A Storytelling Dilemma:  Should We Make Corrections  in Traditional Folktales?

By Rose Owens


“As we adapt old stories, should we try explain a discrepancy found in the

original by changing or adding to the original text?”  This question was asked on STORYTELL Listserve by Karen Chace.  The dialog that followed involved discussion of what is the original story, what degree of change should be made, whether or not we should change the story and how corrections might be handled.

            A traditional story has already evolved through many versions.    Some versions may be different from an earlier version because they have been translated from another language, were moved into a different culture or contain elements that some storyteller inserted because he/she didn’t remember part of the story or the story was changed to suit differing tastes.  Folktales constantly mutate and evolve as they pass from one teller to the next.  “How,” Fran Stallings asked, “are we to know which is the ‘original’ version?”  And how can one be sure that the version in print is the “final” or correct version?

            The situation that existed when the folktale was collected may affect the quality of the written version.  Fran Stallings shared the experience of Toshiko Endo, a storyteller from Japan.   A professor of folklore barged into a storytelling gathering, plunked his tape recorder down in front of Endo-san and demanded “Tell me your stories so that I can write a paper about them.”  Endo-san grudgingly told a few, in a very terse and skeletal style. After the folklorist had stormed out, Endo-san retold the tales in her accustomed lively style. She wasn't about to waste her telling on that rude stranger.    

            There is a difference between connecting and adding details and changing the story.  As storytellers, we add details to enhance the story and make it “ours.”  Sometimes a story has a confusing detail that doesn’t allow the story to flow so the storyteller may add a transition  that improves the texture without changing the weave itself.   Sue Black says, “I look at stories like tapestries: over time, as they are moved from castle to cottage and back, they develop worn spots and holes in the fabric. As storytellers, it's our job to darn those holes, cover the worn spots, and make the tapestry vibrant and whole again.”

            While many storytellers pointed out that oral stories are continually evolving, there were some storytellers who expressed concern that the changes we make may alter a traditional story.  Richard Marsh said that “changing a traditional story to suit your own or your audience’s taste violates the integrity of the story and is disrespectful to the generations of tellers who have transmitted the story.”

            Stories are always changing.  The storyteller’s role has always been to tell the story and make it his/her own.  Ultimately each storyteller must decide whether or not to make changes. 

            Appropriate way to make changes and connections were suggested by STORYTELL members.

  • Explain in the introduction that the world of this story has a logic that is different from the logic in our world.   Richard Marsh
  • If you have changed the story, state in the introduction that it is based on a traditional folktale.  Billie Susan Noakes
  • Read additional versions of the story.  Maybe another version will solve the problem.  Mary Grace Ketner
  • Better to leave out details than to insert the wrong ones.  Fran Stallings
  • Experiment by telling the story with and without the details that are confusing..”  Mary K. Clark
  • Add the line, “Now you’re not going to believe this, but. . .  “That affirms both the story and the audiences’ doubts.  Mary Grace Ketner
  • Make sure you know a possible explanation for the discrepancy.  If the audience seems confused, use it.  If someone asks a question after the story, you will be able to share what you think.   Loretta


“We have such diverse ways of keeping stories alive!” said Billie Susan Noakes.  This is not surprising because storytellers are diverse.  No definitive answer to the original question emerged from the dialog.  However, each storyteller may choose to take the pieces of the discussion that have value to him/her and choose what changes to make or not make in the story.   Our task as storytellers is to be true to ourselves and to honor the story we tell. 


Copyright May 2006

Rose Owens


Published in Storyline (Storytelling Association of Alta California Newsletter)

Summer 2006


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