Adaptations and Retellings

The idea of adapting a story and retelling a story may sound much the same, but I’d suggest they’re slightly different things. Adapting a story is finding a way to tell a story in a new medium. For example, adapting a story to be filmed as a movie or told in an audio. Retelling is more like what happens when I tell a story to someone and then that someone tells the story to someone else, emphasizing the parts they liked and adding new details, and so on.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I recently watched David Lowery’s film The Green Knight. Although I’m a fan of early Arthurian literature, I had never read the original poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The movie certainly reminded me of Arthurian literature of its period. The poem is believed to have been written circa 1380 AD. Arthur’s knights gathered for revels and a quest happened. A hunt formed an integral part of the quest and beheadings happened. All of these elements reminded me of Culhwch and Olwen, which appeared in written form around the same time, but is believed to have originated in the 11th or 12th century.

I enjoyed the film a lot and it encouraged me to seek out the original. After doing some research on the web, I decided to give Simon Armitage’s translation a try. I found his translation very readable and I appreciated it that it’s printed side-by-side with the original Middle English. Some of Armitage’s modern colloquialisms did pull me briefly out of the story, but overall, I thought he did a fine job of conveying both meaning and poetic sensibility. I also learned that the movie The Green Knight was much more a retelling than an adaptation.

Calling The Green Knight a retelling is by no means intended as a criticism. I enjoy retelling stories and have sold several of my retellings over the years. I think a retelling can bring new insights to characters, highlight hidden elements in stories, and make older stories more relevant to new audiences. The poem alludes to quests and trials as Gawain travels to complete his quest at the Green Chapel. The movie visualizes two of those quests, drawing on another story for one of those quests. David Lowery clearly emphasized Gawain’s class and privilege, then used the quest as a way for him to learn the value of courage. In the poem, Gawain doesn’t need to learn courage as much as he needs to learn honesty and perhaps even that it’s acceptable to be afraid.

It took me about the same amount of time to read Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as it did to watch the movie. I’m glad I did both. Also, it’s worth noting, the introductory material to Armitage’s translation was fascinating. I learned, among other things, that because Germanic languages tend to emphasize first syllables, early Germanic poems tended to use alliteration. Because Romance languages tend to emphasize last syllables, their poems tended to rhyme. English takes words from both and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was an early example of poem that used both techniques.

I share a retelling of Arthurian legend as part of my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, which you can learn more about at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I also adapted the early story Culhwch and Olwen. Learn more about that at: http://davidleesummers.com/cando.html

The Coming of the King

Last week, I finished reading Nikolai Tolstoy’s novel The Coming of the King. Tolstoy draws from such diverse sources as The Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Beowulf, and the Norse Eddas to tell a story of post-Arthurian Britain through the eye of Merlin. This Merlin isn’t the advisor of Arthur we’ve come to expect from works like T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, but rather a shaman living nearly a century after Arthur’s defeat at Camlan.

The book runs the gamut from action, to ribald humor, to surreal visions. I especially loved the fact that one of Merlin’s teachers is the Salmon of Lyn Liw. At times this is a dense and challenging read and I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn’t read several of the stories of The Mabinogion plus some of the Norse Eddas. Still, I found this a compelling look through the eyes of a Celtic shaman and may have to give this another read in the future.

Tolstoy himself is something of an interesting figure. I gather he’s a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy. He’s also the stepson of Patrick O’Brien, who wrote the outstanding Aubrey & Maturin series of naval epics set during the Napoleonic wars. Having grown up in Britain, Tolstoy developed an interest in Arthurian literature, and I especially enjoyed his non-fiction book, The Quest for Merlin. That book introduced me to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, which in turn inspired my poem “The Passage of Merlin” which was reprinted at Eye to the Telescope earlier this year.

When I first discovered Arthurian literature and started processing it, I had a vision of creating a work similar in scope to Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King. I envisioned telling the ultimate Arthurian tale. Of course, many far-more-noted authors have also done so, ranging from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to the aforementioned T.H. White. Tolstoy sidestepped the trap of writing “yet another Arthurian fantasy” by writing about people who lived a generation or two after Arthur and were influenced by his legacy.

I’m often asked how an author can create fantasy that isn’t derivative of the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien or the sword and sorcery of Robert E. Howard. One answer is simply to read the classics. The ones Tolstoy drew from are good choices. Grimm’s fairy tales are also good choices. In that way, a writer can get to the roots of fantasy. From that basis, you can start adapting the themes and types of characters to situations and locations that mean something to you.

My first professional fantasy (and steampunk) sale was a story I was moved to write after reading Moby Dick and then Ray Bradbury’s accounts of writing the novel’s screenplay. I replaced sailing ships with airships and whales with dragons and wrote “The Slayers” which was published in Realms of Fantasy. You can learn about the reprinted edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/slayers.html.

As for Arthurian legends, I had a lot of notes and ideas and wrote some stories. I added vampires and my love of the movie Nosferatu and melded it into Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. You can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

Of course, a lot of these old stories can be dense and a challenge to follow. One of the ways I dealt with that was by retelling the stories in my own words and finding the parts that were important to me and emphasizing them. I felt brave enough to record one of those retellings and put it up for sale several years ago. It’s my retelling of Culhwch and Olwen from The Maginogion.

I was really fortunate that the story also captured the imagination of a co-worker from Kitt Peak named Kevin Schramm, who also played accordion for an outstanding band called The Mollys. Kevin and Mollys lead singer Nancy McCallion were kind enough to record some music for my reading. You can find out more about the recording at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/cando.html. Just one word of caution if you go to buy the audiobook at Amazon, make sure to go to the Marketplace sellers and buy it from Hadrosaur Productions, and not the person who thinks they can get more than $600 for my recording. It would be nice if they shared some of their profits with me if they actually managed to sell the CD for that price!