Writer's Thoughts

Secret Lands: Fairy tale links across continents

I once heard the expression that there is nothing original left in the world. If you think you have a fantastic idea for a story, chances are it’s been thought of before, if not in this generation then the previous one or the previous one.

But some of my favourite novels have been reimagining’s of classic fairy tales: Wildwood Dancing by Juliett Marillier is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses and The Princess and the Frog and incorporates a lot of Transylvanian culture and folklore as well. My all-time favourite young adult novel North Child is a beautiful retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Just because a story has been told before doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own and turn it into something breath taking.

What surprises me is when similar stories are told in different parts of the world. These days it’s easy to share a tale all over the world through the internet, but when the same story keeps popping up at a time when that kind of communication was impossible, it makes you wonder if there wasn’t something magical happening. One of my favourite examples is  the myth of the land of eternal youth. When I was little I read Oisin in Tír na nÓg, the story of a handsome prince spirited away by a fairy princess on her white horse to the land of eternal youth. I loved that fairy tale; the medieval magic and romance had everything that appealed to my little romantic soul and every white horse I saw for ever after was named ‘Tír na nÓg’

When I moved to Japan many years later and started working in primary schools, the kids shared lots of old myths and fairy tales with me. Momotaro was their favourite, but the one that made my ears prick with interest was Urashima and the turtle – a fisherman who saves a magical turtle and is carried under the sea to the land of eternal youth, only to return home and become old again…. That sounded familiar.

There are so many eerie similarities between the stories! A magical land under the sea where no one ages; a mystical creature (turtle or horse) that carries the hero there; hundreds of years spent in bliss in the fairy land before homesickness brings them back and finally the ending, where their age catches up with them… This is different between the two stories. Urashima is given a box and his Pandora-like curiosity leads him to open it and release his true age. Oisin, on the other hand, must ride the white horse and never let his feet touch the ground of Ireland or else he will grow old – but then the saddle breaks…

There is even a version of the myth of the land of eternal youth in China – Mount Penglai. This is a description of Mount Penglai:

In Chinese mythology, the mountain is often said to be the base for the Eight Immortals, or at least where they travel to have a ceremonial meal, as well as the illusionist Anqi Sheng. Supposedly, everything on the mountain seems white, while its palaces are made from gold and platinum, and jewels grow on trees.

There is no agony and no winter; there are rice bowls and wine glasses that never become empty no matter how much people eat or drink from them; and there are enchanted fruits growing in Penglai that can heal any ailment, grant eternal youth, and even raise the departed.

Now look at this speech from the fairy princess Niamh describing Tír na nÓg to Oisin:

“It is the most delightful and the most renowned country under the sun. There is an abundance of gold and silver and jewels, of honey and wine and the trees bear fruit and blossoms and green leaves together all the year round. [..] Lapse of time shall being neither death nor decay, and you shall be for ever young, and gifted with unfading beauty and strength.”

I found all of this out only after a small bit of research. There are probably dozens of other countries with similar legends about a magical land where no one grows old. Because isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day? Haven’t we all been afraid of old age and death for so long that these types of stories would of course appear, regardless of what country or culture they came from? Absolutely. So many stories arise from human beings trying to explain the unexplainable: why don’t animals talk? Why was this calf born with only three legs? What happens when we die? Maybe these myths and fairy tales did only come about as a result of humanities desires and, since we all want similar things, we crafted similar stories.

But the stories of Oisin and Urashima have so many things in common that it makes you wonder if there might really be a mystical kingdom beneath the waves…