Tuesday 27 April 2021

Stealing Stories by Claire Fayers

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Litfilmfest a few months back. One of the questions they sent me in advance was:

'How come you are allowed to steal old stories - myths and legends - and change them? Is that okay?'

I wish we'd had more time to discuss the question during the event because it's such an interesting subject. We all know we're not allowed to steal other people's work. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who avoids books that look similar to whatever I'm working on because I don't want to pick up accidental influences.

And yet, old stories are fair game. My 'Accidental Pirates' books borrow from Greek myth, the stories of Sinbad and tales of lost worlds. Mirror Magic uses Celtic fairy folklore and every fairytale that has ever mentioned a magic mirror. Storm Hound features Odin and the Wild Hunt, the Welsh sorceress Ceridwen and several local folk legends. And my latest book is a collection of Welsh myths and legends, all shamelessly taken and retold.

Folklore. Fair game?

Copyright only lasts 70 years, and we're unlikely to get a 2,000 year-old author banging on our door, complaining that we've stolen their ideas. But it feels to me that permission to use these stories goes beyond the fact that they're not protected by copyright.

Once upon a time, stories were community events. Told to an audience, who would then go out and retell it to their friends. Every time a story was told, parts were forgotten, other parts were changed or added. Whenever people left their homes and moved to new places, they took their stories with them. That's why you find the same motifs cropping up over and over again. Stories were meant to be taken, retold and changed.

I think that's one of the reasons these old tales speak to so many people. They didn't have a single creator, but they took shape over time, coming out of the collective consciousness of the people who shared them.

To take one story as an example, the tale of Beddgelert tells how Gelert, the favourite hound of Prince Llywelyn, saves his master's baby son from a wolf. Llywelyn, retuning from a day's hunting, sees the upturned cradle and his dog covered in blood, assumes Gelert has killed the baby and kills his faithful dog. 

Gelert's Grave in north Wales

There's a memorial to Gelert in the town of Beddgelert, named after the brave hound, so the story must be true. Sadly (or maybe happily), it's not. Gelert was probably a local saint and the story may have been made up by an innkeeper who wanted to attract visitors to the town. Who knows where the innkeeper got the story from, but maybe he'd heard the Indian version of the tale in which a Brahmin's pet mongoose saves a baby from a snake and is mistakenly killed by the Brahmin's wife.

If a mongoose can become a hunting hound and a Brahmin's wife can become the Prince of Wales, then we can surely take these stories and make them our own? One of my favourite school activities is to take well-known fairytales apart and use them as inspiration for new stories. It's always a joyful activity, made better because the children are creating stories together, bouncing ideas across the classroom. 

Maybe then, if you're feeling stuck for ideas, spend some time immersed in myth and see where it takes you. I love the thought that, in telling stories, we are part of a global conversation; a conversation that stretches back to the time the first person gazed into a fire at night and said 'Once upon a time...'

Claire Fayers writes fantasy and adventure stories for 7-12 year-olds. Her new collection of Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends, published by Scholastic is out now. www.clairefayers.com


Susan Price said...

Exactly, Claire.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Children who read your books are very likely to go looking for the originals anyway, so why not?

Yes, there are quite a few versions of the Gelert story, from different countries. I don’t think there is any copyright on that.

I’ve only had one novel published, but I used Marie De France’s Lai Le Bisclavret as inspiration and why not?