I am lucky enough to be able to slip out of my “author talk” mode during school visits and tell traditional stories. One of my personal and most enjoyable favourites is bold, brave Molly Whuppie.
If I was truly academic about my telling, I’d know when I met her or which parts of the telling came from where and when, times a hundred. Was she among Andrew Lang’s tales read long ago? Certainly I knew the story well before meeting Kathleen Brigg’s great collection. And how much of my version echoes Alan Garner’s wonderful re-telling? Or does the perspective I see in my head during the escape scene echo that of Raymond Briggs' illustration?
The truth is that I don’t want to go back and look, because I have my own Molly alive in my head, shaped by many tellings.
Molly is a kind of female Jack, who manages to keep her two mean-spirited sisters and herself both safe and sheltered in a bone-crunching ogre’s castle overnight.
However (and it's the however that counts) there’s a truly chilling scene where Molly nips out of the overnight bed she’s sharing with her two sisters. Swiftly, she switches the three necklaces of plaited golden straw the ogre had given Molly and her sisters last night at dinner with the bright golden chains he had placed around his own three strange daughters necks.
When, moments later, the ogre comes in to the dark chamber,and feels for the damning chains of straw, it is his own three daughters he takes away, down to the cellar.
Now I do not tell this tale often or to young children, or to children I have only just met, or without other tales of different moods before or after. Molly needs the right moment, as well as an awareness of what is going on in that schools life at the time, and any horrific news stories that are high profile at the time. Sometimes with younger children, I make it clear that the ogre just locks his daughters in the nasty dark cellar. But it is a shivery moment, and always needs handling with care and concentration.
The horror is partly diminished by the later scenes, because not only does Molly get her sisters safely away and eventually married off, but she also returns three times to steal the giant’s treasures. Molly is not anyone’s simpering heroine, but practical and brave, and there is no mention of her being beautiful.
Molly Whuppie wouldn’t be classified as a tale of real life but I can’t tell the tale without acknowledging the deep human feelings within it. Molly is real but she isn’t “real life.” So Molly cheers me immensely when I worry about not being able to write pink kitten stories, or wacky stories about underwear, or gritty urban drama.
I need the cloak of the past to give my best writing its feelings and shape.
Where and when do you find or place your best-loved stories?
Penny’s latest book, A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E is out now. (Bloomsbury)
Note: The triple theft scenes in this tale are woven through with the ogre calling a something like “Woe betide you, Molly Whuppie, if ever you return again.” To which Molly replies “Twice more, thrice more I’ll come to Spain”, a refrain which suggests that at this tale was current when Elizabeth I was on the throne, facing a Spanish invasion.