By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Most of us have read these unforgettable stories since childhood, published in beautifully printed and even illustrated books written from the imagination of wonderful writers like Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Frank Baum, and even J.R.R. Tolkien. Many of these type stories also have mysterious origins where it is believed they were based on fact and passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, or written by an author who remains anonymous to this day. One such anonymous classic is the epic poem, Beowulf.
The epic poem tells the tale of the brave and (rather supernaturally) strong hero Beowulf from Geatland in Scandinavia, who journeys to help the Danes fight a monster attacking their people, then years later fights and destroys a dragon.
There are scholars who believe the epic poem, Beowulf -- one of the oldest written works of fantasy -- originated in the oral tradition and became so popular it was transcribed into written form between circa 975-1025 AD.
One of my favorite folktales since childhood remains Pecos Bill. Everything about him was larger than life -- like the American West -- and his adventures definitely triggered my young imagination.
What child wouldn’t be fascinated by his story? I mean, he fell out of a covered wagon as a baby—and was adopted by a pack of coyotes. His name came from the Pecos River in Texas, the location where his orphan journey began. Not much is said about his childhood, only that it took a lot of convincing years later for Pecos Bill to understand being raised by a pack of coyotes did not make him a coyote.
Ironically, like Beowulf, many believe the adventures of Pecos Bill were not credited to any author but originated by oral tradition. Even Edward O’Reilly (who published the first Pecos Bill story back in 1917 and then did a collection of the stories in 1923), stated Pecos Bill came from tales told by cowboys during the settlement of the American West.
One thing is certain. No matter their origins, both Beowulf and Pecos Bill have stayed with us. In addition to the print version, digital, audio and film versions of these works are now available. They have become treasures of our literary culture, as well as deep rooted in our memories.
So, what is it that makes a character unforgettable? That elevates them to the status of legendary hero? For that matter, how many books and films today are inspired by fairy tales and folk tales? How many Cinderella stories have you read? How many fantasy elements that originated in fairy tales and folktales are now incorporated into various genres of fiction, including westerns?
Believe it or not, while writing the next ‘Windswept Texas Romance’ novel titled Spirit of the Wind — and, in particular digging deep into the hero, Ethan Blake — the more I thought about legends like Beowulf and Pecos Bill. I’ll be honest, Ethan Blake is the most difficult, complicated hero I have ever written, but he is a hero who deserves a happy ending more than any other character I have written, or read about in another book. In truth, this guy breaks my heart.
I finally realized in order to get him from Point A to Point B, he needed a mentor. I needed something or someone to light a fire under Ethan. And since I love to blend history with fiction, I recruited someone from real life. Otherwise, putting him in the path of the heroine wouldn't make sense and be disastrous.
Many times historical figures (especially in the Old West) became legends. Fact and fiction about them became blurred over time. Some have been incorporated into my writing before. Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson are just two legends of the Old West who were featured in my best-selling time travel romance, Whisper in the Wind.
For Spirit of the Wind, I needed someone of the time period to play an intriguing role. The one person (in my mind) who could step out of the history books and help me and the mysterious and emotionally distant Ethan Blake. And since he would risk alienating his friendship with Ethan in the process, I needed a legend who would resonate with the reader. Much as I still love Pecos Bill, he didn’t fit the “Bill” I needed.
For months I have researched William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, especially in his own words, and although given to self-promotion and sometime grandiose embellishment of his experiences, he was a decent, caring man. He understood the American West like no one else—and its effect on the people who fought for survival there. As a result, he would not only understand Ethan’s scarred past, but risk even their friendship to help his troubled friend.
Thanks so much for visiting today, and hearing my take on how folktales and fairy tales can inspire works of fiction today, and how recruiting a real legend from history can help a fictional hero become a legend in his own right. At least that is my hope for Ethan Blake, so say tuned.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject, and whether you like a traditional western or find it interesting when other elements are added into the mix. ~ AKB
WHISPER IN THE WIND, the best-selling first book of the Windswept Texas Romance novels by Ashley Kath-Bilsky is available now in print, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBook formats. Coming Soon: SPIRIT OF THE WIND For more information about Ashley and her writing, visit: www.ashleykathbilsky.com