[Yes, I know you’re going to say that this post is more suited to MGC. And I confess that Mary wrote it thinking of writers. But how many of us have had to defend Western culture in conventions, or even conversations, and point out that no, it’s not all “prince rescues princess”. This gives you the background to point out most of what current crazies fight is imaginary. Strong (really strong, not b*tchy) women have ALWAYS been appreciated, and western culture is no worse than others (and in many things it’s way better.) Perhaps because I put up with the usual idiocy at the recent con “there were no strong women at all before star wars” I feel forced to mention this. Of course, in old tales, women weren’t made into ersatz men. Garcons manque aren’t strong. They’re sad. – SAH]
Researching Your Fairy Tales – by Mary Catelli
Would you like to work with fairy tales besides the Pop Top 20?
Would you like to invent fairy tales for your world that sound like fairy tales?
Would you like to have a character tell a fairy tale that has thematic resonance with the rest of the story?
Lots of possibilities out there!
Fairy tales, for instance, where the heroine bravely sets out to save her husband, or her brothers.
Where the princess opts to marry the servant and not the king whom the servant had brought her for.
Or the peasant decides that the princess who stole his magical treasures is not, after all, the girl for him.
Where the heroine gets to go to the ball three times because of having won the aid from a magical being, or even without magical help at all.
Where the maiden in the tower runs off with the prince before the witch catches them.
Where the story continues after they are married, and even had a child — or three.
Even — despite Disney — where a boy is the lead.
To find these, it is necessary to broaden your base of stories. For instance, you could read all of the Brothers Grimm. Or such important contemporaries and immediate successors as Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe (Norwegian), Laura Gonzenbach (Italian), Alexander Afanasyev (Russian) or Joseph Jacobs (English and Celtic).
But the simplest way is perhaps to go to the library, go to the fairy tale section (Dewey Decimal 398.2, not that I have it memorized or something — adult section usually is best, though sometimes strange works get into the children’s), and look for books titled “Fairy tales of region” or “Folk tales of region.”
The next step is to check whether the region is France. If so, you want to make sure it’s not a collection of literary fairy tales. There are good folk fairytale collections from France — French Folktales by Henri Pourrat or The Borzoi Book Of French Folk Tales by Paul Delarue — but some are all literary. Even if the literary ones are your interest (say, for a world with something like the precieuses in their salons), it helps to know the roots before you delve into the literary variations on them.
And then you read.
It does have the problem that you can’t play with the tales as easily, because your readers won’t recognize them. You can, of course, change them and work with them, but the number of readers who will tell that your heroine went to Mr. East, Mr. South, Mr. West, and Mr. North because you are retelling “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and they are the four winds — are very few indeed. But that only requires writing the tale to not require knowledge of the original. And you can do a straight retelling very easily. (Though, being praised for your startling originality –as opposed to your cleverness in adapting it — is more annoying than you might think. Especially when they start talking about your reasons for doing so. No, you do not have be original to have your heroine rescuing your hero!)
The best collections for the writer, I think, are not straight as collected by folklorists, but have gotten a mild going over. This is to do such things as smooth out such verbal issues as “Oh, I forgot to tell you that she was wearing the third dress for this,” and to conflate two variants of a tale, where each one left out one plot incident that, really, was crucial to making the story hang together. Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino is particularly interesting in his footnotes of how he picked and chose variants and sometimes merged them and often choose colorful elements to elaborate his central one. (For instance, he picked his Snow White variant because it was the only Italian one he found with bandits instead of dwarfs.)
Such books are seldom, if ever, a straight collection of pure fairy tales. Most (especially those entitled “folktales”) include comic tales of simpletons or clever folks up to tricks, cumulative tales, and even legends. Which, of course, you may find useful in their own ways.
But, on the whole, it’s best not to read just one. Read a dozen or so from different countries. Or, perhaps, read a book like Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World by Heidi Anne Heiner or her Cinderella Tales From Around the World, both of which weigh in at a nice thumping 828 pages. Reading one collection not specifically organized about a tale type gives you a bunch of fairy tales. Reading a bunch of collections gives you many variations on a theme. When you’re familiar with twenty variations of “Maiden in a Tower” tales, of which “Rapunzel” is merely the best known variation, you can master the type.
Then you can write fairy tales of your own for your world that will actually sound like fairy tales.