Updated: Sep 2, 2022
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A lot of bestselling novels and blockbuster films borrow from folklore, mythology and fairy tales. Stories that were told centuries ago are often the same stories that we still encounter in books, on television or in the theatre today.
Granted, they have been rewritten, and they have changed, but there are often still many similarities. Sometimes it’s obvious that this is a new version of an old tale, and sometimes this is less obvious.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was inspired by the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala, Norse and Celtic mythology, the medieval poem, Beowulf, and many other similar sources. Some claim that Gandalf is based on Odin while others have noted that Väinämöinen, an old and wise demigod who possess a magical singing voice, has a lot in common with Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil.
However, Tolkien isn’t the only one who has looked at ancient tales for inspiration. On YouTube, you’ll find many videos that compare Star Wars to the Arthurian legends.
Another well-known example is Disney. Everyone knows that Disney’s most popular films are based on fairy tales, but it’s perhaps less well-known that some of these fairy tales can be traced back to the 10th century.
So, how do you successfully use mythology, fairy tales and folklore to enrich your own writing? How do you use tales that have been adapted a hundred times before and still come up with something new and original?
Know Your Audience
‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen was first published in 1837. In Andersen’s original, the prince doesn’t love the mermaid back. For the mermaid, that means she will die and become sea foam on the day the prince marries another. But when that day comes, she can still save herself. If she stabs the prince in the heart and his blood falls onto her feet, her fishtail will be returned to her and she will live a happy life in the sea. The mermaid decides to sacrifice herself so the newlyweds can get their happy ending.
Disney keeps the sea-witch, and they keep the fact that the mermaid gives away her voice as payment for having legs, but they decide to change the ending. They also give the characters names and the mermaid two companions - a funny fish and a musical crab.
As an adult, I prefer Andersen’s original, but as a child, the original would have made me feel sad.
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Another good example is Cinderella. In the Grimm version, the stepsisters are left blind after Cinderella orders two doves to attack their eyes. This is unlikely to appeal to children, but if you would like to rewrite Cinderella as a horror story, this might be a detail you would like to keep while changing other elements of the story. Maybe the pumpkin carriage would turn out the be a monster with a taste for human flesh, or perhaps the fairy godmother could be a witch with iron claws.
The great thing about fairy tales is that they’re timeless. You will always find an audience that wants to read them, and you can rewrite them in any way you want.
Research, Research, Research
Scroll through Amazon and you’ll find hundreds of Beauty and the Beast retellings. Most of those are intended for children, but you’ll find plenty of other titles that can be classified as horror, romance, sci-fi or even detective stories.
The fact that this story has been rewritten so many times shouldn't should scare you off, but you do have to ask yourself some important questions.
How will my story differ from those that are already published?
What can I do to make sure that my work stands out?
How do I avoid clichés and turn my story into something new?
The best way to answer them is to read a couple of novels that are similar to what you want to write about. Think about the writing techniques the author uses, the things you like and dislike, and what you would do differently.
Just don’t read all of them or you’ll be there forever!
Old Tales in a Modern World
When I wrote Selkie, which was turned into an audio drama by the Alternative Stories and Fake Realities Podcast, my main source of inspiration was the Faroese legend of Kópakonan.
Selkies are mythological beings from Scottish, Irish and Faroese folklore who can change into humans by shedding off their sealskin. The stories surrounding them often tell about a selkie woman who is forced to marry a human man after he steals her skin and ensures that she cannot return to the sea.
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The legend of Kópakonan is a story that can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it doesn’t always seem to favour the point of view of the abducted selkie. At the end, the selkie transforms into a hideous troll who curses not only her ex-husband, but the entire town for generations to come.
I love the original, but do I really want my own selkie to turn into an uncontrollable, villainous troll at the end of the story? No. I want her to change, but I also want to make it clear that her revenge is well-thought-out and not a whim. I want a listener to feel and understand her pain.
When bringing these old stories to a modern audience, it’s important to have respect for the source with which you’re working, but it’s also important that your version has meaning for this world too.
Claim These Characters as Your Own
One of the reasons why I’m so fond of The Lord of the Rings is because Tolkien uses familiar characters from folklore in a new, refreshing way. It’s fair to say that he reinvents dwarves and elves from the mythical past and gives them a credible voice.
Another example is Seamus Heaney’s play, The Burial at Thebes. His play was first performed in 2004, but it isn’t a new story. It’s a version of Sophocles’ Antigone, which was written around 441 BC. Both plays tell about Antigone, who defies the law by burying the body of her brother for which she is punished in a severe way.
Both stories are the same, but if you were to compare the two play texts, you would find some striking differences in line length, metre, and the language itself. Heaney respected the original text and didn’t change the plot in a significant way, but he made these characters his own and succeeded in bringing an ancient tale to a new audience.
I would like to say goodbye with a writing tip. While every story has subplots, they always seem to work with a three-act structure. Fairy tales always have a very clear beginning, middle and end and can teach you a lot about structure. Take any fairy tale, change the character names, the setting, some of the objects that define the plot, rewrite them in your own way and you’ll have a short story.
And don’t forget to have fun while writing!
Signe Maene lives in Ghent, Belgium and is currently working on a novel set during The French Revolution. She writes short stories in many different genres, and occasionally some poetry. She’s also very passionate about folklore and fairy tales. Her Twitter handle is @maenesigne and you can find out more about her and her publications at www.signemaene.com.