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Here's an armed adult male stranger embracing a terrified child after he has shot and killed an endangered animal. Or...No. That's not how the REAL story goes.  Crane, Walter. Little Red Riding Hood. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875. (And have we EVER extended our profound gratitude to surlalune.com for their treasure chest full of copyright free fairy tale illustrations?)

Here’s an armed adult male stranger forcing a terrified child into a vulnerable position after he has shot and killed an endangered animal. Or…No. That’s not how the REAL story goes.
Crane, Walter. Little Red Riding Hood. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1875. (And have we EVER extended our profound gratitude to surlalune.com for their treasure chest full of copyright free fairy tale illustrations?)

Simplia reached out for the gatepost to steady herself. She and Sagacia were on their way to the Fairy Tale Lobby to see if their Magical Friends had stuck up any new post-it notes in response to Changing in Charleston’s query about altering folk tales to suit the times, the culture, or the whims of the teller.

When she just stood blinking silently for several seconds, Sagacia said, “Use your words, Simplia. Otherwise your deep thought will be like a tree falling in a deserted forest.”

“Well… This matter of tellers changing traditional stories instead of sticking to authoritative texts… I think instead we might explore what’s been lost in committing oral tradition to the printed page? Of COURSE we change a folk tale EVERY TIME we tell it … even if we use the same words found in the oldest written version … context, audience, location, time of day; inflection, mood, tone; schtick.”

“Good point,” Sagacia agreed. “So many variables at play guarantee that even if a teller recites a particular version verbatim, it’s going to be a different story every time.”

“So shouldn’t the question really be: How acceptable is it to write these stories down? To illustrate them, thereby overriding the audience’s imagination with a single artist’s visual representations?”

By this time they were once again in motion, and they had reached the Fairy Tale Lobby’s front stoop.

“Deep thoughts,” said Sagacia. “Or, at least, conundrums. But listen to the buzz and chatter coming from the Fairy Tale Lobby.”

It was a lively conversation. Opinions were flying. The Simpletons ordered a pot of chamomile tea and sat down to eavesdrop.

Fran Stallings said
If it’s a public domain folktale, AND our aim is to open a window into that culture for our listeners, I think we must be very cautions about changes. We must research the culture and make sure that whatever we do does not misrepresent the culture’s values or style. If we find something we don’t like, it’s not ours to change! Go find a different story.

But if we want to whomp up a creative new version all our own, go ahead, that is Folk Process. We must however take all the blame/credit, and not pretend it’s still an old folktale.

And Tarkabarka seemed to concur


I think a lot of it depends on the venue and the audience. If you have a program for adults titled something like “old Hungarian folktales” (for instance) you have the chance to create an environment where stories can be told in their “older” recorded forms, and then maybe have a discussion about collection and preservation, and what life and values were like in the olden days. Cultural history.

On the other hand, if you are telling something like “Stories for Young Ladies” and you happen to shift a fairy tale around so that the princess actually selects the prince instead of being given to him as a prize, I am all for that. Changing in Charleston is right, most traditional tales were never meant to be frozen in time.

There are exceptions, of course – sacred and serious stories, myths, epics were often taught to apprentice storytellers through word by word repetition, and that’s a whole other topic. But mostly, yes, stories are meant to change when the core values they promote are outdated. You can either shift them around (with grace and expertise, obviously) or just select to not tell them.”

One thing I hold important though: It is good to see where stories came from. It is not only intriguing, but vital to understand the changes they went through. This is why, even though I might tell an “updated” or “rewritten” version of a tale, I always try to find the older (I don’t like “original”) versions as well.

Robin Bady carried that train of thought to her own conclusion:

If we can see ourselves as emissaries of our own culture…American early 21st century in my case NYC Eastern European Jewish….then perhaps the way telling folktales in our own ways, infused with our own culture, are adaptations just as the old Jewish version of a story that also was told in the surrounding area….infused with a different culture but still the bones of the same story…is an adaptation.
It is, perhaps, in the way we “bill” it…as a story from a certain culture or inspired by a story from a certain culture. Honesty is the best policy – creativity is fun!

Jane Dorfman offered words of caution, based on personal experience:

I think you need to be careful of the core of the story even if you are not quite certain of it. In Tipingee from The Magic Orange Tree, the child is being threatened with being sent off with a wizard. She’s to wear certain colors, red one day, black one day when she goes to the well so he will know her. All her friends agree to wear the same colors and confuse the old man. I’ve heard a teller use the colors the kids she was telling to had on, can you wear something aqua, can you wear something pink? It makes it more participatory, but red and black and white are meaningful colors in stories. I don’t think some things are open to adaptation and too many changes robs the story.

And Tarkabarka gave some tips on Responsible Revisionism:

I agree with that :) There are a number of things I sometimes do:
1. Add a caveat, something like “You know, back in those days, customs were different. It was tradition that a man had to kidnap the woman he wanted to marry…”
2. See whether the change affects the core values of the tale. You were absolutely right that a lot of research is needed if you are dealing with another culture. But sometimes changes don’t really affect the main message of the tale. For instance, in my example above (below?) the hero’s journey is not in essence changed by the princess seeing him and being attracted to him instead of a king throwing a random daughter at the hero’s feet. He still gets the girl, except, now the girl has a personality too.

In response to changes in cultural mores, Richard Martin had some comments about how issues that were once seen as amusing might fall flat for today’s audiences:

…I was discussing Afanasyev’s “Bawdy Folktales of Old Russia” with my family only yesterday. I’m always on the lookout for more bawdy folk tales to tell, but found that most of Afanasyev’s collection were not tales which would work easily today. But seen from the perspective of a Russian serf, the many tales of lecherous priests would clearly be much appreciated.

Similar social changes make many from Vance Randolph’s “Pissing in the Snow” difficult for me to tell (although there are a couple in my repertoire).

The he brought it around to a point of harmony with the deep thought that, not half an hour earlier, had stopped Simplia in her tracks:

I entirely agree that this is not “changing the story,” rather it is doing what we should be doing. In the words of that adage, recently re-posted by t’other Richard, instead of “telling the story,” we are “telling the listener.”

I’m sure we all often read a text and feel that this is just not quite going to work as a telling. It may be, as you say, due to cultural changes. It might also simply be that the writer/transcriber was much more of a “text person” than a performing storyteller.

“Have we reached any conclusions?” Simplia asked her friend.

Sagacia sipped her tea and said, “Nothing I feel confident etching in stone.”