Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings, or twisted and fractured mash-ups – fairytales never lose their appeal. This issue, author Claire Fayers talks about the challenges of retelling an ancient tale for 21st century children.

The first year of lockdown was my year of fairy tales, commissioned to write a book of Welsh folktales for Scholastic, and then a retelling of The Dream of Rhonabwy for The Mab, an updated collection of stories from the ancient Welsh collection of myths and legends, known as The Mabinogi.


Rhonabwy was by far the biggest challenge. The original story in The Mabinogi goes something like this:


A prince’s brother became a bandit and caused so much trouble that the prince sent out three hundred of his knights to hunt him down. One of those knights was called Rhonabwy. During his search, he came across a disgustingly filthy old house and lay down on a yellow calf-skin to sleep. He had a weird dream featuring a huge cast of characters and King Arthur playing chess while, somewhere off-stage, a battle raged between knights and ravens. A load more people filed in and did nothing, and then Rhonabwy woke up to find he’d been asleep for three days. The end.


It's supposed to be a satire, but how do you rewrite something like that for children?


I asked myself, who would tell a story as weird and convoluted as this, and why?


Then I took the story apart. It had some traditional fairytale elements. A prince, a robber, a knight, a spooky old house in a wood. The chess game/battle with ravens motif was interesting so that could stay, but the crowds of people and the long lists of names and descriptions were plain boring so they had to go. The main problem was the ending. It’s a classic ‘and then he woke up and it was all a dream’ which we’re all warned never to do, and the actual story about the hunt for the bandit is forgotten, which goes against Chekhov’s gun and just about every other rule of storytelling.


The first job was to frame the story so that it made sense. I introduced a new character: a mysterious storyteller who tells the tale to a group of bandits one night. It’s only as he nears the end that the bandits realise they’ve fallen into a trap.


There were many ways the ending could have gone. I visited a school in North Wales last term and every child wrote their own ending for the story. They gave them to me – several hundred of them – in large envelopes and I had great fun choosing my favourites. It showed the flexibility of folktales. You can pull them apart, change the bits you don’t like, and take them in surprising new directions.


My tips for retelling folktales


1. Read the story several times out loud, preferably in different versions. I love the oral storytelling tradition so I’ll see if I can find any recordings of storytellers performing the story.


2. Ask yourself, who is your audience and why do you want to tell them this story?


3. Does the story have a particular problem area you want to address? Maybe an unsatisfying ending, or you don’t like the way certain characters are portrayed.


4. List the characters. Which ones are essential to your story? Do you need to change or update any of them? I kept Rhonabwy in medieval times, but if I wanted to write a modern version, the bandits could be a shoplifting gang, the prince would be the store manager, and Rhonabwy would be a policeman.


5. Make a note of the elements you want to keep. (In Rhonabwy it was the dream, the game of chess and the ravens.)


6. Decide how you want to retell the story. A classic retelling? A modern version? Swap the hero and villain over? Anything goes!


7. Have fun!


Books for inspiration

Catherine Fisher, The Red Gloves and Other Stories


Sally Nicholls, Godfather Death (coming in September 2023)


Hugh Lupton, Norfolk Folk Tales


Daniel Morden, Tree of Leaf and Flame


The Scholastic Classics series of Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales.


*Header image: Tita Berredo;
all other images courtesy of Claire Fayers.


Claire Fayers writes epic and funny fantasy adventures for young people, often drawing on myths and legends. Her Welsh Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends was shortlisted for the Tir na-nOg award and nominated for the Carnegie medal. The Mab won the people’s award in the Tir na nOg and is shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. Claire’s next book, Tapper Watson and the Quest for the Nemo Machine, a Greek myth, sci-fi mash-up, is out in September 2023.


Francoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org


Tita Berredo is Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact her at: illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org.


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