When I was a child, my Uncle Neil used to tell me (and as many other children as were on hand to gather around him) a fairy tale that he called “The Story of Feet-in-the-Ashes.” It began like this: “The King of Ireland stood out on the terrace in front of his castle, surrounded by his powerful captains and his strong-armed guards.…”
In the story a vicious giant named Shambleshanks, from the Island of the Shadow of the Stars, knocks out the King’s three front teeth and walks away with them. The King promises a reward of half of his kingdom and hand of his daughter in marriage to anyone who will slay the giant Shambleshanks and return to the King his three front teeth. The only one who will take up the challenge is a poor boy named Feet-in-the-Ashes, who, aided by a few magical gifts from his grandmother, sails off to the Island of the Shadow of the Stars, slays the giant, manages to find the King’s three front teeth, brings them back to Ireland, and claims his reward.
I found out years later that the story was originally written by Padraic Colum, under the title “The Stone of Victory,” and was included in Colum’s book of stories The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said. I have a photocopy of the original story, as well as a tape recording of Uncle Neil telling his version, and Uncle Neil’s version is an almost word-for-word recital of Colum’s.
For some months now I’ve been waiting for a story idea to present itself to me, because I’m been itching to get started on another novel. Whenever I’m not in the process of writing a story, I feel as if I’m not doing what I was meant to do. During this fallow period I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Annals of the Western Shore, a trilogy containing the novels Gifts, Voices, and Powers. I marveled at those books, wishing that I had such a gift for fantasy. But where would I find a plot?
The answer came to me: steal something. Not a whole story but a small handful of schticks to get started with. The first fantasy story of my youth, Uncle Neil’s “The Story of Feet-in-the-Ashes” gave me enough to travel with. I’ve taken only a few artifacts from Uncle Neil’s tale, which he stole from Colum’s story, which Colum probably lifted from Irish folklore. The King of Ireland’s three front teeth are now the crystal eye of High King Rohar of Strawberry Island, the largest of the fourteen Farther Isles. Feet-in-the-Ashes is now Rodney Trapper, the Goatherd’s Son, of the Isle of Goats. Shambleshanks is now the Giant Clobber of the Isle of Wind.
That’s all I need. I’ve cut ties with the original plot, and I’m writing the story as it makes itself up. A fine tale is building itself in my mind, a story that owes a lot to several archetypes in our cultural lore: David and Goliath, the Odyssey, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Wizard of Oz, for starters. I hope my writing will do the story justice.
But even if it doesn’t, for I know I’m no match for Ursula LeGuin, I’m having a fine time on this voyage. And I’m writing again.