History reveals itself to us with names and dates, major events and people that altered the path on which humanity has unfolded. We study these things, memorize the dates, and learn why these people made these choices, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of history. As writers, research leads us down these same roads, through the long hallways of history, and the people who made it. But there's a problem, and one that I imagine troubles historians as well.
Events, art, literature come down to us throughout history, information passed between generations. But those same people woke up in the morning, dressed themselves, did or did not brush their teeth. They fought with spouses and children and complained about their knees and the weather. The things of day to day routine must have gone on, but there is so little record of them. I have made great efforts to discovered what Ancient Egyptian queens did all day, but I can't find it. Anywhere. Specific acts, decisions, dates and birth and death, those things are everywhere. But how they filled their days between history-altering decisions remains a mystery.
It is very difficult to find sources, even in personal journals, of the details of regular life, because they were unremarkable. Only the unusual days are noted, I imagine this is because these details were considered uninteresting, but for the most part, they are what makes up a life. Getting up, making the bed, brushing our teeth, kissing our loved ones good night. These details, so universal and so intimate, were never recorded, and they are what make our characters real. What did a lady in waiting do in her down time? What did the mob boss's wife do after lunch? What color was Shakespeare's underwear? (Most likely, he didn't wear any, but that's not the point.)
This is where our creativity shines, a place for artistic leeway. Maybe the lady in waiting had a taste for birdwatching, and the mob boss's wife crocheted baby hats. I like to think Shakespeare liked purple. Though research is critical, there is a place where fact ends, and at that place, art can flourish. The details that truly make up a person's life are so often left in shadow, and we tend to see this as a handicap, but it is actually freedom. Plots grow in these strange shadows, and the grey mist of the past can be lifted, even in pure speculation. What if the lady in waiting said she liked to watch the larks in the morning, but what she really liked was to watch the Lord of the Manor in his morning exercise, and that is why she poisoned his wife, a solution to the mystery of her death. Such speculation is the foundation of historical fiction, and one of its great joys.
So many of us grew up on the fairy tales of our families' cultures. No matter where you are from, there are stories that are native to your history, and you probably know them by heart. But at some time in our personal history, we discard these tales as childish. We tuck them away to share with the next generation, and see them again through a child's eyes. In doing so, we lose the pleasure of a lifetime with these tales, and fail to get the full enjoyment of them.
When children hear old stories, they hear them at the level of the plot: A princess was born, her parents failed to invite a fairy, and that fairy got angry and set a curse on the child. Though the curse could not be cancelled, it was softened, and the princess was ultimately saved and lived happily ever after. An older child or adult, however, capable of thinking more symbolically, can see a whole different world in this tale. An adult may find that the king and queen are more empathetic than the princess, as they struggle desperately to protect their much wanted, and now doomed only child. The frustration and fear of the parents who destroy every spinning wheel in the kingdom, only to have a single wheel slip past them, and their precious daughter harmed. They too, ultimately sleep away their deep grief, a metaphor for profound depression after loss. Rapunzel's captor seeks to keep her a child forever, locked literally in a tower, never cutting her hair, and yet, she matures, and escapes the confining parent to find her partner, and build her own family, independent of her parents.
The innocence of the princess also carries a deeper meaning. The unwitting curiosity of the princess is what leads to her downfall. She cannot help but be tempted by the wheel. In some stories, she has been warned about the dangers of the wheel, and in some, she's kept ignorant. In both variations, she falls victim to the inevitable temptation, as she must. Themes of taking advantage of the innocent, and easy temptation are ongoing throughout the most classic tales. We see Hansel and Gretel tempted by a candy house, though the adults recognize that a pleasure so out of place might be a danger. Snow White is tempted by the shine on an apple, delivered by hand to her little hidden cottage in the forest, and takes it, and is poisoned. Red Riding Hood ignores her mother's instruction to stay on the path, and is nearly devoured by a wolf. Both parents and children share in the understanding of parental love and protection, and its consequences.
Sexual themes are generally approached gently, so that small children who are ignorant of sex may enjoy the story, yet remain ignorant until further in their development, but adults perceive those details immediately. In some retellings of Sleeping Beauty, the young woman is awakened through the act of sex, (though modern productions reduce it to a kiss) or even later, when the children are born of the act, and crawl up their mother's body to nurse. Such a tale may be the catalyst for children's questions about their bodies, and the reproductive process, and it can be, though it was probably not so in history, an opening for discussions about respect and consent, and sexual responsibility for children who are approaching maturity.
These plots are classic, often taken from oral histories, but the themes remain. As humanity grows and changes, some things remain eternal: the passionate intensity of new love, the watchful adoration of parents for their children, moving from the protection of the home into a world fraught with danger and deception. Some ideas fade into the history of a story, but new ones are born as ideas about who we are as human beings changes with time. The hearts of these tales still beat, and that is why we still tell them. That timelessness is their truest value.
The murder ballad is a traditional musical form with a dark twist - it tells the story of a violent death, and often the subsequent discovery of the murderer and his or her punishment. Or not, if they flee the scene and are seen no more. Banishment from home and hearth serve as atonement. Stories like these, in little villages that have long since crumbled away are often lost, but the stories told in these songs linger on, made easier to remember by the music that carries them.
The oldest ones in English were brought to America from Europe, and over time, they may be adapted to local traditions and locations. One of the oldest and most famous is 'The Twa Sisters', a story about a pair of sisters, where the elder drowns the younger, usually to steal away her handsome lover. Variations in the story have the young girl's body made into a fiddle, or a harp, and the macabre instrument sings out the guilt of the surviving sister, usually in the presence of her family. The themes of the story are guilt and justice, and the idea that the truth will inevitably out. I've interpreted this old tale into prose for my new book of short fairy tales in the older, darker tradition, which will be out in April.
Another popular story that traveled with the Colonists, and was adapted to their local tales, is "The Knoxville Girl". This one is derived, originally, from a murder in England, in 1683. But as it traveled to the Colonies, the crime and the aftermath were moved to Tennessee. The violence in this tune is particularly explicit. And again, the traditional tune takes on a country western flavor, as many European ballads do when they cross the Atlantic, making them more "American" in tone.
In the shadowy mountains of Appalachia, they lay claim to the "sweetheart murder ballad", in which one lover kills another out of jealousy. Tom Dooley is probably the most famous of these, having been recorded by The Kingston Trio. Local records confirm the truth of this story, from Wilkes county, in which young Tom stabs and kills his pregnant sweetheart, and is ultimately hanged for his crime. It's interesting to note, that in the usual way of these oral traditions, the man referred to as "Greyson", while a figure in Tom's life, was, in fact, unrelated to the crime.
More modern, more American tales exist, written in a modern style. Some of them rose to popularity, particularly in the country/western genre of music. Songs like Marty Robbins's 'El Paso', a story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful girl from the Mexican border, and shoots a rival, then flees the city, stealing a horse to ride into the desert, alone. "Long Black Veil" is a more contemporary ballad, from 1959, in which a man goes to the scaffold rather than admit he spent the night of the murder with his best friend's wife. The woman in the titular long black veil is the lover whom he died to protect. A decision of questionable morality, for certain.
These stories live longer because of their musical background. Though locations and names change with time and location, the hearts of these tales remain, carved into our collective history with timeless themes, and stories that repeat again and again, no matter how far into history they retreat.