Author Lari Don is also a traditional storyteller and loves to retell old stories to audiences of young people. But why tell modern children these old tales? Why do we still love these stories? She explains what keeps the magic in these stories.
I’m passionate about myths, legends and folktales – about finding them and sharing them with children, in spoken form and written form. And any story I write has always been told out loud before it gets near a computer keyboard.
I believe the best of the old tales, even ones that have been lost or kept alive mainly in academic circles, like the Viking sagas, address the huge issues - life and death, love and betrayal - but at enough of a distance (of time, place, culture and often separated from our lives with a veil of magic) to make them an acceptable way to explore what it is to be human. We tell Little Red Riding Hood to toddlers, despite its terrifying subject matter, because it contains an eternal truth. The best of these old tales, even if they’re initially unfamiliar, contain both truth and beauty.
Not all old stories are easy or suitable stories to tell to kids. While researching The Dragon’s Hoard, I rejected lots of fantastic Viking sagas because they contained too much revenge and cruelty (and sex and violence...)
However there are still dark stories in The Dragon’s Hoard. I was careful to try out these stories with audiences, before deciding whether it was appropriate to include them in a book to be read by kids whose reactions I couldn’t gauge. For example, The Swan Warrior, which has a tragic ending but an odd eerie beauty, or Tusker Versus The Earl, in which the baddie prevails - neither of these wonderful stories has the usual structure of the goodie wins and everyone lives happily ever after. But I think that hopeful story structure is strengthened if it’s occasionally challenged by stories that don’t have ‘happy ever after’ endings.
When I find a story I want to tell (in a book, or from another storyteller), first I plan out how to tell it in order to emphasise the heart of the story as I see it, then practise it out loud in the privacy of my living room or shed, and finally remind myself of the structure with brief scribbled notes on the back of a bit of scrap paper. (I always use scrap paper, so this process of writing down one-word reminders never feels like ‘writing it properly’). Then I tell the story to an audience, and after seeing how the children react, I make any necessary changes. Then I tell the story again and again, in classrooms, libraries, caves and woodlands, gauging reactions every time, and also how natural and vivid the story feels as I tell it.
I never write a story down ‘properly’ until the story works both in my head and told out loud. What I write for publication is basically me dictating the story to myself as I type. So the rhythm, pace, emotion and drama are the same on the page as they are in the air when I tell the story to an audience.
However, there are some elements that change each time I tell a story. The description of the monster defeated by the hero Bodvar changes every time (sometimes I take suggestions from the audience) but when I wrote his adventures for The Dragon’s Hoard, I had to settle on one permanent monster description for the text and for the fabulous illustrator Cate James. Though I’m still free to create a new monster when I tell it out loud!
Nothing beats sharing a tale face to face, but there is one great joy of writing stories down: curating a balanced collection, finding and choosing stories to create a satisfying whole. I aim for long and short, dramatic and comic, happy and sad, a mix of heroes and heroines, goodies and baddies. So in The Dragon’s Hoard, there are battles, duels and death, but also polar bears, babysitting and riddles.
The collections of stories that inspired me as a child included myth collections by Roger Lancelyn Green, various illustrated collections of animal folklore, and the sense from the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit that there were ‘real’ stories behind these invented adventures (then the excitement of discovering Anglo Saxon, Viking and Celtic lore...)
The stories that inspire me now are the ones I find in dusty old books or mentioned in footnotes of academic publications. Stories that are vivid and unusual, but are not being spoken out loud any more - those are the stories I love to bring back to life.
Lari Don’s new collection of Viking sagas, The Dragon’s Hoard, is out now, illustrated by Cate James and published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.
More info about Lari’s retellings, novels and events at her website.