I’ve been rebuilding my bookshelves and sorting the massive collection of storybooks back into categories. It’s amazing how many of them feature the same stories, only slightly different. Some vary only in the voice in which they are told; some may be a name change here or there; sometimes the same story is in rhyme; in others the motivation for action is entirely different although the main plot features settle into their familiar pattern once things get going. Sometimes you come across entire stories welded on to the end of one you know… or maybe that was it’s original form and parts have been left out in later tellings. I remember my surprise on discovering that the famous dragon slaying episode in St. George’s tale is near the beginning of a much larger adventure. For me these discoveries are part of the exciting detective work that leads to the heart of the story!
Take Cinderella (no please take her, she’s been overshadowing her folktale sisters for far too long), you will find variations of this tale all over the world. They go by the various names of Tattercoats; Cap o’ Rushes; Mossycoat; Nipitfit and Clipitfit; with never a glass slipper or a pumpkin coach in sight.
Many of them are more empowered than Cinderella and don’t rely on a fairy godmother to do the work for them (though Tattercoats does get a hand from her only friend the crippled goatherd). The sisters rarely play more than a cameo role, neither ugly nor evil, they simply contribute to a misunderstanding between our heroine and (this may surprise you) her father, the king, leading to her banishment from court and a stint in lowly service. However the main plot reveals itself as the same over and again with the poor-maid-turned-anonymous-beauty winning the heart of the Prince at three successive balls.
Now for some of us reading a variation we may find ourselves missing the familiar elements, but if we can accept the differences they often show the story in a new light revealing valuable, previously obscured aspects of the tale. Without the special effects of transformed mice or the demonised step-mother, the climax of the story shifts from Cinderella’s ‘escape’ into marriage, to Cap O’ Rushes’ clever reconciliation with her father, making it less of a black and white Good-Versus-Evil tale and more a triumph of wit and perseverance over foolishness and pride.
One of the skills of a storyteller is to search out these variants of a story, and in exploring their individualities, get to know the essence of each tale. These different tales may have evolved through chinese whispers one to another, or sprung up simultaneously and spontaneously from the pool of human archetypes; either way the exploring storyteller may choose to weave them into a fresh, informed, new telling of the tale, their very own contribution to the evolutionary Folk process.
As Kipling says –
“There are nine and sixty ways
of constructing tribal lays
and Every Single One of Them
…. here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
The Travelling Talesman