I like writing retellings. I joke that it’s because the plot is already done for me: I’m very much not an outliner, because I’m unable to see my way to the end until I’ve got there, but a retelling offers me a ready-made framework and an end already in sight. That is, if I actually stick to the original plot. Some of my ‘retellings’ over the past few years have been looser, ‘inspired by’ their source material more than directly retelling it: Bard, for example, or the chaotic gay orchestra novel that I have yet to finish (or title).
That isn’t to say I only write retellings (The Butterfly Assassin isn’t one, by any stretch of the imagination), but they’ve certainly dominated my output over the past few years, with The Wolf and His King (a retelling of ‘Bisclavret’) being my main focus recently. In that one, I kept most of the original story intact, extrapolating backstory and secondary characters but leaving the plot framework in place. I can tell you something, it made writing a synopsis a lot easier.
There are many different ways of approaching retellings, and the term gets used to describe everything from a direct reworking to something that only borrows a few names or plot points or vibes. All of these are totally valid approaches (although going into a book expecting it to be one kind and getting the other can be a major disappointment), and have their own challenges. I’ve had fun with both, but recently I’ve been thinking about the challenges specific to retellings that stick close to their originals.
There’s a lot to consider. How do you find the balance between something that feels accurate and authentic, and something that works well as a modern novel? The further removed your source material is from that format, the more challenges at play — a novel’s story structure, pacing, and sensibilities can be very different from a medieval prose tale, an ancient epic poem, or a Greek tragedy. How do you write characters that reflect the values and ideals of the society who created them, while also being sympathetic and interesting to modern readers with modern expectations of what a protagonist will be like?
And the closer you stick to the original story, the more the divergences stand out. Why include X, and omit Y? Will your readers notice? Will they know the story as well as you do, and wonder why you chose to privilege one version over another? How do you decide which details matter, and which can be abandoned for the sake of making good art?
To some people, the answer to this is simple: do what you want, and anyone who doesn’t like it can deal with it, because that’s their problem, not yours. And it’s true. Your retelling is your retelling. If a detail is incompatible with the story you’re trying to tell, maybe it’s best simply to let go of it, and sometimes, changing the details is crucial to the retelling. This is a story where A chooses B, not C; this is a story where D has the power, not E; this is a story where F survives. Art over accuracy.
But there’s a flip side to that: if the details don’t fit the story, is the story right? Is this the material you should retell to weave this particularly story? Would another character, another fairytale, another text provide a better basis? Fundamental changes to the mood and vibe of the story should be done with intent and thought: details should be changed because changing them does something, makes the story what it is, not because they fell by the wayside along the way. Intent and thought over carelessness.
And figuring out which details are important to shaping the story and which are merely incidental can be harder than it sounds.
Recently, I’ve been rereading parts of To Run With The Hound. For those unfamiliar with this novel of mine, it’s a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge, focusing on the bond between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad from their training together through to their encounter on the battlefield. I wrote the first draft in late 2018, and have been waiting to have the time and brainpower to edit it ever since.
There are many things I intend to change when I redraft the book; I’ve been keeping note of them for years. Some of these changes are about the writing — ways to try and fix the pacing, the prose, the characterisation. Some of them are more academic: Add more Naoise to part I, says one of my notes, and remember that the sons of Uisliu are known for their singing voices. The more I learn about the Ulster Cycle, the more attention I pay to the secondary characters, the ones who were just names to me when I wrote the first draft.
What really struck me, rereading, was that I disagree with my past self’s interpretations of the source material.
This is, perhaps, a risk you take when adapting a text you’re also working with on an academic level. My relationship to the Táin will never be a purely narrative relationship: it’s one fundamentally informed by my academic work. Everything from how I arrange the chronology of the different remscéla (fore-tales) to which recension I choose to follow when details diverge is an interpretation that relies on my academic understanding of the text. The relationships I portray between characters are coloured by the other texts they appear in, and how those stories join up.
It’s a funny thing. At the time that I drafted TRWTH, I knew the Táin incredibly well. Only a few months out of undergrad, I’d been working closely with the text in order to write my dissertation. I’d read it dozens of times in close succession, and knew the plot back to front.
I know it better now, and so I would write this book differently.
See, in most cases it’s not that 2018!me had a completely unrecognisable reading of the major characters. My reading of Cú Chulainn — and of Fer Diad — was informed by my dissertation, a piece of work I’ve continued to develop, turning part of it into an article. I have a deeper understanding now than I did then, but it’s built on the same foundations.
There are characters I would write very differently, with Láeg being the most prominent of those. I knew almost nothing about him when I began writing TRWTH, and it shows; he has very little in the way of a distinct personality. It was writing that book that made me realise he was interesting in the first place, and so my narrative approaches informed my academic research, and sent me down a rabbithole that led to my MA thesis focusing on Láeg.
Mostly, though, it’s the details. It’s the things I didn’t think were important. It’s the scenes I skimmed over, versus the ones I allowed the story to dwell on; it’s the little changes, where a piece of advice is spoken by one character instead of another, or somebody else takes a watchman role and describes a battle. It’s everything that the casual reader, the one who hasn’t spent the last four years immersed in the Ulster Cycle, probably won’t even notice.
Nobody reviewing a retelling of this sort would be likely to say, “Well, I liked it, except that the author made Lugaid the observer in this instance of the watchman motif, and that just doesn’t fit, because he isn’t otherwise fulfilling an interpretative or mediating function.” Nobody would say, “Yeah, the author clearly knows the text really well, but they seemed to misinterpret the significance of this character’s skill at board games.” Because nobody cares.
But I care.
With a retelling like this, one where a significant portion of the book hews very closely to its source material (Part I of the book is largely my own invention, informed by Tochmarc Emire and Oileamhain Con Culainn, but Part II and Part III follow the Táin almost beat for beat), it’s the details that matter, the details that make it my retelling and not somebody else’s. Hell, it’s the details that make it a retelling and not a translation. And currently it’s a retelling that reflects my 2018 self’s interpretation, but it doesn’t reflect my interpretations as of 2021.
Now, as well as being a better academic than I was in 2018, I’m also a better writer, and I know that there’s a point at which faithfulness becomes limiting. The story needs to breathe and change, because no matter how much I want to evoke the moods and images of the medieval text, my audience is not a medieval audience, and wants different things from a story. This inevitably means letting go of some details, diminishing some moments in order to give more weight to others, reshaping scenes to fit the greater whole. But a crucial part of doing that is deciding which details have to be kept — and my past self and I disagree on that.
Every time I work on the Táin, I learn something new about it. In writing my undergraduate dissertation, I learned how to approach the different recensions, and how each paints a slightly different image of gender and sexuality within the text; I learned how the story interacted with legal concepts of marriage and adulthood and fosterage. In writing TRWTH, I developed an understanding of the story as narrative, and the complex chronology of the remscéla that defied any attempt to put them in order; I began to notice which details the Táin never gives us, and which characters were worth examining more closely.
In the independent research I did between undergrad and my MA, I developed on all of those understandings, and over the course of my MA I’ve learned a great deal more, albeit mostly focused on Láeg: about the interactions between the Táin and other texts, particularly late (early modern) Ulster Cycle tales, and about the fact that there’s never only one explanation for anything. And the details that my past self thought didn’t matter — who wins at fidchell between Cú Chulainn and Láeg; who tells Cú Chulainn about the warriors approaching his camp — now matter to me, because many of them play a pivotal part in my academic interpretations of Láeg.
This could go on forever. Perhaps I’ll find another character to examine at length, or a new obscure late tale to fixate on that will reshape my understanding of everything that went before it, or some other angle of approach that will bring me back to the Táin with fresh eyes to seek out new readings. No doubt if this book is ever published, there’ll come a point, a few years down the line, when I cease to agree with my interpretations and wish I’d done this or that differently.
What I have to decide — what anyone writing a retelling like this has to decide — is which of those details are important not to the source material, but to the story I’m telling. I need to acknowledge that by omitting something on which I hung an academic argument, I’m not deciding that that detail or that argument isn’t important, only that it doesn’t contribute to the book I’m trying to write at this time. And this book can’t be every story at once, can’t be every interpretation at once, can’t be every reading at once. I have to choose.
I can write a Cú Chulainn who was nursed by Láeg’s mother and raised alongside his charioteer, or I can write a Cú Chulainn who was raised by his parents until he went to Emain Macha when he was five, or I can write a Cú Chulainn whose closest bond of fosterage is to Conall because his mother was Cú Chulainn’s nurse, but I can’t write all of them. I can have a Láeg with Connacht connections, a Láeg with Otherworld connections, or a Láeg who is both human and Ulaid, but I can’t have all of those Láegs at once. I can give Fer Diad’s charioteer a name of my own invention to compensate for his namelessness in the early manuscripts, or I can make him Idh mac Riangabra, Láeg’s brother, as he is in the fifteenth-century Stowe manuscript, but I can’t do both.
(It’s a shame, almost, that there’s little room in ‘original’ fiction to write four different, unrelated books about the same character, which contradict and conflict with each other. Fanfic writers have the right of it, where the same writer may offer multiple readings of a character, and nobody expects them to bring the same version to the table every time. I could write a retelling of Oidheadh Con Culainn and focus on entirely different character details than the ones that are important in Táin Bó Cúailnge, but I would struggle to sell both without the world assuming one was a sequel to the other and being perplexed by the perceived inconsistency.)
Academia is about possibilities, readings, offering interpretations. Retellings are about making choices: which interpretation will we go for? Which possibility will we draw to the front? In a good retelling, there are still multiple readings open to the audience, but they may be completely different readings from those the audience would take from the source material, because the characterisation that’s been offered has already been shaped and interpreted. And that, inevitably, means letting go of some of the possibilities that the source material left open.
When I go back to TRWTH, the changes I make will be informed by my greater academic understanding of the medieval texts. Láeg might actually have a personality, for a start, and this time I’ll remember that the sons of Uisliu are singers, able to charm with their voices. And the details I include might shift in response to those changes, placing the focus on different scenes and different moments.
But ultimately, what I have to decide is not which interpretation I think has the strongest manuscript support, but which interpretation makes the best story. Which reading will pave the way to telling the story I want to tell; which possibility I should lean into, to get the strongest emotional response from my readers. It’ll be a novel shaped and directed by my academic research, but it won’t — can’t — shouldn’t be my academic research in novel form.
In a retelling, an author makes choices. We untangle contradictions, close off alternative readings, privilege one interpretation over another, sideline one character for another’s sake, and in doing so, we let go of details. Even the ones we care about.
Accuracy matters, in a retelling like this. But art, it turns out, matters more.
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