Tag Archives: lari don

Unicorns, Centaurs and Pegasus: why are we still fascinated by magical horses?

For much of recent human history, horses were a vital part of our daily lives: essential on farms, for transport and communication, and in battle.

But for most of us, nowadays, horses are almost irrelevant economically and horse-riding is a hobby for a small number of people. Most of us will go days, weeks, even months – especially if we live in a city – without seeing a horse. Yet horses are still a vital and passionately beloved element of our stories and culture.

Many 21st century children will never ride a pony, most will never groom or muck out a horse, but they still love stories about them, and particularly stories about magical and mythical horses.

I know this because when I ask classes of kids about their favourite magical creatures, unicorns almost always top the list, usually followed by winged horses and centaurs (and kelpies, if I’m in a Scottish school) mixed in with dragons and werewolves.

Why is that? Why do horses still appear so regularly in our stories and our imaginations and why do horses lend themselves so well to being given magical attributes?

Is it because of their beauty? Their size, strength and speed? Is it because of their mix of gentleness (a horse’s lips taking an apple off your palm) and potential danger (you don’t want a horse standing on your foot, and you really don’t want a startled horse to kick you)?

Is it that they can plausibly play such a wide variety of roles in stories – wise guide, essential transport, symbol of wealth and power, friend and companion or threat galloping towards you – because they have played so many roles in our history.

Is it because the horse’s importance in many cultures, for much of our history, means they have starring roles in a vast variety of folktales, myths and legends from all over the world? (I tell horse stories from Persia, Ukraine, Gambia, Russia, Australia, Tibet, Greece … and sometimes even Scotland.)

Is it all the vivid ways that storytellers in the past have added little bits of memorable magic to horses: the horn of a unicorn, the wings of Pegasus, the shapeshifting mystery of a kelpie? Are we all dazzled by the amazing and lasting pictures those magical additions leave in our imaginations?

Is it because of the unique relationship between rider and horse, and their dependence on each other? (In many of the ‘horse and hero’ legends I tell, the way the rider treats the horse reveals their character and whether they really are a hero or a bully.)

Is it because a horse, magical or not, can plausibly be a genuine and multi-faceted character in a story, not just a plot point or a magical MacGuffin? (My favourite magical horses as a child were Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis – talking horses who aren’t just modes of transport, weapons or possessions, but characters with goals, moments of heroism, and distinct voices. Those Narnian horses are the protagonists in the story just as much as the two human children.)

Is it that horses are a powerful symbol of freedom, of escape, of traveling the world? We might use buses or bikes now, but the horse’s four fast powerful legs still carry that promise of adventure and freedom.

Despite all the research I’ve done into horse lore and mythology, and all the time I’ve spent discussing magical horses with children, I still don’t have a definitive answer to why we love magical horses. Perhaps they mean something different to each of us…

But I am sure that I’ll be discussing fiery, winged, shapeshifting, horned, talking and ghostly horses with kids again next term. Because whenever I say ‘magical animal’, the horse, in all its mythical and folklore forms, is the animal that leaps straight into their imaginations.


I’m also sure that no matter how many wonderful magical horses there are in traditional tales, a class full of 10 year olds can always come up with a few new ideas to invent their own 21st century story-horses (laser eyes? snake’s tail? cat’s paws? time-travelling?) and to imagine their own unique adventures.

And I’m sure that even though real horses are no longer part of many of our daily lives, magical horses will star in our stories for generations.


Lari Don is a Scottish children’s author and storyteller. Her book, Horse of Fire, gathers her favourite ‘magical horse’ folktales myths and legends from all over the world, and is out in paperback now.

Happy Halloween from the Bloomsbury Education team!

This weekend is all about the spooky pumpkins, the trick-or-treating and ghostly goings-on! If you’ve already mastered the pumpkin carving and exhausted the decorations in your local shops then here are some activities and stories to get you through the Halloween weekend. There’s even a competition to win some truly haunting story collections!

Creepy Crafts
Have some fun in the kitchen with these ideas from 50 Fantastic Ideas for Celebrations and Festivals.
Shrunken apple heads Ice hand and puffy paint

Spooky Stories
Try reading these five terrifying tales with your children. From the scary vampire haunting an old manor to the boy who swaps places with a buzzard, these folk tales from around the world are perfect for ages 7+.

Here is Goblins and Ghosties:

Two stories from Serpents and Werewolves:

We’re running a Halloween giveaway over on our Twitter page @BloomsburyEd where you could win copies of Goblins and Ghosties and Serpents and Werewolves if you retweet our spooky photo.
Halloween competition prizes

And finally…

We arrived this morning to find our current favourite book looking a bit ghoulish!
Teacher Toolkit pumpkin!
Happy Halloween!

Bouncing off the words on the page. Lari Don

Lari Don author photoHow traditional tales can evolve into your own stories

Stories change. Stories evolve.

I’ve just written a collection of traditional tales about shape-changers – Serpents & Werewolves – in which characters shift and change and transform, into wolves or snakes or birds or fish. But stories change too.

The stories in this collection are told in the best way I can tell them, the way that can hold audiences of children spellbound and silent. But that doesn’t mean the stories are in a final finished perfect form.

Traditional tales have always changed as they are told: changed to suit the voice of the teller, the ears of the audience, new times and new places. They’ve been changed by many generations of storytellers. Any traditional tale printed in a book is just one glimpse of that story, at one point in its constant and healthy evolution.

So I would encourage readers and audiences to take these stories and make them their own, by altering them, playing with them, questioning them, or by writing entirely new stories inspired by them.

I would encourage children to bounce off the words on the page, not be tied to them.

Because stories constantly change, and because no written version is the absolute definitive version, there is no one right version of a story. So there is no such thing as a WRONG version! You can do what you like with these stories, because they belong to all of us. Go wild, and have fun!

Here are a few ideas, adapted from the work I do with stories in schools and libraries, bouncing off the tales in Serpents & Werewolves:

European Dragon Make the story your own
Storytellers don’t learn stories like scripts, they tell them in their own words, which often means changing the story a little (or a lot) as it’s told. I change stories all the time, but I believe each story has a heart, the aspect of that story that drew me towards it. I’m happy to change lots of details round it, but I never change the heart of a story. However, different people often identify different hearts in the same story!

Try this:
Read The Laidly Wyrm and discuss retelling it.
What bits would you keep exactly the same?
Are there any bits you would miss out?
What bits would you change (and how?)
What’s the heart of the story, the one moment or idea which makes it special and different and memorable?
Do different people identify different hearts?

Hawk Happy Ever After?
I’m not keen on the ‘they got married and lived happily ever after’ ending (I once wrote an entire book of heroine stories, Girls Goddesses & Giants, and didn’t end any of the dozen stories with a happy ever after wedding!) I often tell a story to children and ask them if they’re happy with the ending, then discuss other ways the story could end, and consider which endings are most satisfying and fit the story most neatly. In Serpents & Werewolves, several tales end in ways suggested by children after I’d told my initial version, including the very sequel-friendly ending of Turnskin. Children often like endings that leave the story free to continue. They also tend to suggest much bloodier endings than I would consider, but traditional tales are, after all, designed to let us explore the dark as well as the light in stories.

Try this:
Read Buzzard Boy, and discuss:
Did you like the ending?
Are there other possible endings?
Can you think of a sad ending, a happy ending, an exciting ending, a surprising ending?
If you were telling it to your friends in the playground, how would you end it?
If you were telling it to a very young child, how would you end it?

FrogEither side of Once Upon a Time
Stories are a slice of time, set in a world we assume existed (in the imagination!) before the story started, and after the story ends. You can take a story and consider what happened beforehand to set the events of the story going, and what happened afterwards. Children particularly enjoy writing what happened next (not just children – it’s the impulse that inspires all my novels!) But you can also have fun working out how the characters got to the start of the story.

Try this:
Read The Frog, The Flies And The Frying Pan, then discuss
Before the story started –
How did the young man annoy a witch to get changed into a frog?
After the story ended –
Did he get changed into anything else?
Did he come back?
Did the girl go off and have adventures of her own?

WolfCreate entirely new stories
You can take magic, characters, images, ideas, creatures or baddies from old tales, and create entirely new stories. One way to do this is to take a single element from an old story, and import it to right here, right now.

Try this:
Read… all of Serpents and Werewolves! (Or any collection of old stories)
Take your favourite character, or the character that scares you most, or makes you ask the most questions, and wonder –
What if I found that character in this classroom, or in my kitchen, or in the local park…?
What would I do?
What would I say?
What would the character do and say?
What would happen next?
And suddenly you have the start of a whole new story!

These are a just few ideas for bouncing off old stories creatively. I’ve suggested specific stories to use for each activity, but you can use most stories for most of these activities. The activities can evolve too, just like the stories!

The magic, characters, images and storylines in traditional tales are the building blocks of so much of our culture. I hope you have fun using them to build your own stories. And I would love to hear about any new stories inspired by the tales in Serpents & Werewolves!
Winter's Tales cover Girls, Goddesses and Giants cover Serpents & Werewolves cover
Lari Don is a storyteller and author, who lives in Edinburgh. She has written various collections of myths, legends and folktales, including Girls Goddesses & Giants, Winter’s Tales and the newly published Serpents & Werewolves. She has also written adventure novels for 8-12 year olds, inspired partly by Scottish legends and folktales, including the Fabled Beast Chronicles. She loves sharing her favourite traditional tales with live audiences, and encouraging children to use old stories to find confidence in their own imagination. More information on www.laridon.co.uk, including contact details if you have any questions about the activities above, or would like to show Lari what you do with the shape-shifter tales in Serpents & Werewolves!

Follow Lari on Twitter @LariDonWriter