUs translate familiar plot lines into a different setting, imagining the lives the characters might lead in the modern day; historical AUs take place during different periods, including the Regency, Victorian England and both World Wars. There are even mash-ups transposing the characters into another fictional universe, such as ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Princess Bride’.

A retelling always responds to the flaws the author perceives in their source material. Issues not addressed in the show, and sometimes in the legend, can be addressed in fic and different solutions offered. Side characters never granted much narrative space are allowed to shine; non-traditional romantic relationships, some between characters who never meet in the show, take centre stage. Slash pairings may not appeal to every reader, but there’s no denying that they are a necessary defence against a traditional media that still refuses, on the whole, to acknowledge non-heterosexual relationships in anything beyond minor parts and throwaway references. It’s all a matter of perception, but those perceptions sometimes make a great deal more sense than the canon line.

Every legend, folk story and fairy tale has multiple iterations for a very simple reason. People tell the stories they need to hear. What works for one time, one place, one audience, must evolve for each generation. It is the reason classics are adapted time and time again; the reason for adaptations and reinventions. Stories are wild things. They are meant to change, and grow. Above all, they are meant to be shared.

Disney Reflections No.5 – It’s No Bed of Roses is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

‘The Beauty and the Beast’ is my mother’s favourite fairy tale and Belle is my favourite Disney princess, and incidentally one of my earliest blog posts was a detailed dissection of this movie’s plot inconsistencies, so obviously I have even more opinions than usual. By 1991 Disney had made an art form of the princess musical and this one ticks all the boxes but one; for the first time, we don’t have a glamorously evil villainess.

Don’t worry. Gaston can totally handle it.

The fairy tale: I reviewed three versions of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project, my preference of which involves a snake prince and face punching, but Disney is riffing with the French one. You can tell because of all the names and Lumiere’s terrible accent.

The film: Somewhere in the depths of forested France, in a castle that may just win out over Prince Eric’s on pure architectural beauty, there lives a selfish, spoilt young prince. One wintry night, an elderly beggar woman knocks at the door, asking for a night’s shelter in return for a single rose. The prince turns her away. Karma offers unexpected whiplash when she reveals herself as a dazzling enchantress and transforms the prince into a beast. His fate is bound to the rose: it will bloom until he turns twenty one years old, but if he has not loved and been loved in return by then, he will never be human again.

Years pass. In a village not too far away, an inventor and his daughter Belle take up residence in a dilapidated old millhouse. Belle is bookish and quietly sarcastic and loves fairy tales and is basically my ideal human being. The villagers disagree; they admire her beauty but are nonplussed by her enthusiastic intellectualism. All except for the hunky local hunter Gaston, who just ignores whatever he doesn’t want to see. He has decided to ‘woo’ Belle. “Right from the moment I met her, saw her,” he carols, apparently not realising those are two different things. He tells the whole town his plan before he tells her, advises her to stop thinking, knocks her book in the mud and still comes out of the encounter thinking she likes him.

Spoiler: she doesn’t like him. She thinks he is ridiculous.

Also, she has other things on her mind, chiefly helping her father with his latest invention, an enormous wood-chopping machine that frankly looks like a lot more effort than it’s worth but that he is treating like a life’s work. When he finally gets it operational, they hitch it up to a cart and he sets off for the fair. Near nightfall, he takes a wrong turn. Here’s a handy tip when you are lost in the dark forest: pay attention to your horse’s reactions or you might find yourself thrown to the ground while wolves circle. The inventor runs for his life. A gate looms providentially into sight; it opens at his frantic shove and he ventures inside to seek assistance. He sees no one – but someone sees him.

When the prince was cursed, the enchantress turned all his employees into household furniture or knick-knacks. Lumiere the hospitable candlestick wants to allow this unexpected visitor to stay; Cogsworth the clock is more cautious, but his protests are ignored while Lumiere blithely reveals himself to the stunned inventor. Who is thrilled, prodding eagerly at Cogsworth’s inner workings in the hopes he’s now living in a steampunk novel. He’s soaked to the bone and exhausted, though, and Lumiere seizes the opportunity to display a little over-excited hospitality. Other members of the staff come out of the woodwork (not literally. Yet) including Mrs Potts the teapot, her son Chip the cup and a cute little footrest that was once a dog. How terrible a person do you have to be to enchant a DOG? That enchantress has a lot to answer for. Everyone has been going a little stir-crazy and they are happy to see a new face.

All except for the prince, whose temper has amazingly not been improved by becoming a huge furry beast. He stalks into the room, all sharp white teeth and glaring eyes. The pleas of his servants are ignored. He is, in this moment, as he drags the inventor away, every inch the monster.

Belle does not know to be worried yet, and she has more than one thing to be worried about. After their little chat, Gaston set up a wedding in the field outside her house complete with cake and musicians…all without actually proposing. He barges into her house (her eye roll when she sees him is a thing of beauty) to share his vision of domestic bliss and, in the process, deface her book again. This time even he can see she’s not interested – he turns predatory and she backs quickly to the door, so that when he tried to corner her he finds himself flying headlong over the step and into the millpond. In front of the whole town.


Once he’s safely stormed off and taken the townsfolk with him, Belle emerges to vent her indignation. Marriage is not what she wants right now, let alone with Gaston – she wants adventure and friendship and really anything but staying in this village all her life. Thoughts of the disastrous proposal are pushed out her head, however, when the carthorse Philippe appears with the cart, and without Belle’s father. Philippe really is an exceptionally clever horse, he takes Belle directly back to the castle.

Just inside the gates, she finds her father’s hat. Searching the echoing spaces inside, she is led by an unseen guide (Lumiere, who has pounced on the idea that she will save them all, followed by Cogsworth, who just gets caught up in these things). She finds her father in a dank cell and is manhandled by the furious Beast, but she refuses to be cowed, insisting he take her in her father’s place. The offer is almost enough to startle him out of his rage. Almost. Not quite. He accepts in about as ungracious a manner as possible, sending for his frightening spidery carriage to transport the inventor home before (on Lumiere’s advice, it should be noted) pushing Belle into her new room. So at least she won’t be living in a dungeon. The Beast makes one attempt at conversation, telling her that as a permanent resident in the castle she may go where she wishes – only not to the West Wing. She asks why. He shouts “It is forbidden!”

He is so incredibly bad at interaction.

Meanwhile, back in the village, Gaston is brooding over his wrongs while sympathetic townsfolk remind him of how muscular and manly he is. He’s been cheered up by a bar brawl and several swooning women when Belle’s father comes bursting into the tavern telling them what’s happened and begging for aid. He’s laughed out into the snow. That scene hurts. The incident gives Gaston an idea. A really horrible idea.

Belle’s new room is actually rather luxurious but she’s sobbing so hard she probably hasn’t noticed. She’s roused from her misery by the intervention of the castle’s ladies – Mrs Potts bringing the tea and the cheerfully chatty wardrobe offering an outfit for Belle to wear to dinner with the Beast. Except she’s not planning to eat dinner with him, or look at him, or talk to him if she can help it. Lumiere and Mrs Potts do their best to cajole the Beast into something approaching civility, but he’s having a self-loathing episode and instead of trying for charm, yells through Belle’s door that she can either eat with him or starve.

He doesn’t know her very well yet. When the castle has gone quiet, and the Beast has retreated to the West Wing to wallow, Belle quietly emerges and looks around until she finds the kitchen. There, Lumiere puts on dinner and a show, because he’s like that. Belle has no good feelings for the Beast, but she’s a bit enchanted by his staff. They are certainly ready to adore her. After the meal, and the spoons’ synchronised swimming routine, Belle asks for a guided tour of the castle and gravitates towards the forbidden West Wing like it’s true north instead. Unlike the rest of the castle, which has been well maintained, these rooms are ravaged. Belle finds a shredded portrait with arresting blue eyes, and a glowing rose upon a table. Reaching out to touch it, she’s interrupted by the Beast, who is horrified – that rose, after all, is his only chance at humanity. Losing his temper yet again, he screams at her to get out and she takes him literally, riding the hell out of there.

But the wolves are still out there, and all she has to fight them off is a broken branch. At the last minute the Beast comes charging to her rescue, finally applying that ferocity of his to a worthwhile cause. Having sent the pack running, he collapses in the snow. Belle takes him home to the castle. He did, after all, save her life – and as she patches him up, she realises he’s really just a huge, sulky, fluffy idiot who is accustomed to getting his own way. They re-establish their relationship on the basis she pretty much always knows better than him.

As things improve in the castle, they grow worse in the village. Everyone believes the inventor to be a bit mad; now Gaston is capitalising on that by bribing the owner of an asylum to forcibly remove him. Not that Belle’s father is hanging around, he’s packed up a few essentials and gone straight back out to look for her.’s quite happy at present, exploring the castle grounds, and the Beast (by now utterly besotted) is racking his brains for nice things he can do for her. Again on Lumiere’s advice, he leads her to the library and announces every one of the books in it – and there are a LOT of books, it’s gorgeous – is hers. She’s overjoyed. The Beast’s enthusiasm is adorable here, you get the feeling he’s probably never given a present before. He’s making a huge effort, trying to eat nicely (and Belle meets him halfway, delicately slurping from her bowl), learning how to feed birds (and loving it) and dressing in handsome suits. They have a snowball fight in the garden and later read together in front of the fire while the servants look on, shipping it hard.

Cogsworth decides the budding romance needs a helpful nudge and marshals the castle’s staff to throw a spectacular ball for two. They are beginning to dream of being human again. There is in fact an entire song number devoted to this in the extended edition. It is worth watching if only for the scene where Belle reads Romeo and Juliet to the Beast and he gazes at her with heart eyes, and then she shows him how to read it himself. If books be the food of love, read on!

But the servants have a mission and these two maybe-almost-a-bit lovebirds are not getting in their way. Belle is given a stunning yellow ballgown; the Beast scrubs up well in a blue frock coat. Lumiere gives him a rousing pep talk while he’s trimmed and combed like a rather recalcitrant pet. He’s been practicing his manners, offering his arm to Belle to guide her down the stairs, and shows he has not lost all his human skills by swirling around on the dancefloor. Admittedly, they are the only couple, there’s no other couples to get in the way.

They drift out onto the balcony. The Beast awkwardly takes Belle’s hands and asks if she’s happy, the answer to which is a conditional yes; she wants to check on her father. It just so happens the Beast has a magical mirror that can show any person or place, and he offers her to use of it. I love Belle even more right now because she talks to the mirror so politely (well, I suppose you’d get in the habit if you knew just about anything could talk back).

She sees her father lying sprawled on the ground, alone, lost, very sick. In that moment she has to leave, and the Beast asks only that she keep the mirror to remember him by. The staff are appalled. The rose, you see, is drooping. Time is almost up.

Belle takes her father home – unknowingly bringing along Chip as a stowaway. But home is not safe any more, and before long Gaston and his bought doctor show up to take the ‘madman’ away. Trying to prove her father’s sanity, Belle produces the mirror and uses it to show the Beast is real. Gaston, suddenly scarily perceptive, notices how soft her voice is when she speaks of her friend’s kindness. Instead of going after her father, Gaston whips up a pitchfork-wielding, all-torches-blazing mob and marches on the castle to take down the biggest trophy he’s ever seen. A frantic Belle and her father are left prisoners in their own home…but they have an unexpected asset on their side. The woodchopping machine! Chip single-handedly gets it going – a remarkable feat considering he does not, in fact, have hands – and hacks open the locked door.

The mob has already reached the castle. Heartbroken, the Beast hardly cares. He’s a sweetie but useless in a crisis. Everyone’s lives are at stake here and the staff arm themselves however they can, setting traps, mounting assaults. The invaders are not prepared for a devilishly grinning oven or streams of boiling water from a furious teapot and her many children. A favourite moment is when the minions think they have the footstool dog cornered, only to be confronted with drawers full of animate knives. If only justice was always so sharp.

Gaston, however, keeps his eyes on the prize. While everyone else flees, he prowls through the empty rooms until he finds the Beast – who will not fight back, even pushed to the edge of the roof with a club above his head, until he hears Belle’s scream from the courtyard below. Now he knows she cares.

The club never connects. Gaston may be a fine hunter, but the Beast is all raw power and he desperately wants to live. He finally gets Gaston by the throat, holding him over thin air. He doesn’t kill him – he lets him go. After all, Belle is here, and all the Beast wants is to be with her. Gaston, instead of running, climbs after them to the balcony and stabs the Beast in the back. In so doing, he falls to his death. No one cares.

The damage is done – the Beast is dying. Belle sobs against his chest. “I love you,” she breathes, as the last rose petal falls.

There’s not much good that can be said for a sniffy enchantress who transformed a child into a monster to teach him manners and cursed his entire household staff as well (including his pets), but she included one hell of an escape clause. True love, in this instance, really does all. Lights falls everywhere like shooting stars; the Beast floats into the air, radiating beams of magic as his limbs reshape into their true form. A man falls to the ground – a built redhead with very bright, familiar blue eyes. Belle is a little unsure at first, but those eyes confirm it. He’s her Beast.

At their first kiss, the staff are restored and the Beast rushes around giving everybody hugs. They celebrate with another grand ball. Belle’s dad strikes up a friendship with Mrs Potts; Cogsworth and Lumiere bicker wildly, as per usual. A crowd of well-dressed guests have been conjured from nowhere. On the dancefloor, Belle and her prince whirl in their own world.

Spot the Difference: I’ve heard this fairy tale described as a story about Stockholm Syndrome. It’s a valid interpretation of the source material but I could not agree with it less. To me, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a story about isolation, and how everyone needs to be seen for who they truly are. The Disney adaptation emphasises this with the Beast’s passionate self-loathing. His temper is rooted in fear and insecurity; he must learn to accept himself and his own inherent capacity for growth before he can become really loveable. But he needs Belle’s help to get there. That is not a shameful thing. It can be incredibly hard to believe in your own worth when others judge on appearances (especially when you’ve been cursed from the age of eleven, have no family and all your friends work for you plus are literally the furniture. JUST SAYING).

Belle is the Beast’s prisoner in name only and they both know it. Her beauty is what strikes him first but he actively supports her intellectualism, admires her good sense and tries to engage with her on every level he can. Belle is kind and practical, a woman who makes friends easily but takes no nonsense. Her real imprisonment was within the narrow expectations of the town, epitomised by Gaston’s breathtaking arrogance, and she handled it with the calm diplomacy of a born leader.

If you needed help remembering your humanity, why wouldn’t you go to her?