Thursday, January 30, 2014

THE INFLUENCE OF FAIRY TALES AND FOLKTALES ON TODAY'S FICTION, AND HOW HEROES BECOME LEGENDS

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

For centuries, fairy tales and folktales have existed, most all of which feature larger than life characters (including a hero and heroine, as well as witches, evil queens, faeries, fairy godmothers, goblins, giants, mermaids, monsters, dragons, sorcerers, and wizards). The theme is good against evil, and no matter how dark and hopeless a situation might be, good always wins and love always triumphs.

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.

[Pictured: Written in the West Saxon language, the first page of Beowulf in Cotton Vitellius A.xv (one of four major Anglo-Saxon literary codices that contains the earliest copy of the poem), located at The British Museum]

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.

As a little girl, I remember my soft-spoken grandfather telling me the story of Pecos Bill. I listened with wide-eyed fascination about Pecos Bill’s adventures, and how no one else could ride his beautiful, wild horse, Widow Maker. Bill was not only an excellent rider, but the best skilled cowboy with a lasso. Who else could lasso a deadly tornado then ride the twister as if it were a wild bronco?

And lest you’ve ever wondered how Texas came to be called the Lone Star State, legend has it that while courting Slue-Foot Sue (a feisty gal who rode a giant catfish), Bill shot out all the stars in the Texas sky, except one. Well, he supposedly also invented the six-shooter so he must have been a sure shot. Granted, as a small child, I had my doubts about the lone star legend, but more difficult to swallow was when my grandfather said Bill’s favorite food was dynamite. After all, grandpa also told me spaghetti was worms and spinach was seaweed. But I digress…

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?

The romance genre, in particular, isn’t just about creating wonderful characters and compelling plotlines, but also about helping the hero and heroine overcome barriers and achieve that fairy tale ‘happily ever after’.

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.

[Pictured: Buffalo Bill Cody by Rosa Bonheur, 1889]

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

24 comments:

  1. I so enjoy reading fairy tales and Irish tales of magic and legend. One of my favorites is The Bard by Morgan Llywelyn in which the bard is enchanted by an angry fairy and cannot speak. The bard "speaks" with his eyes and actions and wins the heart of the woman he loves without speaking a word. fairy tales are layered in such a way as to appeal to children and adults.
    I so enjoyed reading your blog. I wish you the very best.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah. I am glad you enjoyed the post. I also love Celtic folktales and myths. Celtic Myth Podcasts has a great show and you can listen ro them narrate various folktales with dramatic flair. They also have a page on Facebook. I have listened to them for years. http://celticmythpodshow.com/

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  2. Loved the post! I think fairytales stand the test of time because inherent in them are lessons to be learned, about how to behave, about what to fear, essentially how to live, not just in the "real" world, but in the unseen, interior world as well.

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    1. Hi Kristy. Thank you very much, and I love your view on the subject. Beautifully said, and very true. :)

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  3. I enjoyed the blog very much. So many of these fairy tales deal with the same themes common throughout the world and across time. Ttouching on basic human nature and containing a moral, they make wonderful inspiration for our stories today. Oh, and I'd forgotten about Pecos Bill until you mentioned him here! But I can recall reading about him and Slue Foot Sal. Thanks :)

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    1. Thank you, Barbara. I always love stories where there is a moral, and in fairy tales there is a journey that is usually fraught with danger and seemingly overwhelming odds. And isn't that life? I agree, these stories and folktales are inspirational, even ageless. Glad you enjoyed remembering Pecos Bill, too. Thanks again.

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  4. Love this! I am a fairy-tale and Disney freak. I love the whole knight on a white horse thing...and a cowboy astride any horse at all. Oh, and I Love Pecos Bill! A nice hobble down Memory Lane today.

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    1. Hi Tanya - Yep, love knights on a white horse, and always thought cowboys in white hats were knights of the West. Today, I think firemen are like those brave knights of old, too. Happy you stopped by today! ((Hugs))

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  5. What a great post! I am a HUGE fairy tale investigator and have analyzed many. Like Joseph Campbell before me, I love figuring out basics that makes some fairy tales so memorable. But I also just love reading about myths. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is also a favorite of mine who finds mainly Hispanic/Native American or Germanic tales that haven't been heard as greatly as others. I think one reason why I like these tales a bit better than some of the "Hero's Journey" ones is because of the root of community in them. Anyway, I'm going on.

    Loved this post!
    -Lani

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    1. Hi Lani, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I will have to read Clarissa Pinkolo Estes, and am especially interested in Native American myths. Thanks for the heads-up. :)

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  6. I love incorporating legends and myths into romance novels. You did that so well, Ashley, in WHISPER ON THE WIND. So many books are really the Cinderella story retold with a slight twist. I used it myself in one of my books. I love that you do so much research and believe that's why your books resonate so with readers.

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    1. Thank you, dear Caroline. I appreciate your support of my writing. As writers, we know what we like to read, so I use that as my guidepost and hope my readers will find it interesting and enjoyable as well. ((Hugs))

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  7. Ashley--You brought back many memories. I will never forget Beowulf from Freshman English in college. The tale mesmerized me, and the instructor--an older lady--was so very dramatic in her telling and reading and discussing. Probably she is the reason I recall it.
    I've never intentionally used fairy tales or myths in romance novels, but Cinderella is always present in a romance. An evil crazy man in Texas Blue was fun to write, even though he was not fun himself. And even better were the actions the hero took to subdue the big giant of a guy--enough to make him wet his pants.
    Your post was truly unique and entertaining...and informative. Thanks so much--I loved it.

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  8. Thank you, Celia. How wonderful you had such a great English teacher to make a lasting impression on you. I think the Cinderella theme is an important mainstay of romance, and resonates with readers of all ages. We want heroines who have been hurt and treated unkindly to win. There are elements from fairy tales and folktales from many cultures used today. The villain in a book may not be a real monster, but his evil actions will have the same effect on a reader.

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  9. Great post! I enjoyed the connections you made! As they say, there are no new stories...just new ways of telling them!

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  10. Hi Ashley. I thought I had posted a comment but it seems to have disappeared. So, let me just say how much I enjoyed your post. As always!

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  11. Very true, Pam. Thank you for stopping by today. :)

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  12. Hi Lyn, I'm happy you enjoyed the post, and thank you for your comment. Take care.

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  13. Ashley, what an interesting post! I, too, loved the story of Pecos Bill. I had a set of books, called The Bookhouse Books, that my parents bought for my two older sisters. They were well-loved by the time I got them, but they have the most beautiful pictures in them, and I think that was one reason that I just latched on to the Pecos Bill story. I still have those books. I will never part with them. This is an excellent post, and one I thoroughly enjoyed--gave me some food for thought!
    Cheryl

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    1. Thank you, Cheryl. I am happy you enjoyed the post so much. Isn't it heartwarming to have books that are so treasured from our childhoods? I know exactly what you mean. And, I believe they put many of us on the path to being a storyteller, and still inspire us. ((Hugs))

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  14. Great post!! I live in Germany, and am studying German. One of our assignments was to pick a Grimm's fairy tale, and read it in German. As you probably know, the Brothers Grimm basically wrote down what had been German oral tradition for centuries and published these stories in their books. Well, what you probably don't know is that the American versions of Grimm's fairy tales is vastly different from the original versions. They are truly grim. I picked Hansel and Gretel. Did you know that H & G didn't get lost in the woods? Their parents took them there and left them to die, because they couldn't afford to feed them. All the tales are very harsh like this...this class was an eye-opener!

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    1. Wow, Lacey. The Brothers Grimm really had the perfect name for the fairy tales they published. I wonder why these tales were so frightening, moreso than the versions I read. Thank you for posting all the way from Germany, and following me on Twitter. Have a wonderful weekend. :)

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  15. What an interesting post, and so well put. It’s nice to think our stories are decedents of Fairy Tales and legends. My book IRON HEART is based on my explanation of how Beowulf was written, so i was delighted to see that reference in your article.

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    1. Thak you, Gini. Your book IRON HEART sounded so interesting, I just bought it. Looking forward to reading it very much. Appreciate you taking the time to comment. :)

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