Sophie Masson posted an eloquent piece on this topic a few weeks ago, after a reader sent us this quote from an agent’s rejection letter: ‘…Nor do I think harking back to one of the oldest fairytales of all time … is right for contemporary fantasy readers.’ Since my new novel Heart’s Blood is structurally based on a very well known fairytale, Beauty and the Beast, this is a topic dear to my heart. I’ve based two previous novels on fairytales, and all my books include tropes and motifs from fairytale, myth, legend or folklore. I am a totally unashamed dipper into the cauldron of story.
Before I talk about why traditional stories are so important, I should acknowledge that an agent can have all sorts of reasons for accepting or rejecting a manuscript. In this particular case, perhaps the agent’s belief that fairytale is somehow irrelevant to contemporary readers played only a small part in her decision. Although I strongly disagree with her comment, I’m not passing judgement in any way. It’s the quality of the writing that sells a manuscript, along with potential saleability in the current economic and social climate. If a story leaps off the page at an agent or editor, if it’s utterly brilliant and compelling, it may cause her to revisit her idea of what is or is not right for the market.
The cauldron of story contains an ever-bubbling brew of all the traditional tales ever told and retold, in all their various forms. My belief is that we fantasy writers are part of an ongoing tradition that began with the first storytellers who wove their oral magic around a fire at night. With those tales, folk sought to make sense of the unknowable, the nameless creature that lurked in the woods beyond the safe circle of the campfire, the folk in the next village who were Different, the land beyond the familiar valley. The stories helped people learn. They taught youngest brothers and sisters that they could stand up and be counted. They made sense of lovers’ meetings and partings and the heartache that attends them. They spoke of war, wounding and death, of illness and catastrophe, of friendship, of compromise, of courage beyond the odds. In short, those stories with their wonder and magic were blueprints for living life well. They drew the tribe together in a shared appreciation of a tale well told, and a shared recognition of its wisdom. Those treasures of learning go into the cauldron each time they are heard, and are taken out again with each retelling, never exactly the same, but enriched, seasoned, altered in ways determined by the circumstances in which they are told. The cauldron bubbles on for hundreds of years, its brew growing tastier all the time.
At a certain point the oral tradition is overtaken by the written word. When a traditional tale is set down on the page, it loses its flexibility. The printed word remains, unchangeable, and although oral versions may continue to be told and other printed versions may be published, generally one definitive version of a fairytale, myth or legend becomes the ‘accepted’ story. Beauty and the Beast was written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont and published in 1756. However, according to fairytale scholar Jack Zipes the bare bones of the story lie in the myth of Cupid and Psyche, published by Apuleius some 1600 years earlier. And who knows what oral versions may have existed before that date?
Most contemporary writers of fantasy make use of the cauldron of story in some way. Some make bold use of an entire tale, and do it with brilliance and flair: Gregory Maguire’s ingenious Mirror, Mirror and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister come to mind, alongside the dark and disturbing Tender Morsels by Australian writer Margo Lanagan. Fairytales for grownups, anyone? Other writers may use only one item, a magic ring, a love potion, a genie of the lamp. You take some out, you put some in. Thus you leave plenty for storytellers of the future.
Is there still a place for novels in which true love really exists, princesses are rescued by princes, and all that’s required to get people out of trouble is a magic spell? My answer to that is yes and no. I believe wholeheartedly that even in this fast-paced, technological age traditional stories speak to us. They resonate deep inside us, touching us on a level beyond the intellectual. As a writer I find them powerful tools for communicating the emotional heart of my story and the learning I hope readers will take from it. But, like Madame Leprince de Beaumont, I present the story through the filters of my own time and culture. As my novels have historical settings, I also take the social norms of those times and cultures into consideration. Next month I will blog about using Beauty and the Beast as the foundation for my new novel, Heart’s Blood: how the fairytale enriched the novel, and why I believed it necessary to change the original story.
Illustration: The Australian cover for Heart’s Blood. The UK edition of Heart’s Blood is available now. The US and Australian editions will be released on November 3.