“Once upon a time.” Everyone knows the words. Odds are they appeared somewhere in your childhood. You probably owned at least one book that opened with them, too. And whether you’re a Disney fan or not, you’re familiar with those fairy tale favorites they’ve adapted. (In the safe-for-the-public version that censors produced for kids everywhere after parents went through a brain switch and decided they didn’t want stories warning children about the evils of the world anymore) You probably have one that you secretly – or not so secretly – continue to adore. And if you’re anything like me, you ruthlessly plunder those old tales for ideas when you sit down to write. (They ARE public domain, after all) But if you’re only using modern references for your research, you’re missing out on a goldmine of information and inspiration. And I’m here to open that treasure chest wide for you.
Fairy Tale Origins
Those beautiful stories as we know them go back THOUSANDS of years. Even before the authors we credit them with. The oral tradition of sitting around a fire and sharing a tale before settling down for the night started the notion of most of the themes we associate with our favorite fairy tales today. And the same plots appeared throughout the world.
You just may not recognize the names of the stories if you didn’t grow up with them. However, you’ll hear similar characters and actions when you start listening. Mainly because people were driven to impart the same knowledge:
- Don’t be lazy
- Demonstrate kindness to those around you
- Karma’s a bitch
- Don’t talk to strangers
- The world is a frightening place
- But it’s also full of wonder
And since adults weren’t as worried about offending anyone back in the day, those first stories included plenty of gruesome violence, sex, and gore. (If you’ve never read an original fairy tale, you are missing out!)
All of that raw, unadulterated content is available for reading and investigation. Provided you know where to look.
The Fairy Tale Codex
Now you CAN run to the library or bookstore and grab a collection off the shelf. Depending on the curator, you’ll find material from different regions of the world. But odds are they’ll be so edited and altered, they might as well have been rewritten entirely. (Disney isn’t the only influence out there) And when you’re looking for new writing inspiration, insipid cartoon cavities won’t do the trick.
(At least, I HOPE they won’t)
Instead, you need a repository with the ORIGINAL text – or at least as close as possible. And you want a thorough database that won’t leave out any regions of the planet. Because there are incredible tales out there when you look into cultures other than your own.
Which is when you turn to SurLaLune.
SurLaLune is the fairy tale lover’s research grotto. Not only will you find a complete list of global fairy tales, but you’ll find essays on the topic and a list of annotated tales. You got it: stories with a complete history and a list of similar tales worldwide.
Now, it IS a little shy when it comes to South America and Australia. But It does a creditable job of catching the remainder of the globe. And you don’t find a lot of annotated lists ANYWHERE. So if you’re trying to research a story for one of your ideas, it’s the best place to start.
The Motif Index
And then there’s another option for hardcore researchers: the Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Every fairy tale makes use of a common motif. And when you’re ready to dive into the source of those motifs, you can turn to the Motif-Index.
(Note: set aside plenty of time; it’s over 2400 pages long!)
Even if you don’t want to get lost in the rabbit hole of references, simply reading through the various themes can prompt your inspiration to start running. Because the Index breaks down EVERYTHING that’s appeared around the world in stories. And you can search for whatever pops into your brain.
Seriously, you can get weird with it.
Now, you CAN buy a copy of the Index if you want. But since it’s available online, why shell out the cash? (I mean, unless you want six extra volumes on your shelves that you have to dig through)
Now, reading the Index is a little tricky. Luckily, there are plenty of guides out there that walk you through it. And once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to dive in.
And get lost. (I recommend you set a timer – or have someone unearth you from the pages at a set time)
Choose Your Fairy Tale
I’m an avid fairy tale rewriter. And I like to find those that aren’t mainstream. My current novel project involves “The Goose Girl.” I’m also working on a sci-fi retelling of “Godfather Death” (though that’s a short story). And diving into these indices has helped immensely.
I’ve been able to find the original texts, free of the “sanitization” I get elsewhere. I’ve also read up on annotations and found similar tales with different elements. And those elements are what I’ve been able to pull apart and use for inspiration. Until the new story only has a touching glance with the original.
Exactly as a rewrite should.
People say there’s no such thing as a new idea. And they’re right. And wrong. You’re using the same building blocks people have for thousands of years. But in a new way, interpreted by your imagination.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
But if you never dive into ALL of the material you have available, you’re missing out.