• Madison Siwak

The Truth About Romanticizing Folklore.

by Emma Brenner

"The words of the priest crumble to the earth like the water that falls from her glistening hair. Her translucent figure slinks toward me, a mirage of the mere. I am entranced. I do not move when she touches my lips, and the contact that once burned like a furnace is warm. The sparks travel down my spine. The faerie is real, and I, like the fools before me, am lost in her gaze."

- what my short story almost became

Now, I won't lie. Narratives like this sell. They're rapturous and beautiful and otherworldly. They play off dreams of fantastical creatures, pitting forbidden romance at the core to reel readers in.

*raises hand* I am a shameless fan of such fantasy. I don't think there's anything wrong with artistic license creating something new altogether. But there are important things we, as writers, should be considering when we incorporate legends, myths, fables, and fairytales into our stories.

Lore has a culture behind it.

Where culture is involved, controversy dwells.

Thanks to a college honors project, I've spent a good amount of time researching the definition of folklore. Turns out there is no one definition, as different realms of education define lore in different ways. Folklorist Dr. Ben-Amos defined it in one of his papers this way: Folklore reflects the collective experience of society and is the mirror which the community constantly faces.

Lore--including tales of gods and worlds and monsters--reflects a particular community's experiences and culture. Lore includes traditions and practices. Folklore is culture.

Brief Disclaimer: We now approach the sticky situation of creative license versus cultural appropriation. The tips below apply to all cultures but are particularly important when discussing cultures that have been historically oppressed and marginalized. This article does not intend to resolve this issue but merely brings up notes of caution.

You have a folktale that has struck your creative well.

Here are things you might consider.

  • Is it your culture? You should always take care of respecting lore, whether you are a member of that culture or not. True, there would be no new content if authors didn't run away with their imaginations and create renditions of old material, but remember that the story you're adapting belongs to a group of people. And if you're not a member of _____ culture, and you choose to write that lore still, be aware of the backlash you will more likely than not receive.

  • Does your adaptation change fundamental factors of a folktale? I wrote a short story on an English faerie called the asrai. I wanted that romantic encounter with a human, one quite similar to the snippet that kickstarted this article. Research proved difficult. For one thing, the asrai can't touch people without burning their skin *ahem, no steamy dreamy scenes*. Second, they are nightly creatures that avoid people. I could have dishonored the folktale's origins for the sake of the story I wanted to write. I chose not to. And to be honest, I ended up with a richer story because of it.

  • What does romanticization add to the story? I know that personally, I wanted to romanticize for the sake of a "fun" writing experience and story I knew would pull in lovers of supernatural romance. Romanticization had no other purpose than to entertain me and the audience. This isn't necessarily a negative motive... but it does raise a very important question: Is romanticizing a folktale, that belongs to a real-life culture, worth the potential maladaptation of that lore?

Well, then what is an acceptable adaptation?

It is worth acknowledging that certain creatures, like vampires and werewolves, have been recycled enough in mainstream media that authors can write them just about however they want without consequences. Twilight and the early 2000s paranormal romance wave paved that path for the rest of us.

As for lesser known tales and dealing with specific cultures... an extremely valuable and noteworthy part of folklore is how it is not "an aggregate of things, but a process" (Dr. Ben-Amos). Lore, being communal property, evolves as it is passed down through the generations. It has oral tradition origins, so there's no written down copy of the so-called true version of a folktale. No matter how it has changed over time, every version is true, because the culture said it was.

But communal property means communal approval. Your romanticized adaptation, just because it is published and on paper or online, does not make it authentic. If the community from which the lore stems decides your rendition of their lore isn't respectful or true, they have every right to, as it is their cultural property.

Honoring the real folktale makes for a better story.

Regardless of how carefully you treat any content, there will be a reviewer ready to cancel your story. That is the risk of writing on any subject other than yourself (even then, there are those who would argue your story isn't told right).

But understand the weight of folklore. As much as it is fun to read about and look at illustrations in picture books and encyclopedias, it came from somewhere, and for much lore, that somewhere still exists. The descendants of that culture live and breathe today.

Be sure to honor their stories. Do proper research. If your story is going to sell big, speak with members of those communities. And if you meet resistance to your swoon-inducing version of their tales, reconsider your plot plan.

*The first mention on the definition of folklore is cited to “The Idea of Folklore: An Essay” by Dr. Dan Ben-Amos, from the book Folklore Concepts: Histories and Critiques, Indiana University Press, 2020. When quoting folklore as a process, that is a reference to “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context” by Dr. Dan Ben-Amos, from the book Folklore Concepts: Histories and Critiques, Indiana University Press, 2020.

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