Storytellers and Their Tales

Not surprisingly, folk and fairy tales have been popular for as long as there have been folk on this Estate. Digging into the Archives, I found this piece in which a number of folk say what their favourite one is.

Oh, you want to know my favourite? It’s actually a tale spun by master storyteller Charles de Lint in his Jack of Kinrowan novels as it has the perfect blending of modern setting and traditional elements in it.

Neal Asher says his favourite tales are of a video nature: ‘My favourite folk/fairy tales? Something I’d recommend people seeing is a series of programs presented by John Hurt. in which he played the part of ‘The Story Teller’ - all made up like an old man sat in a fireside chair with a muppet dog beside him. I particularly liked ‘The Soldier and Death’. Why? Death, immortality and the soldier played by Bob Peck. All these stories are good - they are fairy tales not too dumbed down and made ‘nice’ as they are by Disney.’

Kage Baker has a long and detailed answer: ‘Hmmm… When I was a child, it was ‘The Tinderbox’. To analyze why: Starts out with an adventurer wandering the world free- I liked that. Meeting with a supernatural person who sends him off on a treasure hunt- good. Heaps of money encountered, in a way a child can readily appreciate: a heap of pennies! A heap of silver coins (maybe dimes? Or even quarters!) A heap of GOLD (so cool as to be mythical). And a Tinderbox? What was a Tinderbox? I wondered for years. Three immense magical dogs with successively bigger eyes, all of whom can be rendered tame by use of a magic apron. I was scared to death of big dogs, so I liked the idea they could be tamed this way. Plus the recitation of their eye size (‘big as saucers.. big as cartwheels… big as millstones’) in its repetition appealed. Hero uses his money to buy fine clothes, a nice house, and the best food- seemed sensible to me, just what I’d do. Falls in love with a princess who can only be got at through magical means- yay! A love interest! Magic dog outwits spy by running all over town chalking Xs on all the doors- funny image, that. Hero gets caught eventually anyway- oh no! suspense! But sensibly gets a child to fetch his tinderbox. And then the giant dogs, each with their particular eyes, save the day.

On growing up, I have discovered that this was a Hans Christian Andersen story originally- and in the original version the soldier doesn’t get doublecrossed and left in the cave by the witch, as I was told. In the original, she keeps her part of the bargain and pulls him out of the cave, but he gets greedy and kills her to keep the tinderbox for himself. I would have disliked that immensely, had I heard that version. Heroes should play fair. It would have undercut the entire premise of the story if he were actually a bad man. Children love justice.

I also liked Beauty and the Beast, especially once I’d figured out it was the same story as Eros and Psyche, and it’s a bit more profound in terms of life lessons. So that one followed me into adulthood. But when I have to tell a story to a child, I’ll usually start with the Tinderbox.’

Holly Black says in a low voice that ‘Well, this would give away my next project (and by next project, I mean something I am not even going to get to start until next year), but the answer is Madame la Comtesse d’Aulnoy’s The White Cat. I love that it is a gender-reversed Beauty and the Beast and I love the idea of the secret palace of cats. I suppose on a more analytical level, I’m a fan of animal bridegroom stories that highlight one’s lover as ‘the other.’ In any case, the story has stuck in my head since I was a little girl and I’m hoping to unstick it by turning it into a book.

Paul Brandon who is not looking forward to another beastly hot summer in his home city of Brisbane says ‘I’ve always had a fondness for the tales where faeries steal women and their mortal lovers win them back somehow, usually with tricks or honour (such as in the story of King Orfeo) or even with brute force as in the tale of Fin Bheara and Ethna the Bride. I always like those kind of ‘instructional’ tales, as I guess you never know when they might come in handy! I unknowingly walked through a faerie ring the other afternoon and I didn’t have anything to turn inside out except a pocket handkerchief, and I doubt that counted (I was in a park so I could just pull off my shirt). That night, our recording session was riddled with mysterious pops that would appear on the mix-downs, but not the masters. So you have to take notice of these things!’

From Stephen Brust comes this answer: ‘I suppose Csucskari, just because I’ve done so much with it.’

Charles de Lint says ‘Oddly, I’ve been thinking about that recently because of an essay I’m doing for someone. Without actually going back to look at them (which I plan to), I think it would be among ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier,’ ‘The Matchstick Girl’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ (original version).’

Pondering his answer before replying, James Hetley said: ‘Cat, I’ve been thinking about this, and I think that probably my favorite (today — subject to change without notice) would be ‘The Little Mermaid.’ The older I get, the more I understand that each choice molds us and that different choices would have made very different people. And that the results can be painful in ways that you can’t forsee.’

Elizabeth Hand goes ‘Hmmm. Good question. Great question, actually! I was always partial to Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Tinder Box,’ and also a version of ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ called, I think ‘Soria Moria Castle.’ Although it may just have been ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses.’ I’ll have to check. I always loved the Red Fairy Book — or was it the Blue one? Or Green? One of the primary ones! Let me think about this while I do the dishes and then see if I can find my old Lang fairy books and do some fact-checking. What a good question! This should be one of those things they use to determine personality types!’ She later added, ‘

Gwyneth Jones who’s Bold as Love sequence (or The The Rock And Roll Reich as some call it) might be the definitive look at the Sixties in England has a wonderful answer: ‘Ah, now that would have to be a story (with many variants) sometimes called ‘The Seven Crows’, sometimes ‘The Seven Swans’, which I believe originated in Morocco*, where it was known as ‘Wu’deia who sent away Su’beia’ (The Girl Who Sent Away Seven, a story collected The Virago Book Of Fairytales; ed. Angela Carter; Virago Press UK 1990-92).

A girl is born to a family with seven sons. In the European version the delighted father sends the boys to get some water to Christen her. They don’t come back, he goes to look for them and finds them squabbling over who broke the water jug. You’re no better than seven useless crows, he says, and forthwith the boys turn into crows and fly away. When she’s twelve, the girl finds out about her brothers and vows to find them and rescue them from the enchantment; which she duly does, while having a very busy personal life at the same time. She ends up on a bonfire, about to be burned as a witch (her husband the prince’s advisors have poisoned his mind against her) still frantically knitting the last of the nettle-fibre shirts that will finally stabilise the brothers in human form. And they rescue her, and the youngest brother has one arm and one crow’s wing ever after…

I like this story first because it’s the story my father used as the frame for an endless epic of fantasy adventure, told to us in many installments through my childhood (known as ‘The Three Crows’ in our house, as my little sister couldn’t handle a number as big as seven). My father followed the plot to the point where the girl had found her brothers and managed to half-shift the spell, so they can be crows by day, human by night or vice-versa, and then he took off with this team (the girl very smart, the boys with secret superpowers) on adventure after adventure. Thus began my storytelling apprenticeship, my respect for the hearthtale sources, and my understanding of the folklore tradition’s willingness to experiment, adapt and transform.

I also like it because the heroine doesn’t just win the prince. That’s almost a side issue. She has a life, that gets in the way of her quest, and a quest, that gets in the way of her life. She has a career and an intense personal voyage of discovery going on at the same time. I can relate to that.

*I believe the Moroccan story is the original, because in tribal and Islamic Morocco boys who were children of non-clan mothers (ie, concubines) were known as ‘crows’, and often driven away by the family when they reached an age to fend for themselves. This would also explain why the girl was welcomed. She was a legitimate child, born of the tribal wife; she could be married to form alliance useful to the clan.

PS: Slash/fairytales? Now there’s an idea for an anthology..

Sharyn November also has a succinct answer: ‘I like ‘Tam Lin,’ and I also like ‘The Fisherman and His Wife.’ I also like tales where people get what’s coming to them. Very satisfying.’

Josepha Sherman simply couldn’t decide: ‘I can’t narrow it down. I like all good folktales, regardless of origin, so long as they tell a good story!’

Will Shetterly was a bit of a smart ass in reply to the question (What’s your favorite folk slash fairy tale(s)? And why so?): ‘Is this like Kirk-Spock stories? Jack the Giant-Killer has a passionate affair with Tam Lin? Tatterhood hooks up with Rapunzel and the Snow Queen? Oh, not that kind of slash. Okay: The Little Tailor. Because it’s about a little guy who gets ahead by perseverance and optimism.’

Terri Windling picks a favourite tale among many here: ”Donkeyskin,’ for the reasons I noted in the essay on this page (in the essay ‘Transformations’ which is half-way down the page).

Jane Yolen who just finished reading Patrcia McKillip’s Harrowing the Dragon says ‘Gee-I wrote an entire essay called ‘The Brothers Grimm and Sister Jane’ on this. But my favorites include ‘Little Brother, Little Sister’ because of my relationship with my younger brother whom I have always felt needed protection I’m sure he would disagree!); ‘Iron John’ because in the story the prince’s ‘man’ has to speak truth even though he knows it will turn him to stone, something I have always believed; and the good/bad sister stories where the good sister’s reward is that every time she speaks, pearls and diamonds fall from her mouth (not great for the enamel on the teeth, I bet!) and the bad sister speaks in vipers and toads. Eeeeuw. Actually a writer’s worst nightmare-that what we say/write is only worth a toad!’

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