Kage Baker was a born story-teller. She revelled in catching and holding the audience, in transporting them to an entirely different world. It was the art and craft she was most proud of practicing.
She loved selling them, too. Not just because she liked the money and wanted to make her living by doing what she loved, but because it was the best way to keep the stories alive as well. Stories want to live, was her belief; they had to evolve and breed to survive. And living things survive better out in the fresh and open air than they do in a closet.
Also, Kage needed to tell her stories. She was compulsive about it. While she did most of her story telling via the printed word – because she could reach a larger audience than she could ever have endured to face in the flesh – she also loved recitation. Those who were lucky enough to share a campfire or a darkened inn yard with her know how she excelled at narration. She was a raconteuse of rare skill, when the fancy took her and she felt secure in her auditors. It was, Kage believed, the oldest and truest way to tell a story.
One her very first editors commented that her style was unusual, in that it was more suited to stories being told around a fire. It was true; it was also a problem in getting her work sold initially, because it is not a common voice. Especially in science fiction, where a chill and polished metal tone of voice is often preferred. But it was hard to resist, that voice. It resonated with the oldest ears in the human mind, the ancestors who learned to pay attention to the stories told over the evening fire. What you learned, with eyes gleaming in the firelight and ears a’prick with wonder, might be the ultimate truth you needed to survive.
Fairy tales are still the classical repository of that knowledge. Despite well-meaning efforts to divest fairy stories of blood and gore and tragedy and fear, children like them that way: tension, at the very least, has to play a part in the story, or it doesn’t work as well. There’s no real risk in the adventures of Captain Underpants, though they’re undoubtedly good for instilling social self-confidence. But the chance that a wolf or an ogre or a troll might eat you: that grabs your attention. You need to believe that danger lurks in dark places; that step-parents can sometimes be dangerous, and not all strangers mean you well; that princesses can suffer and heroes can die and Happy Ever After can come with an expiration date … these are things kids need to learn.
It’s a matter of life or death. Fairy tales are where kids can practice with these situations and emotions, hopefully before it really is life or death for them. That’s why we still tell them the really old ones.
Recently, a group of linguists – from Durham University in the UK and Lisbon University in Portugal – published a report in the Royal Society Open Science Journal that claims to have traced some a classic fairy tales back through, literally, millennia. They say, for instance, that “The Smith and The Devil” may be 6,000 years old; smiths have been magic as long as men have used iron. “Jack and the Beanstalk” dates to 5,000 years ago; “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” go back 4,000 years.
The study used phylogenetic methods more commonly used by biologists, to forensically investigate languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture and music. ( http://goo.gl/BF5MFY ) They looked back into Iron and Bronze Age word roots. They back-tracked the oral traditions that the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang used, to find the original scary stories. And they are old, old, so freaking, gloriously old …
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking hard about the transformation of “Oh, False Young Man!” into a screenplay. Not that I think I would be allowed to write the adaptation, even if my talented and generous friend Jeffrey succeeds in selling the project to someone. However, seeing it in a proper presentation will (theoretically) improve its chances. So, on the advice of another dear friend (the splendid Mr. Tom Barclay), I have enrolled in an online class on screenplay writing. It’s taught by Steven Barnes, a writer of considerable skill and repute; and Art Holcomb, comic book creator, screenwriter and playwright.
It’s a sort of forced evolution, of both me and the story. I’m very nervous, so I’m gonna sit next to Tom. And I will keep you posted, Dear Readers.
Besides. What Kage liked best about selling her work was that it was like the gypsies selling a horse. You could sell if over and over and over; dye the coat, polish the hooves, gives it blazes and stockings and spots and stripes; you could train it to leave the stable at night and come home to you. And then you could sell it again …
Kage would be delighted. And, I suspect, unsurprised.