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.