The first stories that the first people told each other were fantasy.
We can see these stories in cave art, where human and animal spirits meld with each other and with features of the landscape, creating an astonishing picture of a world where men were part of nature, not separate from it. Despite the life or death struggle that must have formed their existence – or perhaps because of it – those first people took immense care to immortalise their stories. These extraordinary carvings and paintings can still be viewed today.
As time went on and humans divided the world to form countries, cities and civilisations, our stories gradually changed. Now, instead of seeing ourselves as part of the wonder and magic of nature, we began to believe that we were different – special – with a wonder and magic all our own. Our tales were more sophisticated fantasy, stories of human-like Gods and monsters who created and ruled the world, alternately tormenting and aiding humanity. These myths and legends still influence our society today.
Still later, when religion became even more formalised - and even more contentious - humans turned from tales of Gods in human form to tales of other immortals. We thrilled to stories of dragons, witches, fairies, pixies, wizards, elves, goblins, vampires and werewolves, and these creatures still show up in everything from children’s books to T-shirt slogans today.
The true immortals of our world are not Gods, monsters, fairies or even dragons (I know, I’m disappointed too) but stories. The human ability, and more than that, NEED to weave the gleaming gold thread of narrative in among the ragged and bloodstained tapestry of our day to day existence is the reason why (I think) we probably developed language, art, music – and the written word. In other words, without stories? We’re just apes with clever fingers.
|Larry Elmore's Dragon Scout|
Maybe that’s why today, books that draw on the rich tradition of inherited fairytales, myths and folklore from all cultures are some of the most popular in the YA market. I certainly pounce on new retellings or folklore inspired stories with wild enthusiasm whenever I find them. Here’s a list of some of my favourites, both new and old:
Starcrossed by Josephine Angelini. This is probably my favourite retelling of Greek myth ever. I’ve been obsessed with the Illiad and Greek myths ever since I was a kid (you can ask my teachers – I got a gold star for my project on it in year five) so I went into this book feeling slightly hostile and sceptical about someone messing around in my territory. Four hours later I was sending the author tweets cursing her for leaving me hanging and begging her to write the sequel faster. This is a YA paranormal fantasy with a strong, principled heroine, a breathless romance and a cunning, multi-layered plot.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. This book takes on Cinderella in much the same that my own book (Shadows on the Moon) does, and attempts to explain just why any girl with an iota of spine or heart would allow herself to be made a drudge in her own family home. The sprightly heroine and humorous tone have made this a library favourite, and although I’d say it’s aimed at the younger end of YA, I still enjoy re-reading it very much.
The Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. What can I say about this brilliant, Elizabethan-themed Tam Lin story, except ‘Get it now’? If ever you longed for another heroine like Jane Eyre – strong, resolute, morally focused and pragmatic – then this is the book for you. In fact, just typing this gives me an intense urge to get it out and read it again!
The Iron Witch by Kaz Mahoney. This modern YA paranormal novel deals with the not-terribly-well-known Germanic folk tradition of the Maiden with Silver/Iron arms, and does so in a unique and beautifully written story that mixes alchemy, fairy-folk, and romance.
The Door in the Hedge and Other Tales by Robin McKinley. I didn’t want to repeat any authors on this list, but I simply couldn’t resist adding this collection of short stories. When I think about my childhood, the language of this anthology – rich and whimsical and magical – is what defines all my memories. I borrowed it from the library so many times that eventually the librarians gave it to me as a present! The story contains two original tales by Ms McKinley, which draw strongly on folklore, and two retellings of classic stories The Princess and the Frog and The Twelve Dancing Princesses.