Browse your local library shelves where you find folk- and fairy tales and you’’ll soon discover that the majority of such stories are, according to book covers, “retold” by their authors. Now I don’t mean to sound like some fussy old nitpicker, but I’m here to tell you that to call me a “reteller” in my role as an oral storyteller and folklore author and to label what I labor to write a “retelling” surely misses the mark when it comes to describing the effort, awareness, and technique that I must draw on when the goal is to tell a story that entertains as much as it reveals human joys and sorrows, fears and courage, defeats and triumphs. This notion of “retelling” makes it seem that the folklore author or oral teller is taking the traditional tale or legend or verse and simply repeating most or all of it just as it was found. Not much work there. Maybe a little tidying up. Perhaps adding some drama to a conflict to make the story more appealing. What about letting those characters talk to one another when they meet up on that highway. And then there’s tightening the storyline with a little less description to move the tale along more quickly. Now, while any constructive alteration is bound to upgrade the tale or legend’s power, deep organic changes are what’s needed to build a good story. As it turns out, the act of breathing new life into these ancient narratives is not so much a matter of retelling them as it is of transforming them, or if a “re” must be in the equation, of “reinventing” whether as a writer or performer.
The process always starts with wandering around the tale. Spend a good amount of time getting to know the characters and you soon discover that however one-dimensional they seem given their folklore nature, they still trade in motivations, desires, challenges, and conflicts. Follow the events that carry these characters from here to there and beyond and you find that however quickly a tale moves along —by its folklore nature— free of the kind of details found in a novel or short story or, for that matter, a picture book, stuff does happen to keep the narrative moving and the characters suffering, learning, failing, surviving, and more often than not, living happily ever after. Linger awhile inside the tale and catch its rhythm, which sometimes suggests the cadence of an oral storyteller who fills the tale with traces of an earnest resonating voice. To bring that voice —the teller’s performance— to the page for the sake of keeping vibrant the tale’s long-standing oral heritage is one of the most pressing challenges for the folk- or fairy tale writer.
My coauthor Soula Mitakidou and I faced this challenge and my others when we wrote “The Orphan, A Cinderella Story from Greece,” which Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House published as a picture book with illustrations by Giselle Potter. The tale features a beloved daughter who becomes an orphan when her mother suddenly dies, for as people in Greece believe, “A child becomes an orphan when she loses her mother.” This quietly shrewd kid draws on her ingenuity and the gracious help of Mother Nature to free herself from a nasty stepmother and win back fortune’s blessings which sets her on a path to a happy future. In an early episode, the orphan becomes so upset over her predicament, she flees to her mother’s grave one moon-lit night to plead for release from the stepmother’s cruelty. In our very first reading of the tale, we translated into English the rhymed couplets the writer had used in the Greek version on which we roughly based our telling.
Our translation of the graveyard episode took this form:
In her despair one night, to her mother’s grave she fled
And in her darkest hour clawed the earth until her fingers bled.
“Oh mother dear, get up, get up and listen to my plea,
I have a stranger for a mother, I beg you, comfort me!
And strangers have I for sisters too whose harsh words burn my heart.
So, mother dear, take pity on me, a victim of cruel art”
At these cries the mother’s grave did tremble and quake
Startled, the girl stood breathless, and not a sound did make
“Go, my child, go to good, don’t cry and don’t complain!
Your sorrow weighs heavily on me; your pain is my pain.
Go, my child, go to good, keep your heart pure and kind
Soon your every wish will be yours to find.”
While we abandoned our early attempt to write the tale in rhymed couplets because we felt the repetitive musical cadence made our writing monotonous, we liked the dramatic tension and mystical aura the verse gave the graveyard episode and decided to work up a verse rendition of it, hoping the verse style would amp up the intensity of the orphan’s passionate encounter with her mother.
Many revisions later and with crucial guidance offered by Anne Schwartz, editor extraordinaire, the graveyard episode morphed into this interpretation that made it into the published picture book:
One night, the poor orphan fled to her mother’s grave. Throwing herself on the ground, she cried:
“Oh, Mother, dear Mother,
Listen to my plea!
A stranger tries to take your place,
But does not care for me.
Her daughters call me ‘sister’ now,
But are heartless as can be.
Oh, Mother, dear Mother,
I beg you, set me free!”
At once, the grave trembled, and the mother’s voice rose from the earth:
“Go, my child, go to good,
With all my blessings, go!
Your sorrow weighs upon my heart,
Your pain, it wounds me so.
Go, my child, go to good,
Don’t cry and don’t despair.
Go home, my soul, and wait to find
True fortune’s blessings there.”
And so, holding close her mother’s words, the orphan followed the moon’s path home.
If our revised episode demonstrates anything of value about the process of reimagining a tale, it concerns the risk that went into taking raw material that meandered across the page in erratic verse and breathing into it a sensible rhythm that attempted to capture something of the oral teller’s presence.
Even riskier was our characterization of the orphan. We decided to give her the option to step out of the traditional role in which she waits patiently to be rescued by a prince. Many of the Greek Cinderellas we met stayed in their place at home submissive to their destiny as women and unable to take the initiative to decide their fate. Unlike these characters, our orphan emerges as a self-determined young woman who takes it upon herself to go and find her rescuer.
We keep discovering that the joy of our work with the tales comes from taking each step along the way determined to allow the source tale to teach us how to reinvent it. That’s the joy alright, but it’s also the challenge we love to take up.
Today’s writing prompt: He hadn’t seen her since the day they left high school.