Last month, we invited award-winning author Heather Forest to share her thoughts about her study and love of exploring ancient stories. Fortunately, she agreed! Here, Heather Forest explores her thoughts about the value of epic tales in a modern world and how they apply to modern life. Heather Forest's latest title, Ancient and Epic Tales From Around the World, will be published by August House on April 7th, 2016.
Whenever I investigate ancient and epic tales from the world’s great oral traditions, I feel like I am embarking on a fascinating global journey through time, place, and culture. I enjoy musing about how these large stories were passed on and preserved through the oral tradition for centuries before poets and scribes collected them in written form. Stories survive when they are relevant to listeners. Beyond “the hero’s journey,” these timeless stories illuminate “the hero’s choices.” Teaching leadership skills, heroic epics model how both the wise and the foolish characters in the story experience the resulting positive or negative consequences that result from the choices made along the journey.
Ancient tales offer listeners and readers insights into the intimate, personal work of seeking to understand the meaning of life in the face of the inevitability of death. Powerful human emotions and recurring themes of natural disaster, supernatural forces, and parallel worlds flow through the heart of these ancient narratives. Addressing universal human concerns, these stories transcend their time and place and are still compelling and relevant for modern listeners. It is comforting to see that ancient people faced the same challenging choices that we still encounter today in our modern world. Perhaps their ancient voices can guide us on our way.
Heroic quests for victory, honor, wisdom, and order have long been common connecting threads in the multicultural fabric of epic tales. In my research, I’ve noticed an enduring belief pervading ancient stories that there is more to reality than meets the eye. This underlying assumption allows narrative space for mystical, supernatural, and otherworldly elements to intertwine with the mundane logic of ordinary day-to-day life. I especially enjoy sharing these imaginative elements in both my writing and performance of tales.
As I curated stories to include in the Ancient and Epic Tales From Around the World anthology, I focused on choosing concise episodes from the larger tales. My creative writing goal was for the episodes to be self contained and to be easy to share out loud as “tell-able tales.” I sought segments with colorful characters, engaging events, and metaphorical relevance to contemporary life. After considering the breadth of a tale through research and inquiry into its overarching plot and its cultural, historical, and geographical contexts, I searched for a pivotal entry moment with scenes that feature the tale’s central characters and provide narrative opportunities to illuminate their backstory.
There is much to learn about the creative writing process from investigating the popular oral fare of the bards. It is fascinating to me that the compositional structure of ancient oral tales has been echoed by writers across the centuries and has shaped our modern sense of story construction. In researching classic epics and ancient tales to feature in my books and share in my workshops, I constantly come upon familiar literary techniques such as weaving a backstory, unfolding parallel tales, beginning in medias res, framing one story within another, and using metaphor and a cast of dramatic characters to describe complex human predicaments. Oral tradition is the bedrock of literary expression. Modern literature still employs these classic narrative devices.
Ancient storytellers incorporated a variety of techniques, such as such as song, specific line form, rhythm, and rhyme as mnemonic devices, to help them remember, perform, and pass down sweeping epics and large story cycles from one generation to the next. Likewise, each contemporary storyteller brings his or her unique sensibilities to the creative process of storytelling. In my newest book, I have reimagined ancient stories using descriptive prose stitched together with dramatic dialogue to bring the action and the characters to life for modern audiences. Since these stories evolved from the world’s great oral traditions, I like to use language that is pleasing to the ear. I come to the tales with a great sense of respect and awe. There is a grandeur that underlies the timeless, fundamental beauty of these stories.
I hope the tales I’ve curated in my adaptations will intrigue readers and inspire them to explore the diverse global treasure of ancient and epic narratives.