Folk tales and other influences

It’s very easy to be influenced by what you read – or at least, it is for me. When I started writing, I started by imitating the sort of books I liked – one of the earliest stories I can remember putting down on paper was, effectively, Willard Price fan fiction. I was probably about eight or nine years old, and I’d just read about three of his “Adventure” books in a row. I didn’t know anything about exotic places or wild animals other than what I’d read in his books, so I’m pretty sure I just regurgitated his stories, retelling the same events in my own words.

Around the same time, when I made a stab at drawing my own comics (despite my complete lack of artistic ability) they featured stories shamelessly ripped off comics like Warlord – I’ve got a recollection of trying to draw Harrier jump-jets and ending up with something that looked like smudged pencil pterodactyls.

Even now, when I read something I enjoy, the urge to imitate it is quite strong. I’m not quite as blatant or specific about it as I used to be, of course – I might read a fantasy book and get the urge to write some fantasy, or read some H.P. Lovecraft and start knocking some ideas around about horror short stories. On the whole, though, I try to keep my writing as original as I can.

But recently, I made the mistake of reading Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, his reworking of the folk tales made famous by the Brothers Grimm. Each story is short – very short – and the clear, simple form of the tales becomes utterly seductive. There is little characterisation or character development, and most characters don’t even get the dignity of having an actual name – often you have a princess, or a huntsman, or a tailor as the hero, and that’s all they’re ever known as. It’s completely foreign to the way we write stories today, but still, they can be tremendously effective.

So when I was writing a chapter of The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice, and our heroes were discussing how lucky they were that there was a glowing fungus growing on the ceiling that let them see as they journeyed through the underground caverns, I couldn’t resist one little mouse telling a story that her grandmother had told her of the origin of that light – a story in the form of a Grimm-like folk tale.

It’s a pure indulgence, and it does pad the chapter out considerably, so it may happen that I need to edit it out. But still, it was fun to write, so I might as well post it here:

Once in an underground kingdom, a great wizard invented a glowing fungus that he could spread on the ceiling of their caverns and provide light for everyone to see by. However, the wizard refused to give the secret of the fungus to the to the King; instead, on New Year’s Day each year, he would provide the King with enough fungus to cover the ceiling of their capital city. After a year, the fungus would grow dull and start to die off, so the King would have to go back to the wizard on the next New Year’s Day and pay him a thousand pieces of gold for a new batch of the glowing fungus.

After this had gone on for a few years, the miserly King grew tired of paying out gold every year, so he called his three sons to him. ‘My sons,’ he said, ‘you must go to this wizard and find the secret of his fungus.’ His sons agreed to try.

The eldest son, who was a rich merchant, went to the wizard and offered him five thousand pieces of gold if he’d give up the secret. ‘Why would I give up a lifetime of money for just five thousand pieces of gold?’ asked the wizard. The eldest son went back to the King and admitted his failure.

The second son, who was a great warrior, went to the wizard and threatened him with a sword, saying that he’d chop the wizard’s hands off if he didn’t give up the secret. The wizard laughed at him. ‘If you chop my hands off, the severed hands will creep into your room at night and strangle you.’ The second son was terrified by the wizard’s threat, and went back to the King and admitted his failure.

The youngest son listened to the reports from his elder brothers, and thought to himself. ‘I am no rich merchant, like my eldest brother. And I am no warrior, like my other brother. I have no way to persuade or threaten this wizard.’ So he disguised himself as a commoner and asked the wizard to take him on as an apprentice. The wizard agreed, and started to teach him all his secrets. All his secrets, that is, except the secret of the glowing fungus. After five years of apprenticeship, the youngest son was no closer to learning the secret of the glowing fungus than when he’d started.

He was on the verge of giving up and going back to the King to admit his failure, when out of the blue the wizard called him into his study. ‘My boy,’ said the wizard, ‘you have been a faithful apprentice, and a good friend. I have told you all my secrets, except one – the secret of the glowing fungus. I feel that I am coming to the end of my life, and I now wish to pass this secret on to you.’ At this the youngest son was overcome with grief. Over the five years he’d been the wizard’s apprentice, he’d grown to like and respect him, and the thought of the old man dying made him terribly sad. The wizard had spent his life doing good for the people of the city, curing their ailments and cleansing their houses of spirits and providing good advice, all without payment. The thousand pieces of gold he received each year from the King for the glowing fungus was used entirely to help the people of the city.

He said to the wizard, ‘Great Wizard, you have been like a father to me for five years, but before you tell me your final secret, I must tell you one secret of my own – I was sent here by my father the King to take from you the secret of the glowing fungus.’

The wizard laughed. ‘I have known for five years that you were the son of the King. Do you think you can simply put on commoner’s clothes and a great wizard will be unable to see the resemblance between you and your brothers? But you have been an able pupil, and this city will need the fungus when I am gone. So come closer, and I will whisper my last secret.’ With that, the wizard told the youngest son the secret of the glowing fungus. Barely a month later, the wizard was dead.

The youngest son saw to the funeral arrangements of his friend and teacher, put on his finest wizard’s robe, and went to see his father the King. ‘I suppose you are here to tell me that you have failed, like your brothers before you,’ said the King.

‘No,’ said the youngest son. ‘I have the secret of the glowing fungus.’

The King was delighted. ‘My boy, my boy! That’s wonderful news! We shall have glowing fungus forever now!’

The youngest son smiled at his father. ‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘You shall have glowing fungus forever. As long as you pay me one thousand gold pieces, once a year, on New Year’s Day.’ And with that, the new wizard turned around and went back to his business of helping the people of the city.

So there you have it – my attempt at the classic folk tale, with a miserly king, three sons of different skills, a clever wizard, and a little twist at the end. If I were to write it as a stand-alone story, I wouldn’t make it about glowing fungus – that makes sense only really in the context of The Underground Mice – so I’d probably make it a spell that kept a dragon at bay or something like that.

Great. Now I’ve got the urge to write about dragons.


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