Wednesday, January 01, 2014

If it ain't broke (or how change occurs when it is 'not supposed to')

From the 1970's and earlier
Stories change as they travel through cultures, and as society changes. As I was putting together some information for teachers about storytelling and the new Common  Core Standards, I was using Little Red Riding Hood as an example of stories to use.  I had found an interesting article by Terri Windham on the Endicott-Studio website from 2004.  Terri wrote: "Great Aunt Tiger, a story found in various forms in China, Japan, and Korea is a close relation to Little Red."  This reminded me of an article reported in 2009 by the Guardian (which also mentioned Jack Zipes' work (his book on Little Red Riding Hood) which talked about an Iranian version with a boy in the place of Red.  "Dr Tehrani found that the variants shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years... He said: 'The oldest tale we found was an Aesopic fable that dated from about the sixth century BC, so the last common ancestor of all these tales certainly predated this. We are looking at a very ancient tale that evolved over time.' "  NBC recently covered Dr. Tehani's story two months ago with a new twist, showing all of Little Red's relations in a chart!  Dr. Tehani's full report can be found here!  All of it makes for great reading.  Andrew Lang published back in the 1800's that he thought all 'fairy stories' came from India so this research has been going on in various forms for a while.  Looking at these reports and articles shows how stories can evolve.

Stories do change over time. With the printed word, illuminated manuscript, chiseled stone, found papyrus, or scribed scroll we can trace stories and find, or have an educational guess, at where they began. But I also believe that two people, or cultures can have similar ideas at the same time in very geographical places.  I wonder, sometimes, if when people like Tehani say they have found variants, they are simply stories that appeared in different places at the same time, independently.

Can something hit the human psyche at a given time and start things happening? It has happened with technology from the Victorian times to present day.  Even artists go through gestalt moments and come up with a new variant on a theme.  Writers in different places on the planet come up with similar ideas, as did, I believe, storytellers did hundreds of years ago, either to explain why things happened (what's the sun doing up there and why does it go away and come back every day? Where does it go, and can we go there too?) or as cautionary tales like Red.  As humans change either in development (have we really?) and culturally we see new things sometimes in these ancient stories, or we re-write them, either knowingly (The Weight by Jeanette Winterson) or not.  Recently my son and I were talking about the Lord of the Rings trilogy and suddenly I remembered a movie we had seen a few months back called '9'.  I asked my son if he also thought (as I had) if there were similarities. He agreed.  Did the writer/creator come up with the idea independently, or had he read Tolkien?  Did he think it was an original idea?  It is, but there are many influences.  (If you have not seen '9', it is a lot shorter than the Rings movies, coming in at 79 minutes in a single sitting and is a whole lot of fun, even if it is dark.)

And the stories change again! And more research is done and we might be getting closer to finding out who Little Red Riding Hood is and where she came from. Folk tales, to me, are fabulous things, and the research which has been done and continues to be done on them is fascinating. But I wonder when some of us say we need to be true to the original Old Tale, how true we need to be.  We choose what we put in and leave out.  I try to keep as much as the culture as I can find as a way to honour the tale.  But there are stories which I have changed.  My story of the Shape-Shifting Girl is a retelling of a Scandinavian of the Boy Who Could Turn Himself into an Ant, Falcon and Lion (also The Ashlad and the Beasts).  I loved the original story but was frustrated by the number of stories I was reading in the collection where the boy got to marry the princess. She, of course, had no choice, as it happened back in Those Days, but I thought I could make it so that no one had to get married. And also the gift of shape-shifting was given for some very small reason.  I believed that a gift such as that should be won by growth or a somewhat large challenge - more like Real Life. The lad became a lass and the beasts asking the lad to decide for them which part of the horse carcass they should eat became a battle and rescue mission.  These are probably the largest changes I have made to a story, but I have made others.  Some changes to make the story more accessible to a modern audience, some to make a story richer, adding to it where I have found additional cultural information giving depth.  Are either of these things doing a disservice to the stories? The Shape-Shifting Girl is a popular story of mine which is popular with boys and girls of all ages - from kids to adults - running at usually 20 minutes in the telling. It addresses things like consequences, strength of character, and shows that girls can be just as adventurous, smart and courageous as boys.

Many people tell their own versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  When I was growing up Goldilocks was always depicted as a pleasant looking girl, which sort of gave her permission to do the things she did.  A bit Jack and the Beanstalk-ish. My version of Goldilocks came out of talking with my daughter about Goldilocks (what a terrible person she was - a pain, a liar and thief, taking no responsibility for her actions) and playing around with the story and characters.  I added things that were part of my life, or at least my parent philosophy, it one could call it that ("what kind of a parent would I be if I gave you chocolate for breakfast?"), and experiences as a parent.  These things are identifiable to the older care-providers and draw them to the story as much as it draws the children. The Old Tales surely did this when they were first told - were empathic to the listeners, linked to their own existence, and experiences. Should storytellers, oral and/or authors, make changes like these?  And if we do, I wonder which stories will still be told, or read in 50 to 100 years from now.