Folktales in Fantasy

Something fantasy this way comes…

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about using folktales in fiction, especially fantasy. I bought a CD of Songsmith, filk written to go with the novel of that title. The book was a collaboration set in Andre Norton’s Witchworld, and the songs are about events in the book, or are referred to by one of the main characters (a bard). Norton uses a lot of folk tale and historical references in the Witchworld series, but so deftly that unless you are really looking for them, you’ll miss how she weaves them in.

That’s what I want to focus on. Not on re-working fairy tales and folk-tales as Mercedes Lackey, Diana L. Paxton, Robin McKinley, and others have done, but using details from folk-tales and history as story elements.

For instance, in the first Witchworld book, Witchworld, the Big Bad attacks the trade citadel of Sulkar Keep. The heroes fight off the evil as long as they can, then the lord of the keep sends everyone else away. He triggers a trap spell that destroys Sulkar Keep, and the bad guys, leaving the Sulkar folk to make their way as best they can (and they do. With a massive grudge that reappears as a plot point in later stories). The story? Based on several real events, including the battle of Segedvar in what is now Hungary, where a few hundred defenders in a river castle blocked a 100,000 man Ottoman army. The battle ended with a suicide charge, and the deaths of the defenders and lots and lots of Ottomans when the fortress blew up behind the defenders. The sultan Suleiman the Magnificat died of disease during the siege. There are similar stories about Roland vs. the Moors during Charlemagne’s reign, and other tales of heroic defenses of lost castles in other times and places. I wager very few of Andre Norton’s readers made the connection, and Norton herself might have used the pattern without being completely familiar with a specific incident. Tell it as history, or sci-fi, or fantasy, it’s still a heck of a tale, and can be used to good effect in the right hands.

Ghost animals are another motif that can be used for lots of things, and that have a rich folk-lore treasury to draw from. Are they demonic hounds, harrying those who died in sin (as defined in your world)? Are they the forces of delayed justice, or of justice denied? Perhaps it is a horse that lingers near the scene of a crime, watching for the descendants of the criminals, or watching for the rightful heir to come. In some families, particular ghost or spirit animals acted as guardians, or as portents of change or ill-fortune. A bird that appears at the window of a sick-chamber could mean healing, or it could be the messenger of death. The wild hunt, or a damned hunter, or animals that punish hunting on forbidden days all appear in folklore and could be great story fodder. Norton borrows the Wild Hunt in the gryphon sub-trilogy (Crystal Gryphon, Gryphon’s Eyrie, Gryphon in Glory). She keeps the doomed, evil hunter motif, but changes the causes and the prey. Susan Cooper also borrows the Wild Hunt in both The Dark is Rising and Silver on the Tree.

Once you find a motif that works for your world and story, start by filing off the registration. You don’t need Hearne the Hunter unless you are deliberately pulling from English tradition for a reason. Don’t call it “the wild hunt” or “the Devil’s Dike” or “the Cave of the Seven Sleepers.” Fold the basic story or elements of the story into your world. If there are no stags in your empire, having a white stag with golden antlers and crimson ears appear in front of hunters might throw readers out of the story. Not as badly as a rusalka showing up in the Sahara, but close. Make it a great silver bird, or a wombeast with golden fur, or something.

Now the fun part – make up folklore for your world to go with the borrowed elements. This gives you a chance to foreshadow by having your characters blow off the story as an old superstition (Robert Adams did this to a T with a terrifying story about phantom buffalo and a medicine man’s ghost). Or they take the warning seriously, and go a different direction, only to encounter the Bad Guy fleeing the forest, gibbering with terror, about to wet himself. And they let him go because… Or they discover that the horse with flaming hoofs is not a ghost at all, but is the avatar of a god, who is now more than a little peeved at being exorcised instead of worshipped.

You can also make up folklore for your world that is purely for world-building. Have a bard in the inn telling a fantastic tale that draws your character in so that he misses the barmaid slipping a bit of stolen property into his packs. Explain that strange rock formation as the gods’ punishing an inhospitable lord. You can also slip in some story-history, by having a figure from the past get folded into a local folk-tale, so instead of a generic ghost from back-when, it is the much younger bastard cousin of the current king’s father who was turned into rock, as everyone knows. So the protagonist can’t be that bastard cousin, despite what someone claims.

I strongly recommend you move away from Grimm and the other “common” fairy tales and poke around other sources for folktales and stories. You can find some truly Odd and unusual things in non-western sources, like Russian or Southeast Asian collections, or in corners of the Child Ballad catalogue.


  1. Looking for other traditions is a great resource. Not just for plot elements, but to explain different cultures points of view. Using the odd folktales to explain why A does X for the main character as he experiences things he’s not used to. Been meaning to do that and just have to dig through my piles of unpacked books for sources.

    Just think how many “stranger” stories there are where the stranger is a lord, god, ancestor, etc. across a lot of cultures. Welcomed and all is good, spurned and bad things happen. Hmmmm think I may be on a trail there for something.

    1. Ooo. Being tested by a supernatural being and a punishment or reward given depending on behaviour seems to be a common thread through many different traditions, I’ve noticed, and is …for lack of better term… ‘generic’ enough that one is quite capable of borrowing from different traditions or smudging several together.

  2. One thing that is useful when studying different traditions is to get the overall sense of things. Irish folklore, for instance, is full of revenge cycles. The Grimm folktales have a lot of famine-based privation tales. Trickster tales involve the principle trickster in trouble as often as not.

    If you create a folklore, it’s helpful to have it with a consistent style. If you have a set that is largely depressive, a tale of sunshine and light should have an origin outside that culture. If they’re largely hopeful, having a tale where everybody dies at the end is going to be jarring.

  3. Eh, there are 200 tales in the Grimms’ collected. Most of them your audience doesn’t know, because they know only the Pop Top 20, not all of which are Grimm, and the rest will find it cool to find an obscure tale.

    I note that if a bard tells a tale, you probably want to make it subtly resonate with the themes of your story: treacherous siblings, or co-workers, or poverty, or miscarriage of justice. . . .

    I also note that there are fairy tales, and then there is folklore. Legends attached to time and place tend to sound more like anecdotes.

    1. Excellent points. Grimm has a lot of material that Disney didn’t touch, and some is far more folklore than fairy tale. And in some cases, finding decent translations.

      Another thing to be aware of is the “literary Folktale,” most of which date to post 1850 in English and German, and that are folktales made up by collectors because 1) there wasn’t anything “suitable” or 2) nothing survived several cycles of war, religious change, population shifts, more war, and economic crash. I have a set of stories that are purportedly from the Harz Mountains in Germany, and the sugar syrup dripping from them is so thick… The “collector” improved them [her words] for family reading and to give an impression of how quaint the mountain folk were. I’m looking forward to finding a better, German-language source this summer.

  4. Richard Adams invented folk tales for Watership Down and I loved them. They were an important story element for foreshadowing as well as fun and world building.

    Ship of Gold in a Deep Blue Sea which is non-fiction includes a sea captain who changes course because an albatross flies in his face and he thinks it is a sign. Having changed course he travels right through the wreckage of the gold ship that sank in 1857 and picks up many of the drowning passengers and takes them to safety. Crazy but true.

      1. There’s a free podcast called West Cork available on Audible, and it’s true crime, about a murder that happened back in hippie days in Ireland.

        So almost the last people to see the murdered woman were the people who owned the land next to a ruined castle and haunted lake. There’s a White Lady at the lake who is a death harbinger if you see her. Apparently the murdered woman saw something at the lake but was too upset to say what, and the landowners didn’t do what locals would have done — kept the woman around people, so that the death harbinger would not apply. There’s not a lot that the locals understand about the murder; this is the only thing that makes sense to them.

        The podcasters (who had spent the whole podcast posturing that they are open-minded and understanding) call it a “crazy story.” Even though it really did happen. (And even though it might make one wonder if the murderer was the sort of person to stalk his victim and dress up as a White Lady.)

        It’s a decent podcast, but I keep having to stop listening whenever there is stupid narration.

        1. A family story goes that either my great grandfather or a relative had the ability to tell that someone would die. This was back in the day when bus travel between mountain villages took a while, and would periodically stop so the driver could refresh. They stopped at my mother’s home village and there was someone who was going to join the bus, which was headed to Manila. The traveler to be was talking to a number of people he knew before he was to leave, and my relative happened to look down at his shadow.

          “Don’t go,” he said. “Your shadow has no head. You will die.”

          Everyone else supposedly looked down and saw what he saw as well, and implored him to stay, wait for the next bus. The traveler laughed it off and went anyway.

          The bus met an accident – fell off the road and down into a ravine; if I’m not mistaken, everyone in it died. When they found the man from the village, he had partially fallen out of the window, and his head had been taken off in the crash.

          The ‘person has no head’ phenomena as a harbinger of doom has another story I heard of, interestingly, this was on TV, and happened in U.P. Diliman, in Quezon City. For a bit of background, there’s a jeepney that goes around the UP main road, taking students from the dorms, to the school halls proper. A young woman had gotten on one of the last rides (which is sometime around 10pm -12 midnight).

          She expected to be the last one off, as her dorm was one of the last ones on the route. But when she asked to stop, the driver glanced at her through the mirror and kept driving, which unnerved the girl. In fact, he sped up, to make sure she wouldn’t try to jump off the moving vehicle (the jeepney drives fairly slowly, so it is possible to do this and only get maybe a skinned knee.) He drove around the university three times, ignoring each time that she asked to stop and repeatedly glancing at her in the mirror, until the fourth time he reached the dorm. This time he stopped without being asked, got out and approached the girl, looking very contrite and pale.
          “I’m sorry for scaring you, miss,” he told the student. “But the first time you asked to get off, I looked in the mirror and you had no head. I got a bad feeling something horrible would happen to you so I kept going until I saw your head again.”

          The driver walked her up to the dorm entry to further make sure she was safe, and drove away.

          As an additional tidbit of fun, unexplainable occurrence, the film crew and actors who were reinacting a different ghost story from the same university, and the camera caught a very clear shadow figure that would only appear when the figure was underneath street lamps; where a person would have some diffuse reflection (from skin, hair, clothes) even while walking between lamps. To test this after the crew discovered the figure, they went back to the street at the same time and had someone walk the same path; they could see the person walking between the street lamps, in contrast to the shadow figure, who was ink black and cast no reflection or shadow.

        2. Oooh, now THAT has the hair on the back of my neck up– and it gives me something to steal from for getting a party together in a fantasy story.

          Seriously, if you know someone who sees the Death Warning is dead– if they are not kept around people, and add in a culture where morally standing there while someone is killed is about the same as killing them yourself, I can get a group collected much more easily.

          Maybe even have the Lady in White be a summoning, so the victim really might be killed by the seen something….

  5. or you can spend so long creating these and writing them down that you lost interest in the story and find something else…

  6. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    As if the average writer doesn’t already have too many story ideas on their plate (or should that be writing pad?)! But I do love the idea of mixing up both real history with myth and folklore.

  7. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is the series I credit with my early interest in old (sometimes very old) folklore and myth. The Green Man, the Hunting of the Wren, the Wild Hunt–she did an amazing job of drawing on those, and kindling my fascination with them. (Though she only peripherally touched on the Green Man, via Greenwitch.)

    I’ve always found that some authors drawing on the oldest myths can achieve a sort of…flavor? that evokes a sense of mythic, primeval ‘something’ that–while we all know it never existed–gives a fine sense to a story that touches something in the reader. Susan Cooper managed that, for me anyway, and it’s why I love rereading the series to this day. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series does that for me also, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Moon’s Paksennarion series. (Especially her more recent forays into the world, which draw on some of that ‘olde worlde’ feeling, particularly in the bits set in Lyonya.)

    1. That’s what raised my hackles in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, in St. Barbara’s church. There was a Green Man, but also a Red Man. And it gave off a sense, well… Something about the town and especially the church bothered me for the whole time we were there. Old, old stories, perhaps locally remembered which was why they were in the miners’ church and not the cathedral.

      1. So was the Red Man…what, a Communist answer to the Green Man? Or just something Wrong about the area in general? I’ve been places like that–generally speaking, they were places where Very Bad Things had happened in the past or–in the case of a local historic penitentiary that was turned into a museum in the 1970s–were kept there. (Been there twice, once as a kid, once as a teen–and I’m not sure I ever want to go on that tour again. That place is BAD.)

        1. The Red Man dated to the Middle Ages, and as I recall, had faced the Green Man on the opposite pillar. It is now up in a lapiderium in the balcony. There’s just a sense of something off, even though the building had been consecrated ground and used for worship for centuries.

          I have no idea why I got the creeps there. I ended up turning it into a short story in “Tales from the Uplands.”

        2. I’ve only ever heard of a /few/ “Red Men” in myth and history, like Detroit’s Nain Rouge who appears before city-wide disasters hit and Napoleon’s ‘Red Man’ who supposedly appeared to him several times, most notably right before Waterloo (and scared the daylights out of him). But whenever they showed up, they were bearers of bad news.

    2. Manley Wade Wellman’s Silver John books use a lot of American folklore and folk magic. Another more recent one (and it’s quite good) is Cat Kimbriel’s Night Calls series.

      1. Oooh, I shall wishlist that. I tried to find Manley Wade Wellman, but it looks like the only thing they had for kindle was…a short story for ten bucks? I’m not paying 9.99 for a single short story, and they didn’t even put in a blurb as to what it was actually about–just a “this author was best known for…” (Maybe it’s an anthology, but the product description didn’t make it clear, alas.)

        I’ll have to see if I can track down his stuff elsewhere. Thanks for the recommendations! 😀

        1. Grumble Grumble

          I purchased a copy of “Who Fears The Devil” (the Silver John collection) from the Kindle store but couldn’t find it just now. 😦

        2. You can probably get a lot of his Silver John books through interlibrary loan. Great works one and all, and loaded with for-real Southern mountain folklore.

  8. I love the illustration at the top of this post. Did you make it?

    I love stories where the old lore gets used, and I’ve enjoyed most of Boyin’s Eastern European flavored tales. What I’ve seen lesser writers do that is irritation to read is just bring up the foreshadowing lore/story/superstition once a chapter or so before it becomes important. And it’s the only mention of such stuff. If you’re going to use it, sprinkle in bits everywhere you can, not necessarily just for foreshadowing.

    1. No. If you click on it, it should take you to where I found it. You have to scroll back through his blog quite a ways, and he didn’t give an attribution, so I wonder if it is by his usual cover artist.

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed them!

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