Folklore has provided the inspiration, structure, and plot outline for a lot of contemporary work. “Beauty and the Beast”, to use one example, has inspired countless versions, from faithful retellings to role reversals to twisted psychosexual fantasies. These primal stories continue to work for us because, once you strip away the particulars and expose the basics, they’re tales that continue to happen.
So folklore isn’t a dead form. We still create it with our lives and stories, generating powerful, primal tales from our day-to-day existence. Consider the craze of the moment, Pokemon Go: underneath it is a desire to accomplish something, anything, as a way of standing out, even if it’s in an absolutely non-meaningful way. It’s the same bit of folklore you’ll find under such diverse stories as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a tale of a dance marathon in the Depression, and Arthur Miller’s play about conflicting family loyalties, All My Sons. It’s the story at the core of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, about arcade game rivals.
As a writer, I’m always looking for these stories in real life, tales that can serve as a structural springboard for my Tufa novels. In The Hum and the Shiver, I was inspired by the story of a young woman from the rural South who was captured during the early days of the Iraq War, then rescued and pushed onto the national stage as a symbol. This story embraced several important modern concerns: the changing face of war, the use of propaganda, the unending scrutiny of social media, and finally the ability of a decent human being to maintain her dignity no matter what. I used that as a starting point, positing what a similar young woman (in my case, a member of a fictional race, the Tufa) might decide about her life once the cameras went away.
My new book, Chapel of Ease, was inspired by another fully modern, fully American bit of “true” folklore: the 1996 death of Jonathan Larson just before his musical Rent swept the world. Here was a man who had struggled his whole life without giving in to despair, sustained by the belief that he had the potential to be great. And he was right; unfortunately, he didn’t live to see it (he died from an undiagnosed heart condition). This is the secret fear of every artist that s/he might really be an extraordinary talent, but die before the world acknowledges it.
How do you recognize when something is a new burst of folklore, and not just an everyday tragedy or bit of good/bad luck? Time is the final arbiter, I suppose. If a story keeps coming up, if it continues to have relevance, then it’s crossed the line from trivia to folklore. For example, I’d say the death of Elvis, brought on by drug abuse and a refusal to take any adult responsibility, qualifies as folklore; in forty years, perhaps the deaths of Prince and/or David Bowie will as well. Perhaps they both have something to say to us beyond their specifics, beyond the minutiae of the moment.
And perhaps, in forty years, the tragic death of Prince will inspire a new storyteller, just as the death of Jonathan Larson inspired me, to use that folklore as a way to tell a new story.
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