Folktales in Fantasy
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 Norton uses a lot of folk tale and historical references in the Witchworld series, but so deftly that unless you are really looking for them, you’ll miss how she weaves them in.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.