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Nancy Springer

      The first question is, why bother?  Another retelling of, say, an Arthurian adventure?  Isn’t it better to write new fiction, our own stories, in hopes that they might become classic? 

     That’s what I did for the first twenty years of my career, until Jane Yolen told me she wanted a Mordred story for her Camelot anthology.  I provided it.  Michael Green at Philomel requested a book based on the story, and I found myself in a remarkable new role as a writer:  instead of being a stubborn little loner, I participated in a vast, ancient, and honorable mythos even more obstinate than myself.  As a voice in the folklore process, I felt myself entrusted with huge and rather perplexing responsibilities:  I must be true to the material, I must be true to my modern-day readers, and like any good writer I must be true to myself.

     Classic tales, remarkably similar all over the world, might well be encoded into our DNA.  Cinderella, Jonah in the whale’s belly, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Odysseus, Helen of Troy, Persephone, King Arthur, Robin Hood, the Frog King, Hansel and Gretel, Noah’s Ark, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast — whether we like them or not, we’re stuck with them.  Most of our folk tales and fairy tales resonate deeply within us, yet many of them horrify us.  The fairy tales in particular are often cruel, with dreadful punishments — dance in red-hot iron shoes, roll down a hill in a barrel lined with spikes — which is why they have been sanitized in many retellings.  Also, many classic tales are remarkably unfair.  Bad things happen to good people, evil is sometimes rewarded, and then there are the stereotypes:  Usually goodness is depicted as beautiful and blond with blue eyes, while evil is dark, described as ugly, and has some sort of scar or birth defect.

     So even as I find myself in awe of these stories that have flourished for centuries, in many cases their magical appeal bangs smack up against my humanitarian convictions. 

     Taking Mordred’s story as an example:  in the original tales of King Arthur, because Mordred’s parents aren’t married, Mordred is a villain.  Back when these stories were first told, born out of wedlock meant unblessed, that is to say, a bad person.  Even worse, Mordred is the product of incest, which makes him no-questions-asked capital-E Evil.  According to the thinking of the time, born wrong was born wicked.  We still show vestiges of this belief when we call somebody we don’t like a bastard.    

     Now, I cannot accept any of this.  I believe that all people are born innocent, and are not to be judged by parentage or appearances.  So, even as the power and glory of the Arthurian mythos sings to me, I cannot simply retell Mordred’s story in the original way.  In order to be true to myself, I must find another approach.  Yet, in order to be true to the material, I cannot change the plot or the tragic ending:  it is prophesied that Mordred will kill his father, King Arthur, and he must do so.

     Then there’s my third responsibility, being true to my readership.  Today’s readers want to know why a person does bad things.  How he went bad.  It’s not sufficient simply to appoint a bad guy:  in writing Mordred‘s story, I must empathize with him and understand his psychology.         

     Right there it is, the central problem facing those who wish to retell classic tales:  one must present pre-Freudian material to post-Freudian readers.

     It’s quite a challenge to deal with concepts such as fate and doom and prophecy in a way that works psychologically.  I handled Mordred by making him my first-person narrator, letting him tell me his side of the story, and just like magic, prophecy turned out to be self-fulfilling.  I’m sure you can think of other examples of classic tales retold from the villain‘s point of view, such as John Gardner’s reworking of Beowulf into Grendel, or Cinderella from the point of view of the stepsisters.  This approach is not only clever and a good marketing idea, but a genuinely powerful way to encourage deeper understanding of people who are usually maligned.

     In order to be true to the material, it’s important to start with the tale in the oldest form available to you.  Do not depend on somebody else’s retelling of somebody else’s retelling.  For magic lamps and genies, go back to Scheherazade and her Arabian nights.  For Norse mythology, go back to the sagas.  For fairy tales, go back to the Brothers Grimm.  Writing about Mordred, I went back to Sir Thomas Malory‘s Morte D’Arthur.  And I found a void that begged to be filled:  Nyneve.  Very little was told of her except that she was the sorceress who defeated and imprisoned the great wizard Merlin.  By letting Nyneve be Mordred’s mentor, I contributed what might be considered missing material to the Arthurian mythos.

     So another way to approach a classic tale is to spot an interesting void in the story.  Take the Iliad, an epic of huge scope including Oysseus, Agamemnon, Iphegenia, Achilles, Hector, Cassandra, Helen of Troy, who was the cause of the whole thing. . . hmm.  We really know very little about Helen of Troy as a person. Questions beg:  What was it like to be Helen as a child, a princess who hatched from an egg implanted by Zeus in the form of a swan, the daughter of an immortal and the no-contest most beautiful girl in the world, so supernaturally attractive that she was first abducted at the age of eight?   How did she bear up under such beauty and such trauma?  What was her relationship with her mortal twin sister, Clytemnestra?  Did Helen of Sparta want to become Helen of Troy?             

     Another way I like to tweak a classic tale is to take it a generation farther, starting with an appealing hero, say Zorro, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes (check copyrights!) or Robin Hood (no copyright problem with legends) then write about his son or daughter. In my case, generally it’s “Daughter of,” as I look for opportunities to open adventurous realms to female heroes.  

     Which points me directly toward my favorite way to approach a classic tale, which is simply to take issue with the original.  Think about Sleeping Ugly by Jane Yolen.  Or has anyone written Beastly and the Beau?  “Beauty and the Beast” has fascinated me since I was a child, yet even back then I felt that Beauty fell in love with the beast, by golly, so it’s the beast she should marry, not some stupid ensorcelled prince.  I still feel the same way; what if my cuddly bald hubby turned into some jackass movie star all of a sudden?  Also, there’s the entrapment issue.  In my gender-reversed story I think the female beast would let the beautiful youth go free, even if it broke her heart, rather than manipulating a magical makeover out of him.

     Okay, so there’s another approach to tackling classic tales:  gender reversal.  Although I guess you could include that under the “take issue with” heading. 

     Also, aside from taking the viewpoint of an adversarial character, or looking for a void in the narrative to fill, or imagining your favorite story into the next generation, or taking issue with the past via gender-reversal and other obstinacies, I can think of one other way to approach the classic tale:

     Just retell it the way it is.

     Which brings me around full circle to my original question:  Why retell a classic tale?  Well, for the same reason that we tell or retell any story:  because we love it.

     But even if you simply want to gift today’s readers with a weird and wonderful story rooted hundreds of years deep, you will still be writing for a readership that thinks in terms of characterization and motivation.  And even if you can make no psychological sense of your chosen tale, even if you would rather evoke the original story in all its incomprehensible, poetic, symbolic glory, you will still, somehow, have to help your readership get past psychology to that different, more primal way of understanding.  Freud is the invisible wizard from whom you must wrest every story.  Good luck, and gallant writing!

Nancy Springer is the author of the Award winning Enola Holmes mystery series.  


3 Responses

  1. Hi Nancy, great ideas. I like your suggestion about looking for voids in stories where new stories can be told. My book of fairy tales is still a favored place to return when my mind needs to wander.

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Nancy! When I decided to write my own Authurian tale, I also went back to Mallory and even earlier. (Interesting that no Lancelot existed in the Mordred inspired me. I haven’t copied a thing, but it is one of my favorite books. In fact I think it may be your best. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    Sherry Diener

  3. Hi, Nancy! Just saying hi to let you know I was here. Excellent article. As a kid, I loved all those (apparently sanitized) legends and fairy tales. Then I got a book of the original Grimms brothers tales to read to my son, and after reading a couple decided hmmm, maybe not….didn’t want to terrify the little tyke, who is not so little anymore!

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