Messing with story

Every year – give or take a few – I go to Wild Ginger Witch Camp. At camp we do ritual and study around a central story, often a folktale, fairy tale or myth. Often we bend the story a bit, draw out hidden themes or make connections to other stories. We don’t always stick to the original version, or any known version. One year we did a camp around “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, in a skilful reversal written by Mayer Shevin.

I like the traditional stories, and I also like new versions, if they’re thoughtfully done, and if the new version casts light on the original story and shows me something I haven’t seen before.

Enchanted Conversation specializes in new versions of old stories. I’ve had a great deal of fun writing for Enchanted Conversation, playing with the story theme of whichever issue I’ve submitted to. The editor, Kate Wolford, insists that the revisions – the re-visions, if you like – be based on the older versions of the story. Perhaps we don’t have the original oral version of, say, Snow White, but Wolford wants her writers to be aware of more than the Disney cartoon.

One thing I really don’t like is when a story is changed to reflect our modern sensibilities. Happyendingitis is an insidious disease. The concept of what is or isn’t a happy ending changes with time and culture. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story “The Little Mermaid” ends with the mermaid transcendent, taken up by the Daughters of the Air and assured of gaining the soul she wants, even if she didn’t get her man. This was clearly a Good Thing in Andersen’s mind, and probably also in the minds of readers of his time.  The original mermaid was as wilful as the Disney heroine, but more capable of sacrifice. Every step she took was like walking on knives, a detail the cartoon skips. The “gets the guy” ending of the Disney film is far less satisfying; she even gets her voice back. What she loses – home, friends, family, the identity she grew up with – is glossed over.  A soul? What soul? That isn’t even mentioned. When the romance fades, the Disney mermaid will be in much worse shape than Andersen’s heroine.

Disney is an easy target, but also the clearest example of the dangers of stories thoughtlessly messed with. What lasting lesson can be taken from a story where every unsuitable or unfashionable thing is stripped away to make it “up to date”?

I know that no story comes through the ages unchanged. I also know that with the pace of communication and the wide dissemination of culture, any new version, however ill-advised, will be seen and absorbed by millions. Old versions are forgotten, their cultural contexts scorned or simply lost with time. I’ll have more to say about this in another post.

It’s futile to forbid people to mess with stories, and it’s probably also wrong. Stories belong to people, after all. I think the question to ask, when you’re about to change a story, is this: how does this change serve the story? What does it bring into focus? Equally important is the question, what is being lost or left behind? Messing with story is inevitable. It’s our responsibility at least to make it thoughtful, as well.

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