Old Tales Retold: Sprites and Goblins


I've finally published the first volume of Old Tales Retold. (Volume II, Here Be Dragons, should follow in 2017.) It didn't seem the right kind of book for annotations, so I decided to put them in this blog instead.


I set myself a few rules in selecting and adapting these stories. I made sure to choose them from a wide variety of cultures, to avoid stories already well known to the average English speaking reader, and to get a reasonable balance of male and female protagonists. I tried to pick stories which reflected their original cultures to some degree; which, if not already historicised and localised within that culture, could be so without substantial change. I avoided any change which I felt might violate the beliefs or cultural norms represented: if a story pointed to a moral I disliked, I would sooner not adapt it than change it to remove that lesson. I've freely invented what I hope are appropriate names for nameless characters, except when this would be taboo in the source culture. When confronted with contradiction or incoherence - as sometimes happens with stories collected orally, often in multiple versions - I have tidied up the narrative as unobtrusively as I could. I hope that the resulting retellings, though very much in my personal voice, can be considered faithful and respectful to their originals.


Notes on the individual stories follow below.



The Good Neighbours (from a Scottish legend)


This story is firmly rooted in real history. The sale of Myrton Castle; the death of Sir William Gordon; Sir Godfrey MacCulloch's exile, return, capture, and trial; all took place as recorded, between 1682 and 1697. Sadly, history does not record Sir Godfrey's rescue at the hands of the goblins. (It is likely that the real Sir Godfrey was a much less pleasant character, and far more at fault in his feud with the Gordons, than depicted here.)


The main source for the goblins' role is an oral tradition which Sir Walter Scott heard in Galloway, and published in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03). I've eked this out with historical records, which provided more detail concerning the circumstances of Gordon's death; and also with elements which I remember from first discovering this story as a child (e.g. Sir Godfrey's dream). Having drawn on memory, I can't now point to a source for all of these - no doubt they come from later elaborations on Scott's meagre story - but in this case, as the culture concerned is my own, I feel more relaxed about using unsourced plot elements than I might when retelling a story from a different background.



Tatterhood and the Trolls (from a Norwegian folk tale)


This story was collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in Norwegian Folktales (1841-44). It seems to be unique to Norway; I don't know of another heroine quite like Tatterhood. (The Orcadian story of Kate Crackernuts shares many motifs, but Kate has no supernatural origin and her heroism is muted compared to Tatterhood's swashbuckling.)



The Sky People (from a Tlingit folk tale)


John R. Swanton collected this Tlingit story in southern Alaska, and published it in the journal of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1909. Although it contains elements which may possibly be of Russian origin, they've been thoroughly assimilated to Tlingit culture. (The original is a little vague about whether the character I've called the Moon Chief is the moon or merely lives there.)



The River Demons (from a Ukrainian-Jewish folk tale)


This story was collected by Reuven ben Yakov Naana from Ukrainian immigrants in 1930s Palestine. It's full of circumstantial detail, including personal names, in a way that's very unusual for a folk tale. This has led to suggestions that it may have been inspired by real events, perhaps a few decades earlier.



The Adventures of Tom Hickathrift (from an English chapbook)


This is another legend closely connected to real events - the fall of Ely in 1072, and the Earls' Revolt in 1075, as well as the general situation in England after the Norman Conquest. Even the giants could serve as a metaphor for Norman and Danish invaders. However, there's no evidence that Tom Hickathrift existed, or even that the story was told in the Middle Ages (although his name does sound vaguely Anglo-Saxon - in my Hereward novels, I include a character called "Hiccafrith", inspired by Tom).


The story is in fact first found in anonymous Elizabethan chapbooks; it remained a popular staple of the chapbook tradition right through to the Victorian era. I've drawn on several different versions but the main plot points are common to all. Where the first chapbook writers found the story - if they didn't completely invent it - nobody knows. I have made a couple of small changes: the brewer who employs Tom is a man in the chapbooks, which was the norm by the sixteenth century, but in medieval England brewing was more frequently a female profession and I took the opportunity to add an extra female character; Lord Islington, his name taken from the Manor of Islington in whose demesnes part of the story takes place (which historically belonged to the Earls of East Anglia), is a composite - Tom keeps running up against indistinguishable antagonistic Norman noblemen, and it made sense to make most of them the same person. Some versions also kill off Harry Nonesuch in the final confrontation with the cyclops; I've gone with those that leave him out of the fight.


The Five Sisters (from a Somali-Ethiopian folk tale)


This story was collected in Jijiga in 1998 as part of a project by Elizabeth Laird and the British Council. I've named the youngest sister Ikran in honour of the original narrator, Ikran Ahmed Omer, who was a girl of about twelve when she told this story. Although it shares elements with folk tales from around the world (think Hansel and Gretel), it's not quite like anything else I've come across. I find the sisterly solidarity and the sympathetic depiction of the half-ogre, both so rare in folk tales, touching and inspiring.


Guimara, the Giant Princess (from a Brazilian folk tale)


This story was published by Elsie Spicer Eells in Tales of Giants from Brazil (1918). It doesn't come from any of Eells' known sources; the earliest Portuguese-language version I've found is later, being told by Monteiro Lobato in 1937.


It's a lightly Brazilianised version of a well known European story, variants of which exist in many countries. I've actually localised it and historicised it a lot more than Eells and Lobato do. My version is set in the São Paulo region where Lobato grew up and heard his tales, in the early colonial era when knights like Dom João really were around in Brazil, and the interior was sufficiently unexplored that people could believe in a kingdom of giants a day's ride from a Portuguese settlement: i.e. around 1550.

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