Book Wordy podcast 2 Classic Fairytale Themes Transcript

Transcript for the Book Wordy podcast, episode 2.

Byrd Nash
Welcome to Book Wordy, a podcast about fantasy and science fiction, authors and the art of writing. I’m your host, Byrd Nash, former journalist and author of the Wicked Wolves and Windsor and other fairy tales. Hi, this is Byrd Nash and I’m here for today’s episode with my partner in crime, Miles.

Miles
Hello, this is Miles.

Byrd Nash
So we’re going to talk about fairy tales today. Kind of the general how to fairy tales work? How are they put together? What are the common themes of fairy tales, what you can expect to see that would make something, quote, a fairy tale. And one of the first things is that all these fairy tales are going to do a test of some sort. They test ordinary people and they test nobility or rich people. Would you agree, Miles?

Miles
I would agree. I would agree. There’s there’s often two levels of tests, there’s sort of an introductory test of character. And then there’s a separate challenges which are more serious and important later on.

Byrd Nash
Well, I think the story generally starts out that our protagonist has to or wants to achieve something. So the typical fairy tale is the young man is going to leave home for adventure, and hopefully to gain wealth and hand in marriage with the princess, the princess brings the wealth. But there might also be some other sort of desire that the prince has, or the princess has, or the hero or heroine has, but it usually starts out with them needing something or, or they’re leaving out from home to have their I guess it is a coming of age fairy tale. Their coming of age fairytale adventure.

Miles
Right. And sometimes it is accidental that they are sent by their wicked stepmother to perform some irritating task, or something like that, or having to go do something like take food to grandma. And then they’re tumbled into an adventure.

Byrd Nash
You know, talking about book plotting, and this is where fairy tales can kind of help you in a microcosm, it’s basically the Call to Adventure. If you’ve ever done tarot cards, the very first card is the Fool who’s leaving on the journey. And you can see that parable happening in fairy tales. The person that’s the protagonist is usually a foolish kind of character, or they’re very clever, they seem to fall into two different types of slots there, don’t you think?

Miles
Yes, I agree. Although often they are innocent, they’re fools in the sense that they’re pure of heart,

Byrd Nash
well, pure of heart and also pure of mind that they’re the innocent simpleton, who, because of their innocence, and their simple nature will of course achieve things that someone who’s kind of smart ass and cynical won’t be able to achieve, because they are letting their mind get in the way. I mean, I think the typical journey is where the two, the older brother leaves, and then he gets sidetracked doing something for money or making the wrong mistake or not helping the old lady.

Miles
Or meets a pretty girl and gets lured into an arrangement.

Byrd Nash
An arrangement, is that what we call those things now, an arrangement? I think he gets lured because he wants to, but I don’t know how filthy we’re going to get on this podcast, we both know what he’s following, and his… whatever. So anyway, moving right along. Another thing I wanted to bring up was about the characters that are in fairy tales is they can be princes or princesses, but often they are ordinary people. It’s the ordinary person who does good kind of story. Horatio goes West.

Miles
I think most fairy tales, the protagonist, hero or heroine, starts off as a lowly unimportant person. They may at some point become a prince or princess, or discover that they are heir to a kingdom or something. But they usually, but not always, start as a unimportant person.

Byrd Nash
You know, what would be interesting is to chart (I’m sure someone out there has done that, I’ll have to do some research) chart, the history of fairy tales and see if that changes. The ones that we are more familiar with, of course, is the prince or the princess that goes off and achieves a kingdom or wins a kingdom through their cleverness. But I wonder… I mean from reading a lot of Russian fairy tales, those are more about the average everyday person. So I think that’s probably an ethnic thing. I make you a bet, that if you go and look at the history of fairy tales, the older they are in certain areas of the country of the world where they come from, I bet the people are more ordinary.

Miles
I bet you’re right, because of course, these stories started as tales told around the fire at night, or to instruct children or told among adults to pass the time after farming was done. So it was told by plain simple people to each other.

Byrd Nash
But see, again, I think it would be, plain simple people are going to want to hear about rich people, which we still do today through celebrity news. They also want to hear about how their own peers can get one over on the local Lord. So come on,

Miles
There’s a whole set of stories about the clever ,or not even not necessarily terribly clever, lowly person who puts it over on the wealthy and the rich and powerful.

Byrd Nash
I’m going to read a passage from one of my short stories in the Wicked Wolves of Windsor. It is from the title short story The Wicked Wolves of Windsor, and then we’ll discuss how that plays into general fairy tales.

Reaching into her pocket, the girl pulled out her lunch sandwich, she would gladly sacrifice some for the wrens as the bread was quite stale. She also sprinkled out what was left in the hens feed bucket before she took a seat on the back step. Doireann tucked her knees up and wrapped her arms around them as she watched the little brown bobs come to pick at her gift. Doireann set very still as one came closer, the creamy mark along the wren’s black eye gave the bird an intelligent, quizzical look, as she gazed up at the girl.

“Dear child, thank you, your mother sends a message. Take the comb and use it the second night.”

Startled, Doireann jerked back causing the bird to wing away to the safety of the tree. Looking down, she found a solid gold comb at the toe of her shoe.

That passage goes over something you commonly see in fairy tales and that is the gifts. It’s not uncommon for gifts to be given from a dead family member. Especially a mother and you see that in Cinderella because the oldest Cinderellas has the dress being given to the girl, she finds it at the grave of her mother hanging on a tree. Is that right?

Miles
I believe so.

Byrd Nash
Yeah. The gifts from dead parents, especially dead mothers, is the theme. Gifts from animals… usually are they talking or not? Do you think?

Miles
Usually they’re talking.

Byrd Nash
Right. And what is really great about fairy tales is the person is never surprised by this. The animal is just talking. And they go Oh, okay. And they accept it as the reality. And that’s something we’ll get back to about fairy tales. They can also be gifted by a person that’s usually in a disguise, that the hero or the heroine helps. So why don’t you tell me more about that, Miles, because I know you and I’ve talked about that

Miles
These kind of gifts are often given as a reward for showing that you’re good at heart. As Doireann shared her food with the poor little wrens. And this is an extremely common motif of: the heroine is going down the road or whatever and sees a hungry animal. Or sees a little old lady who asks her for a bite of food,

Byrd Nash
or an animal in a trap

Miles
Or an animal in a trap

Byrd Nash
Or an animal this injured and it definitely is usually old ladies, it’s not usually old men,

Miles
Very seldom old men, it’s usually old ladies

Byrd Nash
Right

Miles
If it’s like sharing food, usually it’s emphasized that the girl has… this is the last scrap of bread the girl has and a little old lady asked her to share and the heroine freely shares because she sees the old lady needs it.

Byrd Nash
But that goes back to our old, even older stories, touch upon you need to share food in a community. You need to share food with elders because of course without food they won’t be able to survive and they may be the weakest members of the society. And of course the person that is the disguised king or the disguised queen or really the disguised fairy or a disguised angel. Now in fairy tales it’s usually a disguised fairy. It’s someone that has power, a disguised witch or disguised fairy, who can provide you a gift. And like going back to the brothers scenario, when the three brothers go out in the typical fairy tale the two older brothers they don’t share and they insult the witch, the disguised person, the witch or the fairy and that could end up being why they end up getting cursed. Or they get enchanted, you know they get enchanted with a spell, or they get sent back home in ugly clothes and and an ugly face or whatever. The gifts usually happen, and there’s different types of gifts and we’ll go into that too, that you typically see in fairy tales. There’s a gift of wealth. So that would be jewels, rich fabrics, suits of armor. Considering who’s telling these tales around the fire in villages and they’re not people who are wealthy, that was probably like a dream come true. I would love to have had jewels. I would love to have rich clothes.

Miles
Exactly. A purse that has a gold coin every time you open it up. Wouldn’t I love that.

Byrd Nash
Right? Well, that goes back to another group of gifts that I’ve seen a lot in fairy tales, and that’s freedom from want. It’s something that refills so you have the the wine pouch that you can drink from it all day. And you gotta remember that wine was, wel,l probably not wine, but more like ale or beer was something that they drank instead of water because they thought water was polluted. Which it probably was since they were crapping and pissing right there when the water fell off. But anyway, it’s a freedom from want thing. So, or an expectation of plenty. So you were telling me about the handkerchief that…

Miles
Right. A common gift is a handkerchief that whenever you spread it out on a table, a feast appears on top of it.

Byrd Nash
right? So again, freedom, for what because that’s unending supply of food. And then of course is the purse or the wallet that every time you open it has a coin. So I was just rereading some fairy tales recently, and that, you know, they were given 30 pieces of gold, and then every time he spent it, but then he opened the pouch and there’s 30 pieces of gold again. So it’s a never ending supply whatever you desire. You know, when you think about it, the time that fairy tales are being written things were very finite. We live in a time now we’re very much a plenty we can go the grocery store. And if you have the money, you can get pretty much anything you want to eat and you can eat all day. But if you think about peasants or middle class people in the medieval time periods or Renaissance or earlier or later than those historical times when fairy tales were being written, being guaranteed that you would be fed, you would be clothed, and you would have money was probably pretty fantastical.

Miles
Exactly. And even just something like having… having meat, because poor people did not eat meat every day.

Byrd Nash
No, They sure didn’t. You know, I don’t know…

Miles
It would be, meat would be a special, a special occasion to have meat with your dinner.

Byrd Nash
Yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, that would definitely be true. There’s also other gifts that you might get as a promise of people your help from the animals that you rescued. Usually the animals are something insignificant. So you go back to the Aesop’s fable idea, the mouse helping the lion, so the animal they might help might be something that at the time they’re they’re like, yeah, sure you’ll help me, Mr. Beaver, but well, and of course as an American animal, you know, tip mouse or whatever, you’re going to help, or little bird you won’t be able to help me but fine that’s okay, I help you. And then later on, of course, that small insignificant animal is able to.

Miles
Mice, rats, ants, yeah, are very common in this role.

Byrd Nash
Yeah. And then other gifts would be something that allows them to travel easily. I saw this over and over again, carriages pulled by fantastical creatures usually like, like, pulled by swans. Or, of course, the one that we know from Disney the carriage, it turns into a pumpkin, pumpkin that turns into a carriage pulled by mice and that the driver is a rat. Other gifts could be a cloak of invisability or wish fulfilling ring or a wand. Some other things that come out about these gifts is that they often come in small and ordinary items, like kind of… give me some examples, Miles

Miles
Yes, it’s not uncommon for the heroine to be given a nut and told to crack the nut in great need. And then she cracks it and whatever comes, comes out: the fabulous carriage or the particular thing that she needs at that particular moment.

Byrd Nash
You know, it’s interesting, just I just thought about this, because I was reading some the last week getting ready for this podcast. And an egg is also another common thing. And if we think about it, eggs and nuts, both are small, but they also have the gift of life in them.

Miles
That’s very true,

Byrd Nash
You know. So these are being used. Some other examples?

Miles
like handkerchiefs as I said before, little snuff boxes or a small box, something insignificant, a small little purse that someone might overlook.

Byrd Nash
Now some of the other things that happen with these gifts though, is that usually the gifts are needed to pass the challenges. They’re not there just to be something fun for the hero, or heroine, they have they have that purpose more so than just being a gift of wealth or a fancy dress. Another thing that you’ll see is that, especially if it’s magical ring or cloak of invisibility, or something smaller, snuffbox, that these items can during the course of events be lost because the protagonists didn’t really take care of them or their tricked to give them up by the evil person. Sometimes that’s even a family member will steal them or spouse will take them and then that causes all sorts of problems for the person who had the gift.

Miles
Another common gift is advice and information.

Byrd Nash
Give me an example. Don’t cross the streams? is that one of those?

Miles
The person asks where you’re going or what you’re doing. And the very superior older brothers who are arrogant just insult person or lie and don’t want to tell them, but the good innocent younger brother just tells the person “Oh, I’m going to find the treasure and win the Princess.” and the person says, “Oh, well this is how you do it.” This is… you’re going to go to this place and there’ll be a giant outside and when he opens his eyes you can walk in but when his eyes are closed, he’ll kill you.

Byrd Nash
Okay, there you go. Good advice, listen for advice and be willing to ask it

Miles
right and being rude to someone is a sure way not to get the advice you need.

Byrd Nash
Well Another common theme in fairy tales is the test and before we get to talking about the test and how those work in fairy tales, I’m going to read you a passage from The Queen’s Favorite which is one of the short stories in the Wicked Wolves of Windsor and other fairytales, because it applies to the test. But here’s the passage.

When they had finished their meal, both men were in a pleasant state of mind long past their earlier rancor. At her call to attention, they wipe the grease off their hands in the grass and sat cross legged in front of her ready to hear Queen Elaine’s verdict.

“We know our friend Bunker did illegally take three fish from a stream protected by our friend Warden Smithfield.”

Elaine indicated the two intact fish and what remained of the third.

“The Warden protects the river so it can stay healthy, for it supplies good water and food for everyone, beast and man, however, we must also acknowledge that a man must eat.”

Both men nodded, agreeing with the case she was setting forth.

The Queen’s favorite is very typical of fairy tales it’s probably the one in the book that has, in my opinion the most.. What would you say Miles? Thematic?

Miles
It’s shaped like a fairy tale more than most of the others, the most of all the others in terms of the pacing and the sequence.

Byrd Nash
And where it really fits into what we were discussing about fairy tales is that three tests, a lot of times the protagonist is going to be challenged in threes, or you’ll see a pattern of threes. And if you read my book, there’s a lot of patterns of threes in there. But going back to the tests, usually the tests are a test of character. They’re going to reveal something about the protagonist: are they kind? Are they clever? Are they hard working? they’ll have to pass those three in order to prove themselves worthy of the reward at the end.

Miles
Yes, and the test that Queen Elaine, is very characteristic of being asked by strangers to make a judgment. To divide a treasure among three thieves or to divide a source of food among three animals. And they’re basically judged by the wisdom and fairness of their, of the judgment they give.

Byrd Nash
Now see where I’ve always seen this in reading the stories is when the protagonist, either prince or princess that can be either gender come to the new kingdom, they usually come there and then suddenly they hear about some sort of tests being given by the king, the king or the queen wants someone to succeed at doing something. And if they do, then they’ll be given a reward. So it might be like they want to dragon kicked out of the kingdom, or they want a golden apple from the far side of the world, or they kind of… give me some examples

Miles
Right, Or the childless King and Queen want to know how to have a baby or the sickly prince…

Byrd Nash
that can get into some very…

Miles
I presume they’ve already tried the normal means

Byrd Nash
We are going to assume that they know how to do it by the usual method.

Miles
Right

Byrd Nash
So they want to know some extreme method.

Miles
They want to know the magical techniques. But the ailing, sick prince or queen needs to be healed.

Byrd Nash
Yeah, I’ve seen that. Now I think probably because we fallen into this romantic society, but what we see is that many of these are more involved with someone wants to woo someone they want to win the hand of the prince or princess. That’s the Princess and the Pea: she’s brought in and in order to win she has to prove what a sensitive girl and how noble her bloodline is. So that’s why she can’t sleep on the mattress because there’s a small pea that would disturb her so sensitive, noble nature. So those tests are ones that they have to pass. And of course in the Queen’s favorite is more about she has to show that she’s worthy of being Queen through her judgments.

So the last thing we’re going to discuss on the podcast is the challenge where you’re giving a challenge which is similar to a test but slightly different. And I’m going to read a passage from The Prince Learns a Lesson that shows how these come about, these challenges.

The prince was a spoiled brat and everyone in the kingdom knew it. Nannies, tutors, royal advisors, and a deployment in the military had all failed to remedy his behavior. Flummoxed, the king decided to place an advertisement for help in the local newspaper. Scrolling through the classified ads on her tablet, Vivian saw his plea for help while eating her morning toast. She thought taming a prince couldn’t be more of a challenge than her last job. Considering the state of her bank balance, it was worth a shot.

Vivian in The Prince, of course, sees the king has issued a challenge. And she has decided that she’s going to take it and try to win the reward, which I won’t tell you what the reward is, because that would kind of spoil it. But this is typical of fairy tales. So what are some typical tasks, Miles, and challenges you’ve seen in fairy tales?

Miles
Usually some kind of impossible task or something that it seems can’t be done.

Byrd Nash
Right? I think yeah, I think something that seems impossible, something that seems… And also it’s usually tied to something magical, meaning that it would take only magic to get this done. So you have to go to the four corners of the world and retrieve something, and you have to do it all in 24 hours, right?

Miles
Right, you have to have to move a mountain in one night, or you have a barn full of peas and lentils mixed together and you have to sort them into separate piles in an hour, or you have to tame and ride a savage horse that no one can ride.

Byrd Nash
But and then for the fairy tales that people will definitely know that’s the whole spinning gold out of straw. That’s obviously an impossible task. No one normal would ever be able to do that.

Miles
Right. These are tasks imposed with the expectation that everyone will fail. The person who opposes the task does not expect you to be able to succeed.

Byrd Nash
Well, no one expects you to succeed. That’s the whole point of it. It’s supposed to feel impossible to get done. Now the next thing we’re going to talk about is the rule of three which almost everyone here knows three is the magical number. And you see it again and again in fairy tales. I’m going to read a passage from one of the short stories from Wicked Wolves of Windsor called Granny Starseed.

Miles
Later that day, the three brothers Arthur, Osborn, and Bernard, met for a bite at a local pub to discuss the problem. All of the brothers were tall and large with the broad shoulders and intimidating bulk of linebackers. Arthur, the oldest, was the biggest. Osborne, almost as tall but with the more lean build. While Bernard, coming in at six foot, was the shortest of the trio.

Byrd Nash
I think Granny Starseed probably has the biggest rule of three in it, although every one of them does. But because granny’s story, Granny Starseed, is taken from the Goldilocks story, there’s obviously three brothers, which I think people would see as being very typical. So what other types of threes do we find in these stories, Miles?

Miles
Threes occur all over the place. That’s one of the most persistent patterns that I see. There’s often three brothers, or the heroine has three stepsisters.

Byrd Nash
Right, right. Or, there’s the three gifts. And then there’s the three guys, or there’s the three tests? I think I’m more familiar with the three tests, I mean, seems like there’s always three tests where the king, the king gives to the prince of the princess,

Miles
Right, right, the challenges. Three challenges, you have to do these three tasks.

Byrd Nash
Right

Miles
Or the fairy imposes, you must perform these three impossible things.

Byrd Nash
Right, so I mean when you look at the envolvement of fairy tales, you start seeing that they fall more and more into these patterns of the the gifts of a certain nature, the challenges of a certain type. And then the three challenges or the three brothers or the three sisters or the three whatever or the three gifts so…

Miles
It occurs in other places in the stories too. For example, the Italian Folk Tales: The Three Castles, the hero kills a serpent with three heads, which gives him three keys, which he uses to unlock three castles. That gives him three suits of armor that he goes to a tourney and on three successive days wins.

Byrd Nash
That would tire me out!

Miles
Giving the princess a token from one of the three castles each time.

Byrd Nash
Yeah but does he married three princesses?

Miles
It’s the same princess.

Byrd Nash
Golly, I think he probably seems a little ripped off on that.

Miles
He had to win three times. Of course she’ll take him now.

Byrd Nash
I guess she was really wanting someone to be persistent.

Miles
Actually, she was pretty open about it. It was the king who…

Byrd Nash
It’s always the king, Miles! He’s got a problem.

It’s always the king who’s always particular. You’ve got to prove yourself three times before you can marry my daughter.

Byrd Nash
Golly, those dads. All right, well, we’re gonna wrap up this podcast. Those are just some of the things that you will find in your fairy tales, the typical things that kind of established that this as a fairy tale world, that there’s the gifts from deceased family members or animals or disguised people, that there’s challenges that will use the gifts for you to succeed. And that they will all come in threes. So look for that when you’re reading my book or other fairy tales, and you’ll see that pattern. If you go to the website, I will have show notes there that will give links to some fairy tale collections that are actually older fairy tales. They’re not recent or new ones so they’re actually very economical to buy on the E book. I think they’re just a couple bucks because of course their not in copyright protection and people just compile them and put them in a storybook for people to buy. But there’s some really great stories and you’ll start seeing a lot of these patterns when you start reading.

You can find me at ByrdNash.com, Byrd is spelled with a BYRD. On my website, you can read the show notes to today’s podcast, as well as find a list of all the episodes. I also do book reviews and have resources for authors on the website. Frost Waltz is the music and it’s by Kevin MacLeod at incompitech.com.

Transcribed by Otter.ai
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