“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” — C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature
Frankly, I find it hard to imagine any fantasy author not having a deep familiarity with fairy tales. But I wonder how many of them own three translations of The Complete Brothers Grimm and two translations of The Complete Hans Christian Andersen. I do — along with five different “folktales of the world” collections, and compilations of Scandinavian, African, Chinese, English, Celtic, Italian, and French fairy tales. (No, my collection is not complete.) They are the well to which I return again and again when I find my inspiration waning, and I’ve never failed to come across something useful in them. Most of the stories I’m proudest of have their roots in fairy tales, employing folktale motifs even if they’re not linked to a specific tale.
Many of my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company are folktale adaptations. “The House Across the Way” is a Cinderella variant; “Candle Magic” is a steampunk retelling of “The Little Match Girl”; “The Worst Good Woman in the World” has its origin in an old Russian story called “The Bad Wife.” But I want to throw a spotlight on two plays of which I am especially proud.
One of my favorite “around-the-world” collections, Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters, came about because its editor, Kathleen Ragan, saw that too many of the best-known and most popular fairy tales featured female characters as passive victims (e.g. “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty”), and she decided that a search for more proactive fairy-tale heroines was in order. Her compilation features an impressive array of virgins, mothers, and crones whose courage and ingenuity saves the day. One story that caught my attention immediately was “The Tsaritsa Harpist,” the story of a Queen who disguises herself as a traveling minstrel-man in order to rescue her husband the King from the clutches of a foreign enemy. Since I have a bent toward writing about women who play musical instruments, I knew at once that I wanted to use the basic story as the foundation for something of my own.
But how could I make it mine? First, I wanted to do away with the cross-dressing element. I didn’t fancy setting my story in a society in which traveling minstrels must be men or appear to be men. Yet the disguise aspect was crucial to the story. The heroine must rescue the hero without his realizing who she is. So my mind began to turn around this idea: what if, in this alternative steampunk world, the powers that be have decreed that all music should be played by clockwork automatons? What if the heroine must pretend to be, not a man, but a machine? Thus did “The Tsaritsa Harpist” become “Sarabande for a Condemned Man,” performed by ARTC at LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN and at DragonCon in Atlanta in 2011. I’ve written three major plays for ARTC since then, and I love all of them. But “Sarabande” may well be my favorite.
An earlier play, 2008’s “Nothing at All,” has a more complicated history. Its source was an obscure English tale called “Nix Nought Nothing.” While a King is journeying through a foreign land, his wife gives birth to a son and decides that until the babe’s father comes home, he will be called “Nix Nought Nothing.” The King doesn’t have a clue about this, but unfortunately, a wicked giant does. When the King needs his help to cross a river, he says he’ll gladly carry him across if only the King will give him Nix Nought Nothing. The clueless King agrees. Drama ensues.
The titular Nix Nought Nothing is a bit of a drip, utterly helpless and reliant on his resourceful love interest (the giant’s daughter) when faced with danger. I didn’t want to make a hero or heroine out of such a weak personality, but the idea of the name that isn’t a name burrowed into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone. You must do something with this, it insisted — but how to make something out of Nothing? I started with the story’s big unanswered questions: why does the giant want Nix Nought Nothing in the first place? And why, after he rears the lad to adulthood, does he suddenly start threatening to kill and eat him? The villain’s motivations became the seed of my elaboration, so my villain served as the fulcrum around which the story turned.
I decided my villain should be, not a giant (I like my giants to be good — another blog for another day), but a short, stocky sorcerer patterned after Claude Rains, one of my favorite actors from the classic-movie era. He has, not a daughter, but a son who is a life-long invalid. Through his magic he learns about a skilled healer called “Nothing-at-All,” and, like the villain in the original tale, he tricks her long-absent father into giving her to him. Yes, my Nothing is a girl. I switched the genders of my heroine and hero. This Nothing is creative and resourceful. The villain has good reason for believing she can cure his son, so he has a tangible, understandable motive for laying claim to her. Why, then, does he later become a threat? Because he sees her feelings for her patient growing beyond what a healer should feel. He becomes jealous. So Nothing-at-All must find a way to save herself from the old man and, at the same time, finally cure the young one.
The story I managed to weave from this little English folktale so delighted me that I wasn’t ready to leave it behind once the ARTC script was done. Another idea was kicking around in my head, of a society populated entirely by shape-shifters, in which pacifist were-mice were locked in a struggle with rootless marauding were-rats. I had the concept, but no story to put into it — until I decided my Nothing-at-All could be something I couldn’t recall having seen before: a female were-rat protagonist. She is “Nothing” because her chaotic people haven’t bothered to give her a name, and the were-mouse who adopts her as a child dubs her “Nicht Naught Nothing” partly in an effort to keep herself from getting attached to her. But she soon learns that being “Nothing” gives her a freedom no other were-rat has, to author herself and her own story. “I may be Nothing,” she tells the hero, “but I might be anything.” So, as the ARTC play “Nothing-at-All” was transformed into the novel Atterwald, my heroine taught me why the whole idea of “Nix Nought Nothing” caught my attention in the first place.
I have a legion of tales from all corners of the world left to explore. I have no idea what I’ll find in them next, which ideas will catch hold in my mind. Being surprised is half the fun.