Zoe Marriott: The Story Behind the Story

When I was a little girl my sister and I fought like ferrets in a sack. Barely a day went by without wails of ‘She pulled my hair!’ or ‘She broke my stereo!’ or ‘She’s trying to kill me!’ echoing through our house. The funny thing was that, because my sister was ten years older than me and nearly grown up, I looked up to her tremendously, and wanted to be just like her. But I would rather have died than let her know that, especially when I knew she thought I was a complete geek.

One day when I was seven or eight, our mother sent us both out of the house with instructions to go to the library and for heaven’s sake, stop arguing. In tense silence, we walked the short distance to the shabby little building and went in. My sister abandoned me to look among the adult shelves. I poked around in the children’s section, and then, without much hope, looked in the Cancelled Box. There I discovered a book that would change my life.

It was a large hardback picture book, a bit peeling and worn on the outside, titled The Wild Swans. Within, children played in a fairytale castle. A wicked enchantress cast a spell. Boys became swans. Horses tossed their manes, leopards and hawks hunted across the pages. A little girl became a beautiful woman, and wandered through a deep dark forest. It was magic. I would have done anything to have that book for my own – but I didn’t have any money with me or any pocket money saved up. By the time I came back, the book would be bound to be gone.

On the point of tears, I was about to put The Wild Swans back, when it was plucked away by a familiar hand.

“I’ll buy you that,” my sister said coolly. “But for God’s sake, don’t blub.”  

About seventeen years later, when my version of that fairytale, The Swan Kingdom was published, I tried to express my thanks to my sister.

“No big deal,” she said. “God – there’s no need to blub…”

Story Starter: The Story Behind the Story

 A basic fairy tale is like the skeleton of a story, with all the interesting bits missing. Baddies are bad, goodies are good, and at the end everyone will live happily ever after – except the bad guys, who will be punished. A whole book like that would be very boring. The point of a retelling like The Swan Kingdom is to get at the story behind the story, to crack the essential truth behind it. But the essential truth is different for every person who hears the fairy tale.

The basics of most fairytales are pretty simple. For instance: Girl lives with father.

Father remarries and brings new stepmother and stepsisters into house. Father dies.

Stepmother is cruel and abusive to girl. Girl meets and marries prince. Stepmother and sisters are punished.

We know everything that happens, but we don’t know why.

Girl lives with father – why? Is her mother dead? When and how did she die? How did this affect the girl and her father? Or did the mother run away? If so, what was her relationship with her daughter and husband?

Father remarries and brings new family into house - why? Is he lonely and thinks this will make the house happy again? Or does he not care about his first daughter? Why not?

Father dies – why? Old age? Accident? Poison? A broken heart when he realises his new wife is not what he thought she was? A broken heart because his daughter is so unhappy with the new wife? Does the stepmother have anything to do with this? Maybe the girl, angry at her father’s marriage, has something to do with it!

Stepmother abuses girl – why? Is she just cruel and evil? Very few people are like that in real life. Maybe she thinks she is toughening the girl up, doing her a favour. Maybe she knew the girl’s mother and hated or was frightened of her. Maybe the girl is so angry and hostile that she doesn’t know how else to treat her.

You can see how suddenly a dozen different versions of the fairytale seem possible, just by questioning the basic events. Take a fairytale that you know well, even if you only know it from Disney. Break it down into its basic events, and then question each one. Look at all the assumptions the story, makes, and ask WHY.

You might end up with a version where Cinderella is a juvenile delinquent and only the love of her devoted stepmother can set her right. Or where Cinderella is a psychotic poisoner who got rid of her mother and father and is now starting on her new family. Or where she’s out for revenge against her stepmother for murdering Cinderella’s father and ruthlessly uses the poor prince and his influence to achieve this. Each one of these is more interesting than the original Cinderella as victim

That’s the fun of fairytales!
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