The Great Jew­ish Bride, Rem­brandt (Rem­brandt van Rijn), 1635

H. O. Have­mey­er Col­lec­tion, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Have­mey­er, 1929

I am often asked if The Wolf and the Woods­man is a fairy tale retelling, and I don’t blame peo­ple. Wolves and woods­men are both com­mon fix­tures in Euro­pean folk­lore, and we are liv­ing in an era where mar­ket-savvy pub­lish­ers will hasti­ly slap the label fairy tale retelling” on any book they can. It’s no won­der why: the famil­iar­i­ty of the tale imme­di­ate­ly makes it leg­i­ble to a wide audi­ence. Ita­lo Calvi­no him­self notes that it’s pre­cise­ly that sort of quick­ness” that defines a fairy tale; indeed, it’s rare to find a clas­sic Euro­pean fairy tale that’s more than a few hun­dred words long. Any con­tem­po­rary author of a fairy tale retelling” is forced to fill in these blanks, to turn a few hun­dred words into a four-hun­dred page book. The mar­ketabil­i­ty of the fairy tale retelling” pitch relies on the famil­iar, but also on the unknown: both the desire to see rec­og­niz­able ele­ments trans­formed, but also to see these blank spaces filled. It’s human nature to want to con­stel­late ran­dom­ness, and per­haps it is the arbi­trary, bewil­der­ing, illog­i­cal nature of most fairy tales that make them so ripe for con­tem­po­rary retellings.”

Yet even the term fairy tale” is incred­i­bly loaded. There is sig­nif­i­cant debate among folk­lorists about what dif­fer­en­ti­ates a fairy tale from oth­er types of fable. Does it require the pres­ence of mag­i­cal crea­tures? Must it teach a moral les­son? In the intro­duc­tion to his book Ital­ian Folk­tales, Ita­lo Calvi­no quotes a Tus­can proverb: The tale is not beau­ti­ful if noth­ing is added to it.” To put it plain­ly, search­ing for an authen­tic ori­gin sto­ry to most fairy tales is a fruit­less endeav­or. Fairy tales, as all forms of cul­ture, are trans­fig­ured across time and across space. In a sense, the pop­u­lar­ized term fairy­tale retelling” is redun­dant; all fairy tales are retellings, whether they come from the mouth of an octo­ge­nar­i­an non­na or from the pages of a recent­ly pub­lished sci-fic­tion or fan­ta­sy book.

This is the con­text in which I wrote The Wolf and the Woods­man, my adult debut Jew­ish fan­ta­sy book: with the under­stand­ing that we are in a bull mar­ket for fairy­tale retellings, the aware­ness that most fairy­tales can­not be traced to a sin­gu­lar point of ori­gin, and the knowl­edge that the canon of Euro­pean folk­lore is deeply, inex­orably bound up in antisemitism.

It’s not just the bla­tant­ly anti­se­mit­ic tales like Rumpel­stilt­skin” and The Jew Among the Thorns” (in the lat­ter, a youth forces the tit­u­lar Jew to dance in a bri­ar patch as the thorns tear his flesh apart, in penance for his scur­rilous and mon­ey-grub­bing ways). It’s that the very effort to cre­ate a canon of Euro­pean folk­lore where Jews are car­i­ca­tured as the malev­o­lent oth­er” means that all Euro­pean fairy tales are infect­ed by prox­im­i­ty, this poi­so­nous big­otry seep­ing through even the most inno­cent of fables. How can one read Hansel & Gre­tel” igno­rant of the knowl­edge that, begin­ning in the high Mid­dle Ages, Jews were accused of kid­nap­ping and eat­ing Chris­t­ian chil­dren? How can one read all the tales that fea­ture allur­ing but sin­is­ter wells with­out know­ing that Jews were accused of well-poi­son­ing dur­ing the Black Plague and were per­se­cut­ed because of it? This is the world that gave shape to these fairy tales, and so anti­semitism seethes silent­ly at their core like poi­son inside a witch’s apple.

All fairy tales are retellings, whether they come from the mouth of an octo­ge­nar­i­an non­na or from the pages of a recent­ly pub­lished sci-fic­tion or fan­ta­sy book.

I knew from the day that The Wolf and the Woods­man sold that it would be read in the con­text of oth­er fairy tale retellings, and that the words Jew­ish folk­lore” would either be entire­ly elid­ed or con­flat­ed with the tra­di­tion of Grimm or Aarne-Thomp­son. The char­ac­ters from Jew­ish folk­lore that pop­u­late my book, such as the golem or Queen Esther, are not imme­di­ate­ly leg­i­ble to a wide audi­ence. I knew most read­ers of the book would not rec­og­nize tri­an­gu­lar jam-filled cook­ies as haman­taschen, or under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the Golem of Prague sto­ry as it is retold by the main character’s Jew­ish father. I knew that this was an uphill bat­tle I would have to fight: in mar­ket­ing and pub­lic­i­ty mate­ri­als, in pod­casts and inter­views, on my own social media pages.

The Wolf and the Woods­man is not a fairy tale retelling, but it is a book about fairy tales. The main char­ac­ter, Évike, is a Jew who is raised in a pagan vil­lage where she is reviled and exclud­ed for her Jew­ish her­itage. The exclu­sion is both rhetor­i­cal and mate­r­i­al: she is mocked and shunned by her fel­low vil­lagers, and she is unable to access the mag­ic that should be her birthright. She sits around the fire with peo­ple who hate her, and lis­tens to the fairy tales told by her vil­lage elders, know­ing that they do not belong to her and that she has no place with­in them, only as a face­less oth­er.”

As much as Évike is pow­er­less in her own vil­lage, she is equal­ly pow­er­less when she final­ly con­nects with her father’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty — she is illit­er­ate, inca­pable of read­ing the sto­ries that should be her birthright and unable to access the mag­ic that comes with the knowl­edge of how to write. As in the sto­ry of the Golem of Prague, Jew­ish mag­ic in The Wolf and the Woods­man is word mag­ic, and so lit­er­a­cy is held as an essen­tial skill that one must pos­sess in order to belong to the com­mu­ni­ty — and to pro­tect it. And so, slow­ly and painstak­ing­ly, Évike learns to read and write.

Évike faces the same chal­lenges that I did as the author: how to exist as a Jew­ish per­son in a land­scape of anti­semitism, and how to reclaim the pow­er of words to carve out your place with­in the nar­ra­tive — or cre­ate a nar­ra­tive of your own. It is for this rea­son that I have repeat­ed­ly reject­ed the label­ing of The Wolf and the Woods­man as a fairy tale retelling. I did not con­sult Grimm, Aarne-Thomp­son, or Calvi­no when writ­ing it. As a Jew I am, like Évike, a rude intrud­er in their world. Rather, I con­sult­ed Bene­dict Ander­son, Edward Said, and Charles Tilly, schol­ars who wrote on reli­gion, iden­ti­ty, and state vio­lence. I did not begin with a series of rec­og­niz­able but ran­dom motifs and attempt to reverse-engi­neer a plot: rather, I began with a core the­mat­ic truth and con­vic­tion and trans­posed it upon a fic­tion­al world.

There is a rea­son I chose Purim as the hol­i­day that is cel­e­brat­ed in The Wolf and the Woods­man. Like Esther, Évike is giv­en up to the king as a sac­ri­fice and as a sym­bol­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her peo­ple. Like Esther, Évike uses the only pow­er she has at her dis­pos­al to save her peo­ple: the pow­er of lan­guage and words. It is only by learn­ing to read and write that Évike is able to influ­ence the nar­ra­tive, to shake down the walls of the sto­ry that have built up like walls around her. Jews tell the sto­ry of Queen Esther at Purim because it is a reminder of Jew­ish sol­i­dar­i­ty and sur­vival. Like Évike, Esther risks her own posi­tion with the king to try and advo­cate for her people.

In the land­scape of fairy tale retellings, The Wolf and the Woods­man is some­thing like one of Grimm’s mag­ic mir­rors. It seduces you with its folk­loric title and evoca­tive jack­et copy, and then it shat­ters into pieces. Hid­den in the trap­pings of a fairy­tale is a sto­ry of Jew­ish resilience — a retelling, not of any Euro­pean fable, but of Queen Esther’s clev­er­ness and gift with words. If I can­not say that I have made Esther’s sto­ry more beau­ti­ful with my addi­tions, I would at least like to say I have tried to hon­or her the best I could.

Ava Reid was born in Man­hat­tan and raised right across the Hud­son Riv­er in Hobo­ken, New Jer­sey, but cur­rent­ly lives in Palo Alto. She has a degree in polit­i­cal sci­ence from Barnard Col­lege, focus­ing on reli­gion and eth­nona­tion­al­ism. She has worked for a refugee reset­tle­ment orga­ni­za­tion, for a U.S. sen­a­tor, and, most recent­ly, for an AI robot­ics start­up. The Wolf and the Woods­man is her first novel.